What is a tea ceremony? The book "Chinese Tea Ceremony", is explained as a cultural art that embodies the perfect combination of tea and culture, a means of cultivating oneself. However, when people mention tea ceremony, many think of the Japanese tea ceremony. Yet this ancient way of drinking tea has actually retained many Chinese Tang and Song dynasty customs.
Over the past two thousand years, the way people drink tea has been constantly changing from simple to complex. It took Chinese people more than one thousand years to evolve from simplicity to complexity; then another one thousand plus years to return back to simplicity. Let us explore the Chinese tea ceremony by savoring a cup of warm tea soup while searching for flavors once tasted by our ancestors.
1 Tang Dynasty: The Art of Jian Cha Ceremony
The most primitive way for Chinese people to taste tea was by eating it. Ancient people originally used tea leaves for medicinal and food purposes, boiling fresh leaves and consuming the liquid directly. Gradually, they discovered that tea had a refreshing effect on the body, leading to the development of cooking tea as a dish with added seasonings such as scallions, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood fruit or mint.
Tracing back in time to the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 AD), we can read "Chuan Fu" written by Du Yu which is regarded as one of the earliest works on human literature about tea. It vividly records every step from planting to drinking: the origin of teas; growth; picking; water usage; teaware selection; brewing methods along with foam shape and color plus soup color and flavor, allowing us to witness how ancient tasted teas 1700 years ago.
Although people drank tea during this period it wasn't widespread yet and although there were some early forms of Tea artistry at this stage but still far from being perfect. This era was therefore considered as an incubation period for Chinese tea ceremony culture.
During the Tang Dynasty, drinking tea had almost become a custom among Chinese people. It was during this time period that Lu Yu's "The Classic of Tea" emerged as an encyclopedia on teas, and Lu Yu laid the foundation for the Chinese tea ceremony. By the practice and refinement of later generations, gradually formed the Jian Cha (煎茶, pan-fried tea) that prevailed in Tang.
The origin of Jian Cha tea is unknown but Lu Yu provided detailed records about it in his book, which covers the preparation of the utensils used in the tea ceremony, the judging of the quality of the water, the baking of the tea cakes and the tasting of tea, etc.
Jian Cha mainly uses steamed and compressed cake teas that are roasted then ground to powder after cooling down. Boiling water is added with salt at first boil; second boil adds in ground up teas while stirring continuously; third boil brings out its aroma before serving hot while cleaning utensils promptly.
Lu Yu disapproved of adding seasonings such as scallions, ginger, jujube fruit or orange peel when brewing teas, a practice used by ancestors. Instead, Lu Yu advocated using only salt to adjust taste and remove bitterness from teas in "The Classic of Tea."
In addition, the Jian Cha ceremony also had requirements for tea etiquette. One time of brewing cannot exceed five bowls, and if more than eight guests were present, two or three stoves would need to be used simultaneously to ensure the taste of the tea. Compared to modern tea drinking methods, brewing Tang Dynasty cake teas was extremely tedious. The standard of pure-tea-drinking emphasized in later generations can also be attributed to Lu Yu's setting.
After the mid-Tang period, people began to recognize that tea has a refreshing and mild character with health benefits such as calming emotions and refining temperament; therefore consuming it gradually moved beyond general food consumption needs. As Fei Fen said in "Cha Shu": "Tea is refined and clear by nature with an elegant flavor which cleanses weariness while soothing your mind; its effects are harmonious without being mixed up with other flavors when blended among various types, and will surpass all kinds of drinks and have a unique flavor."
It can be said that during the Tang dynasty, drinking tea was elevated from daily life into spiritual culture through establishing a philosophy of cultivating oneself through making teas; basic perfection of Jian Cha artistry together with emphasis on environment surroundings as well as etiquette all signaled China’s formal formation of tea ceremony culture. Jian Cha method was one formative style among Chinese tea arts originating from ancient times reaching its peak popularity during late Tang dynasty where not only Lu Yu initiated this mode but he also laid foundation for Chinese tea ceremony culture at large.
2 Song Dynasty: The Art of Dian Cha Ceremony
The tea culture flourished during the Song Dynasty, which followed the Tang dynasty. With the popularity of tea among royalty and upper-class society, drinking tea became even more prevalent in Song dynasty due to its trickle-down effect. The development of Jian Cha method led to a new form called Dian Cha (点茶, whisking tea).
Compared with Jian Cha method, pointing involves no boiling of teas in a Fu (traditional cookware) but instead grinds up cakes into powder then places it first in teacups for later use; after that one boils water and pours it slowly over powdered teas inside cups until fully mixed using bamboo whisks creating frothy surface while keeping powder suspended within liquid forming soup-like consistency.
