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Discover Chinese Tea Culture and History

Chinese mythical figure, Shennong. Musei di Genova©

Traditional Chinese Tea History

As experts and connoisseurs of all kinds of teas, Chinese people often buy luxury teas to welcome their guests. It is the quintessential drink for that occasion, and a very strong gesture of courtesy. In China, teas are not only simple drinks for when one is thirsty, but they are also central to spiritual relaxation, and the process of drinking them brings along its own set of etiquettes and related ethics. In general, Chinese teas have a vast array of health benefits: green tea, for instance, reduces not only blood pressure as well as cholesterol levels, but also the risk of heart disease.

The history of Chinese tea () begins with Shennong (神农), a mythical figure said to be the father of Chinese agriculture and Traditional Chinese Medicine. According to legend, Shennong accidentally discovered tea while boiling drinking water and sitting under a Camellia sinensis tree. Some leaves of the tree fell into the water, giving it a refreshing aroma. As Shennong took a sip, he found it pleasant, and thus, tea in China was born. However, it did not achieve great popularity as an everyday drink, at least within China, until the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Among the first to develop the habit of drinking tea were Chinese Buddhist monks, for its caffeine concentration helped them to focus on long hours of prayer and meditation. A significant amount of the information we have about Chinese tea culture comes from the Tea Classic (茶经), written around 760 CE by Lu Yu (陆羽). The former describes tea cultivation in the early Tang Dynasty and teaches how to grow as well as how to prepare tea. In Lu Yu's time, tea sheets were compressed into tea bricks, often used as a currency. When it was time to drink it, the tea was ground into powder and mixed with water using a whisk to create a frothy drink. Although this type of powdered tea is no longer common in China, it was introduced to Japan during the Tang Dynasty and is found today in Japanese matcha (Van Driem, G.L., 2020).

As a result of its history and development alongside the Silk Roads, China offers wide varieties and colours of high-quality tea. Some parts of China are known for producing and consuming particular types of tea. For instance, Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province is particularly famous for producing and consuming Da Hong Pao (大红袍). Another example is Bai Mudan (白牡丹), one of the most famous teas in China which is commonly grown in the Fujian province. Given that this region has the most favourable climatic conditions for tea growing, its beverages are considered premium. Another example of tea from the Fujian Province is the Baihao Yinzhen (白毫銀針) tea, which illustrates one of the finest white teas in China and was formerly reserved for the emperor only. It has a soft and sweet liquor-like syrup, generated from flowers, of an unequalled elegance. The uniqueness of these straight-shaped leaves, alongside its prominent silver colour, is the reason why it is called "White Hair Silver Needle.”

Furthermore, as Yunnan is considered the world’s cradle of tea, there are other regions that promote China internationally through their tea production. The former region's hot and humid climate is highly suitable for the cultivation of Camellia Sinensis. A sweet and woody taste, alongside a deep and bright red colour, the tea gives a unique flavour of honey and floral notes greatly appreciated by tea lovers. Through its light and smooth taste, this black tea is perfect for those who want to be introduced to the world of tea culture (Xu, J., Wang, M., Zhao, J., Wang, Y.H., Tang, Q. and Khan, I.A., 2018).

Yet another example of tea from the Yunnan region is the highly regarded Pu-Erh tea (普洱茶), which is still regarded as one of the most exquisite drinks in China to this day and is harvested in the heart of the "Golden Triangle of Tea" of the southern province. It undergoes a post-fermentation process, the duration of which varies according to the desired strengthresult, which gives the Pu-Erh tea its dark red colour as well as its unique taste. Renowned for its virtues, this high-quality beverage from Yunnan is particularly appreciated by consumers for its ability to maintain a desirable cholesterol level, among other health merits.

Traditional Chinese Tea Etiquette

As we have seen earlier, tea plays a significant role in Chinese interpersonal relationships. Knowing tea etiquette, being polite, and showing respect when drinking tea in a Chinese tea house can not only reflect your good personal culture but also your overall knowledge of China.

Regarding the seating etiquette, the left side of the host should be the first guest of honour, the importance of the seats is in descending order from the left of the host to the right. This illustrates the iron law to be followed regardless of the shape of the table. Either, the elders or the preceptors are given prioritymost deified to take the first rank, among them the ladies have precedence when the age difference is small. In addition, it would be unfortunate to sit opposite the host, however, children are allowed to take this place, if it is unavoidable.

Guests express their gratitude to the host when they are invited to taste the first brew, this is one of the most important etiquette rules of the traditional tea ceremony. The formal and standard gesture consists of men holding their fists (from left to right), while women join their palms, bow, sit down and take the tea cups. Before enjoying the tea, one first smells the aroma and then takes a sip.

Finger tapping is a ritual that is performed as silent gratitude to the person serving the tea. According to legend, the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was on a secret journey to the south, and one day he entered a tea house with his companions. The owner of the teahouse used a long pot, and without even spilling a drop, he rhythmically poured water into the tea cup three times. The Qianlong Emperor was impressed but did not understand, "What was this movement?", he asked. The owner smiled and said, "This is the tradition of our tea house called 'Three Phoenix Nodes'." Hearing this, the Qianlong Emperor took the long pot and tried to do the same, but this cup was his servant's, normally the servant would have knelt down and bowed to the emperor for this great honour. However, since this would have revealed the emperor's identity, the thoughtful servant bent his two fingers and tapped the table as if he were kneeling and bowing to the emperor. Ever since, the practice of bowing with the fingers has become common. Nowadays, instead of bowing, people simply tap their two fingers on the table to silently thank the tea server (Yang, S.C. and Peng, L.H., 2017).

To conclude, the history of tea in China, as well as its cultural heritage, is endless. The different textures, tastes, and colours make Chinese tea very popular and unique. Understanding their history and how to drink them properly allows us to better appreciate these masterful delights.

About the Author:

Najoua Chetioui holds a Master's degree in Management and International Trade, specialising in exchanges with Asia, from the University of Le Havre Normandy. She is also passionate about Chinese culture and language. You can find her on LinkedIn here.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Van Driem, G.L., 2020. The tale of tea: A comprehensive history of tea from prehistoric times to the present day. In The Tale of Tea. Brill.

Wang, L., 2005. Tea and Chinese culture. Long River Press

Xu, J., Wang, M., Zhao, J., Wang, Y.H., Tang, Q. and Khan, I.A., 2018. Yellow tea (Camellia sinensis L.), a promising Chinese tea: Processing, chemical constituents and health benefits. Food Research International, 107, pp.567-577.

Yang, S.C. and Peng, L.H., 2017. The Design and Function of Clothing in Chinese Tea Ceremony. 設計研究, (13), pp.59-63.

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