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History of tea

Yunnan, China, about 1700 years old tea tree


The tea plant

All teas, whether they are green, black or of the so-called oolong type are made from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. There are many varieties of this plant, but they can roughly be grouped into two main kinds, the Assam sort, which is a tall tree with large leaves, and the Chinese sort, which is a shorter tree with small leaves. That most tea plants are bush-like is because of the way they are grown for easy cultivation and harvesting. Even though the Assam sort is found at the foot of the Eastern Himalayas it is widely accepted, that the origin of tea trees for tea production is in the very south of Yunnan in tropical Western China.

Beginning of tea drinking

Tea has always been part of the daily food of the indigenous people in Southern Yunnan. However, according to Chinese legend the divine Emperor, Shen Nong, an herbalist and founder of agriculture and forestry as well as basic Chinese medicine almost 5,000 years ago, tried many plants himself to find useful ones, and when they were toxic he used tea leaves as an antidote. He thus established tea as a drink with medicinal properties. Chinese records state that people were drinking tea already 3000 years ago and that tea drinking was wide-spread in China 2000 years ago. The first book about tea, "Ch'a Ching", the Tea Classic, was written by the Chinese sage Lu Yu(733-804) in 780 during the prosperous Tang dynasty (618-907). His famous first phrase begins ‘Tea is from a grand tree in the South.’

The first book about
tea “Ch'a Ching”

Introduction of tea to Japan

The first reference to tea in Japan appears in records of the Nara period (646-794), where it is referred to as "Gyocha no Gi ". It may be assumed tea was known and enjoyed already at that time. In the early Heian period (794-1185), the Buddhist monks Saicho (767-822) and Kukai (774-835) went to China to study, and they brought tea with them back to Japan where it soon became popular at the court (in about 805). It is believed that cultivation of tea in Japan began around that time. This tea was know as Mochicha (Dancha) and prepared by putting scrapings from a hard-pressed block of tea leaves into boiling water, as prescribed in the "Ch'a Ching".

“Kissa Yojo Ki”

Introduction of Tencha (Tencha is the tea leaves which are ground into Matcha)

In the early Kamakura period (1191), Eisai (1141-1215), the founder of Rinzai Zen in Japan, returned from China and introduced the Sung style of processing and drinking powdered tea, Matcha (called Tencha before being ground). Eisai also brought some tea seeds from China, which he advised the highly learned monk Myoe to plant at his temple, Kozanji, in Toganoo northwest of Kyoto. Later Eisai wrote ‘Kissa Yojo Ki’ on the virtues and cultivation of tea. Tencha became the basis of the green tea culture of Japan which has continued to the present. Meanwhile, in China the drinking of powdered tea ceased during the turmoil of the Mongol invasion.

Origin of Ujicha

The monk Myoe began the cultivation of tea in Toganoo, but looked around for a more suitable climate and chose the foggy place, Uji. Soon the fame of Ujicha spread out, and from that time on it was well known as the best place for tea growing in the country. Eventually the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408),who built Kinkakuji (1397), the famous Golden Pavilion, had some of his generals establish the so-called Ujirokuen,Six Tea Gardens of Uji.

Matcha and tea ceremony

In the Muromachi period (1392-1568), Cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony, took a new direction under the influence of the tea masters Murata Shuko (1423-1502) and Takeno Joo (1502-1555). They introduced the “tea hut” and Japanese utensils, and they made tea drinking increasingly popular. In the following Momoyama period (1568-1615), the mature aesthetic sense of Sen Rikyu(1522-1591)eventually determined the style of tea that became Cha-no-yu or Chado “the Way of Tea”, in the West known as the so-called “tea ceremony”. Around this time the technique of covering young tea buds was begun in Uji, and the quality of the tea was steadily improved through careful processing.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) supported the tea makers of Uji and this was followed by the Tokugawa shoguns who had a ‘Chatsubo-Dochu’, tea jar parade, every year. Ujicha was thus constantly supported and promoted by the rulers of the country for the sake of "Chanoyu".

The first book about tea “Cha Jing”
Chatsubo (tea jar)

Invention of Sencha and Gyokuro

Hand rolled Gyokuro

The drinking of leaf tea was first introduced from China in the middle of the 17th Century by a Chinese monk, who built a temple in Uji. In the beginning,the Chinese methods of cultivation and processing green tea were used. However, in 1738, in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868), the tea makers in Uji got the idea of rolling the tea leaves to crush the cell walls and thereby facilitating a faster infusion. This treatment of the leaves, known as the ‘Uji method of Sencha manufacturing’, Uji Seiho, has been continued and further developed to this very day.
Towards the end of the Edo period, the manufacturing of Gyokuro began in Uji at a place called Ogura. By treating the screened young leaves for Matcha with the Uji Seiho method of rolling leaves a superior quality steeped tea was produced. Now Gyokuro is drunk as a deluxe Japanese green leaf tea, with some of the same properties as Matcha.

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