Dian Cha was widely used during Song dynasty. If we say that skill dominated Dian Cha method throughout Tang dynasty then Dian Cha emphasizes more on artistic conception especially as culture and art thrived greatly during this period where drinking tea not only became an aesthetically pleasing social activity but also gave rise to "Dou Cha (斗茶, skill showdown)" and "Fen Cha (performances)". These elegant games based on who has better quality froth formed by mixing powdered teas with hot water become popular pastimes across various levels of society representing activities unique to Song era.
How to make the perfect tea broth with the Dian Cha method? The key lies in water temperature and whisking technique. To meet the requirements of Dian Cha, special types of tea utensils were developed during Song dynasty such as Longquan celadon teacups which had a shallow base that facilitated whisk producing more froth.
During the Song dynasty, literati did not hesitate to use poetry and ink paintings to promote the prosperity of Dian Cha method. Just Lu You alone wrote over three hundred poems about teas; Su Shi also composed more than seventy pieces. These scholars enriched aesthetic connotations inherent in Dian Cha by using their penmanship where Chinese tea culture reached its peak.
However, behind this unprecedented success hid lurking dangers. During Song dynasty whether in terms of Dian Cha, Dou Cha, Fen Cha and selection of teacups, visual beauty was often given priority. In selecting utensils, the black glaze ceramic ware was preferred to emphasize exceptional color tone. Pursuing visual experience at all costs but ignoring original purpose for drinking teas became reasons why both Dian Cha declined later on during Song era history.
3 Ming Dynasty: The Art of Pao Cha Ceremony
In the Ming dynasty, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang did not bother with such delicate matters. The Hongwu Emperor considered the Dian Cha method laborious and costly. As a result, he ordered an end to compressed teas like Tuan Cha in favor of tribute loose-leaf teas. In short, "pouring water and tea leaves together than drinking" was sufficient.
Dragon Phoenix Tuan Cha (团茶) which royalty and upper-class society enjoyed during the Song dynasty required intricate craftsmanship where multiple spices were added then decorated using gold throughout the production process which took time and effort. And with the Tuan Cha adapted to the Dian Cha method, with the implementation of the imperial decree of Ming Taizu and the upper class to lead, also gradually in the middle and late Ming dynasty died out. Once flourished Jian Cha and Dian Cha, and eventually became a boiling water brewing leaf tea: Pao Cha (泡茶) ceremony.
Brewing tea, only requires washing teacups, then adding tea leaves before pouring hot water over them, followed by sipping at leisure without any complex rituals involved. Due to its simplicity more ordinary people could also enjoy these tea leaves, making their way into everyday life.
Previously, the Jian Cha and Dian Cha tea ceremonies used compressed cakes of tea. The production process involved steaming green leaves before compressing them into cakes with additional spices added. While the Tang dynasty's steaming process was already well-established, it further developed during the Song dynasty but still caused loss of original flavor. In contrast, the tea used in Pao Cha ceremony is loose leaf tea produced through stir-frying techniques that preserve maximum original flavor.
As tea drinking evolved, so did people's aesthetic sensibilities. Ming Dynasty people emphasized creating a natural environment for enjoying their teas while designing specific rooms called "Cha Liao" for this purpose. These spaces provided fixed locations for tea-related activities and contributed to China's development of its own unique tea culture.
Looking back at the Chinese history of tea ceremony formation, Lu Yu laid the foundation for the Chinese tea ceremony and Jian Cha ceremony in mid-Tang Dynasty (8th century). Jian Cha was China’s first form of tea ceremony which flourished from the mid to late Tang Dynasty until the Song Dynasty lasting approximately 500 years.
Dian Cha ceremony emerged during the North-Song period around the 11th century with representatives like Zhao Ji, Mei Yaochen, Su Shi & Huang Tingjian among others who continued innovating after previous generations building upon each other’s legacies. Dian Cha art created by these innovative individuals was introduced into Japan by Buddhist monks combined with traditional Japanese culture resulting in the typical Japanese tea ceremony.
Meanwhile, Pao Cha method emerged during the Ming dynasty peaking till the early Qing era then declining over time only to be revived again later part of the 20th Century similar to modern-day brewing tea methods today.
Today generation after generation continues participating in preserving China's heritage regarding its tradition of teas pursuing what the ancestors had achieved. Tea culture is not just a way of drinking tea but also an art form with inner spiritual connotations.