It’s impossible to think of China without also thinking of tea, which has been a key aspect of Chinese language and culture for thousands of years. It’s used for both medicinal and social purposes, and has been the subject of art and poetry dating back to the Tang Dynasty. Tea is commonly used as a way to welcome guests into one’s home, facilitate conversation, and digest food after a meal. But to understand how firmly tea culture is rooted in China’s mindset, one must understand the history behind it.
According to legend, tea was first created 5,000 years ago, when the innovative Emperor Shennong took a long journey to a far-off region. As he stopped to rest, he had a servant boil water for drinking, and some leaves from a bush happened to fall in. The emperor decided to sample the leaf-infused water, and thus the tradition of brewing the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant was born. Today, tea is generally cured in three standard varieties based on how thoroughly the leaves are fermented: black tea, oolong tea, and green tea, although other styles such as the unfermented white tea, extra-fermented pu-erh tea, and flowering tea are becoming common as well.
In addition to its health benefits, which range from lowering blood pressure to weight-loss to sharpening mental capacity, tea plays an important role in family life, relationships, and even philosophy. Tea is considered to be the most Zen-like drink, and it plays an important symbolic role in the Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian religions. Tea has the perfectly balanced nature of being both stimulating and calming, with a subtle yet refreshing flavor. Tea also serves as a metaphor for plenty of philosophical riddles, such as the parable set in the Tang Dynasty: a Zen master, when confronted by three monks quarreling over their difference in rank, advised them to go and have a cup of tea, thus showing them that they were all essentially the same. This notion of tea being the great equalizer has carried on through the generations into contemporary Chinese thought.
Tea is also an important part of the Chinese intellectual tradition, as for thousands of years tea houses have been where scholars and thinkers come together to engage in conversation and the exchange of ideas. The consumption of tea has become so ritualized that there is even a specific tea ceremony, referred to as Chaoshan Gongfu Cha, which serves tea in such a way as to optimize its aesthetic qualities, and it is a way of expressing hospitality or reverence to loved ones. While different types of tea are preferred in different parts of the country, tea is universally agreed to be a staple of Chinese heritage. An old proverb even states that tea is one of the seven necessities of starting your day, along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, and vinegar. It’s a simple, healthy, and affordable pleasure, and anyone curious about the language, culture, or history of China can best start exploring it by brewing themselves a cup of tea.
Anna Snyder writes with Language Trainers, a language-learning company specializing in one-to-one and small group language training for busy people who need language skills for work, travel and family needs. Curious about the Chinese language? Take a free online Chinese level test to quiz how good you are then contact Language Trainers for classes!