Tea plays an integral role in Chinese society, and has done for thousands of years.
It is believed that China introduced the rest of the world to tea via the renowned Silk Road trade route that connected the huge country to Russia and the Middle East (and from there to Europe). In fact, its production has been prominent in driving economic development, such is its financial worth and global popularity.
Additionally, tea drinkers were traditionally seen as the academics and cultural elites of society (although tea consumption is now a practice enjoyed by all), and it is still regarded as hugely important medicinally, with many positive health benefits.
The discovery of tea some 5,000 years ago is often attributed to Emperor Shennong, whose name means the Divine Farmer, and who is considered the ancient Chinese Father of Agriculture.
According to Chinese legend, Emperor Shennong and his court decided to take a rest under a Camellia sinensis plant, a plant native to the Asian continent, to enjoy some boiled water. It is said that dried leaves from the Camellia drifted into the boiling water creating an aromatic infusion that intrigued the emperor so much so that he took a sip, therein marking the first ever discovery of the beverage that would become the most popular in the world, second only to water.
During the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, tea was primarily used for its medicinal qualities. There was much exploration and study into the health benefits of tea. Indeed, the first references to these health effects were recorded by Emperor Shennong himself in The Divine Farmers Herb-Root Classic that tea infusions were useful for treating a variety of disease conditions. Its high price meant that most people were unable to afford it, and it was most often given as gifts to aristocracy or tributes to the emperor.
In the 700s, Lu Yu, an orphan who was raised by scholarly Zen monks, wrote the first definitive book about tea. He spent his life according to the Confucian tradition, pursuing poetry and literary classics. His book on tea gained the emperor’s patronage, and other Buddhist monks carried his tea service style to Japan where it evolved into the Japanese art form that is still performed today.
It was in the Song Dynasty that tea evolved from a medicinal plant to an everyday beverage. Whipped powdered tea prepared from tea cakes made from compressed tea powder became fashionable during this time, but disappeared completely from Chinese culture after the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), along with many other aspects of the previous dynasty. The act of drinking steeped tea from leaves became popular, and it is how people continue to drink it today.