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The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 3: Tea Cultivation History in China

The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 1: What is Tea?
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 2: China Tea and World
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 3: Tea Cultivation History in China
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 4: Six Chinese Tea Types
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 5: About Mountain Tea
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 6: What is Qinling Mt.
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 7: Teas From Qinling Mt.
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 8: Qinling Green Tea
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 9: Qinling Black Tea
The Qinling Mountain Tea Series - Part 10: Qinling Fu Tea



Tea plants existed approximately 70 to 80 million years ago, but the discovery and utilization of tea occurred only around four to five thousand years ago. Historical records of tea date back over two thousand years, with evidence suggesting the presence of the word "槚" in the earliest Chinese dictionary, "Er Ya尔雅," around 200 BCE. This term was used to refer to the bitter tea plant ("荼," an ancient character for "tea"). By around 350 CE, during the Eastern Jin Dynasty东晋, tea was extensively discussed by Chang Qiu 常璩in the "Huayang Guo Zhi华阳国志," mentioning its contribution as a tribute during King Wu of Zhou's expedition against King Zhou of Shang around 1066 BCE. This indicates that tea from the region of Ba Shu (巴蜀, modern-day Sichuan四川) was offered as a tribute over 3,000 years ago. Therefore, it can be inferred that the cultivation and production of tea existed in China at least 3,000 years ago.

The Origin of Tea Trees in Southwestern China

Large ancient tea trees were discovered abundantly in China, particularly in Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan, and Hubei. Historical documents, such as "Wu Pu Ben Cao吴普·本草" from the Three Kingdoms三国 period, mention large tea trees. Recent surveys have found sizeable wild tea trees in nearly two hundred locations across ten provinces in China, some covering thousands of acres. Notably, in 1961, a 32.12-meter tall wild tea tree was discovered in the dense forest of Bada Daheshan in Menghai County, Yunnan, estimated to be 1,700 years old. Scientifically, the consensus is that the original habitat of tea trees is in the southwest of China, with Yunnan's Xishuangbanna西双版纳 region considered a probable center of origin.

Exploring the Legend of Shennong神农 Tasting Hundred Herbs尝百草: The Discovery and Utilization of Tea

In the Warring States period, the book 'Shennong Bencao神农百草' recorded the legend of 'Shennong tasting a hundred herbs, encountering seventy-two poisons, and finding relief in tea神农尝百草,日遇七十二毒,得荼而解之.' Folklore tells of a figure named Shennong, who, some 5000 years ago, was an early innovator in agriculture and medicine. Seeking remedies for ailments, Shennong tirelessly explored a multitude of herbs. One day, he encountered seventy-two poisonous plants, and the accumulated toxins left him numbness, burning sensations, and loss of self-control. Seeking respite, he rested under a tree as a cool breeze brought a fragrant and sweet leaf into Shennong's mouth. Revitalized, he chewed on the tender leaves of the tree beneath which he rested, and the toxins dissipated, leaving him comfortable and at ease. He recognized these leaves as a potent remedy and named them 'cha茶' (tea). Another widely circulated legend suggests that Shennong possessed a transparent stomach, enabling him to observe the effects of ingested foods and medicines. One day, he consumed a white-flowered leaf, experiencing a transformation where bitterness turned to sweetness. The toxic substances in his stomach were thoroughly purged by the juice of this leaf, seemingly undergoing a thorough 'inspection.' Consequently, he named this tree 'cha茶.' When afflicted by poisoning in his herbal explorations, Shennong would consume the tea leaves he carried, promptly neutralizing the toxicity. Shennong introduced this tea remedy to the people, rescuing them repeatedly from plague and calamity. The legend of Shennong tasting a hundred herbs is perhaps our ancestors' earliest account of tea consumption.

Tea sage茶圣 Lu Yu陆羽 in the Tang唐 dynasty likely referenced this historical narrative in his work, 'The Classic of Tea茶经,' stating, 'The consumption of tea began with Shennong茶之为饮,发乎神农氏.' Lu Yu also believed that tea drinking was known during the time of Duke Zhou in Lu during the Spring and Autumn periods. Notable figures such as Yan Ying of Qi in the Spring and Autumn era, Yang Xiong and Sima Xiangru of the Han Dynasty, Wei Yao of Wu in the Three Kingdoms period, Liu Kun, Zhang Zai, Lu Na, Xie An, and Zuo Si of the Jin dynasty, all shared a fondness for tea. The practice increased, becoming a cultural norm. Lu Yu noted that tea consumption had become widespread by the Tang dynasty, with households in both the east and west—Xi'an, Luoyang, and regions in Hubei and Sichuan—all-embracing tea. From the legend of Shennong tasting a hundred herbs to establishing tea-drinking customs, this marks the historical progression from medicinal use to beverage enjoyment.

Valuable Historical Artifacts and Relics of Tea

The historical artifacts and relics unearthed from the over 2,100-year-old Western Han tomb in Mawangdui, Changsha, are abundant. Among them are bamboo slips with writings, silk books, and silk paintings. One of the notable findings is a silk painting depicting a woman offering tea, providing a realistic portrayal of tea consumption by the Han Dynasty emperors and nobility. The burial inventory includes a document mentioning a "wooden ancient moon chest," and based on research, "wooden big moon" is considered an alternative character for Jia, meaning bitter tea (茶). This marks the earliest discovery of tea-related items buried with the deceased.

In the underground palace of Famen Temple Pagoda in Fufeng County, Shaanxi, numerous Tang Dynasty relics have been preserved for over 1,100 years. These rare treasures include gold and silver tea utensils, glass bowls, and secret-colored porcelain tea sets. The collection of gold and silver tea items consists of a silver cage for roasting tea, a tortoise-shaped box for storing tea, a tea mill for grinding tea leaves, a tea strainer, a salt table, a silver altar, a silver teaspoon, a tea whisk, a silver stove for boiling tea, and a silver fire container for holding charcoal. This assortment represents China's most complete set of Tang Dynasty imperial tea utensils.

Mount Meng in Mingshan County, Sichuan, has a rich history as an ancient tea-producing region, yielding various famous teas since the Tang Dynasty. Many historical relics have been preserved in the area, including the "Imperial Tea Garden." According to tradition, the Imperial Tea Garden, located on the mountainside of Shangqing Side Shan'ao, was where Wu Lizhen, a resident during the Ganlu period of the Western Han Dynasty (53–50 BC), planted seven tea plants. Covering an area of 12 square meters, the Imperial Tea Garden is surrounded by stone railings, with a locked gate, two stone steles on the left recounting the origin of the fairy tea and the achievements of Master Ganlu (the steles are now destroyed). The stone fence is well-preserved, and a new couplet is engraved on the stone gate: "In the Yangtze River's water and on the top of Mount Meng, tea is abundant."

Additionally, halfway up Mount Meng, there is the "Zhiju Temple," founded by the Daoist Wu Lizhen during the Han Dynasty. It was rebuilt during the Song Dynasty and restored during the Ming Wanli era. From the Tang Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, tribute tea was produced here annually, making it one of China's early tribute tea institutions.

The author of the first tea book of the Tang Dynasty, "The Classic of Tea," was Lu Yu, born in Jingling, Hubei. Today, Wudang Mountain in Tianmen County still preserves historically significant sites related to Lu Yu, such as Literary Spring, Lu Zi Well, Lu Zi Spring, Lu Yu Pavilion, and Lu Gong Ci. In his later years, Lu Yu lived in the Miao Xi Temple on Zhu Shan in Huzhou, Zhejiang. The Zhu Shan site still exists today. Lu Yu investigated the tea-producing regions of Changxing in Zhejiang and Yixing in Jiangsu during the Tang Dynasty. Some remnants of tribute tea institutions, such as Jinsha Spring and Guzhu Mountain, can still be found.

The Buddhist sacred sites of Mount Tiantai and Jingshan Temple in Zhejiang during the Tang and Song Dynasties were places where tea cultivation, processing, and the Buddhist tea ceremony were nurtured. During the Tang Dynasty, the Japanese monk Saicho studied Buddhism and the tea ceremony at Mount Tiantai and took tea seeds back to Japan, contributing to the spread of tea in Japan. The inscription on a stone tablet at Mount Tiantai records this historical contribution. Jingshan Temple has maintained the stele inscribed by Emperor Xiaozong of the Southern Song Dynasty, stating, "Jingshan Xingsheng Wanshou Chan Temple."

Furthermore, during the Song Dynasty, the "Imperial Tea Garden" in Beiyuan, Jian'an (now Jianou), Fujian, and the "Imperial Tea Garden" in Wuyishan, Chongan County, both known for producing tribute tea during the Qing Dynasty, as well as the "Eighteen Imperial Teas" in front of the Hugong Temple at the foot of Shifeng Mountain in Longjing Village, Hangzhou, visited by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, have all survived the ages and are available for contemporary tea enthusiasts to study and appreciate.

The Evolution and Formation of the Character 'Tea茶'

In ancient historical records, tea was referred to by various names such as 'Tu,' 'Chuang,' 'Cha,' 'She,' 'Xuan,' 'Ming,' 'Jia,' 'Gua Lu,' 荼、荈、诧、蔎、选、茗、槚、瓜芦and more. The earliest Chinese dictionary, 'Er Ya尔雅,' dating back to the Qin and Han dynasties around the 2nd century BCE, mentions, 'Jia, bitter tu (tea).' During the Eastern Jin dynasty, Guo Pu explained in his commentary on 'Er Ya' that tea picked early is called 'Tu,' when picked later, it is called 'Ming.' The character '茶' (tea) first appeared in Emperor Xuanzong's 'Kaiyuan Wenzizi Yin Yi' during the Tang dynasty. In the mid-Tang dynasty, Lu Yu, in his 'Classic of Tea' (Chajing), mentioned the names of tea as 'Cha,' 'Jia,' 'She,' and 'Ming,' officially choosing to use '茶' (tea) and eliminating one stroke from the character '荼' (tu). As for the pronunciation of '荼,' there are two systems: in regions like Sichuan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, and North China, it is pronounced as 'chai' or 'cha,' while in Fujian, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Shantou, it is pronounced as 'ta' and 'te.' These pronunciation systems were carried overseas, resulting in two pronunciation systems internationally.

In European and American countries, it is written as 'tea' or 'the,' while in Russia, Japan, and other Asian countries, it is mainly spelled according to the pronunciation of the Chinese character '茶,' such as in Russian and Japanese. The word 'tea' pronunciation reflects its origin in China and its global dissemination.


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