Tranquil and aesthetically beautiful, the Japanese Tea Ceremony has attracted a worldwide following. This 500-year-old tea tradition traces back to the 10th century Song dynasty China. Using Matcha green tea powder, the Japanese Tea Ceremony is inextricably linked to the history of tea drinking and China’s tea culture.
In this article, we’ll discuss the evolution of Chinese tea drinking throughout history and how tea spread spiritually as traveling Japanese monks returned home from their studies in China. Since ancient times, Chinese monks cultivated tea as a way of life and consumed the beverage for its health benefits and spiritual values. Tea was philosophy and through the hard work of tea marking, one achieved enlightenment. It’s similar to French Cistercian monks who first cultivated wine in Burgundy. So let’s step into this magical world of tea and trace her roots.
The etymology of “Matcha.”
The Japanese term “Matcha” derives from “Whipped tea” or “Dian Cha” 点茶 in Chinese—a fashionable tea-drinking custom during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 A.D.)
How Did Tea-Drinking Evolve?
Similar to the art of tea-making, the tradition of tea-drinking evolved throughout the millennia in China. Thanks to the Buddhist monks, tea drinking spread to neighboring countries such as Japan during the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Learn more about the mystical origin of tea and Chinese tea culture.
Did you know that steeping loose leaf tea using a teapot is a 700-year-old custom of China’s Ming dynasty? All because the Ming Emperor wanted loose leaf tea! And who can blame him?
7 Steps of Tea Tasting Evolution
Here are seven significant milestones of how the tea-drinking practice evolved in China, giving birth to Matcha and the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Step 1. Cooked Tea
Tea was discovered in ancient China by Shen Nong, who boiled the leaves into tonic as medicine. This tea-drinking practice continued for a few thousand years up to the Tang dynasty.
In ancient China, tea was all in cake form. People ground tea cake pieces into powder and cook them with ginger, mint, scallions, citrus peel, etc. “Tea soup” was the desirable drink at the time.
Step 2. Powdered Tea
Enter Lu Yu, the world’s esteemed tea sage from the Tang dynasty. Lu Yu shunned “Tea soup” and promoted “Powdered tea” in “Chajing,” or “Classic of Tea”—the world’s first book on tea (published in 780 A.D.)
In his book, Lu Yu illuminated “Cha Dao,” or The Way Of Tea, 茶道. The ancient tea connoisseur treated tea drinking as an art form, infusing etiquette, aesthetics, and philosophy into tea drinking. Lu Yu introduced the holy nature of using pristine spring water, exquisite teaware and utensils, and the proper boiling temperature to make a perfect tea bowl.
The renowned tea connoisseur detailed that to make proper Powdered tea, one was to ground tea into powder, then infused it into a pot of hot water, slightly boiled, adding a pinch of salt.
Do you know the meaning of fish eyes, shrimp eyes, and crab eyes?
Hint: They have to do with various boiling temperatures to make tea.
In the ancient days, Chinese southerners measured water boiling temperatures by the size of three eyeballs: fish eyes, shrimp eyes, and crab eyes.
- Fish Eyes—the largest eyeball size among them—represent full boil.
- Shrimp Eyes for a mid-boil.
- Crab Eyes, the smallest bubbles, represent hot water at the cusp of boiling.
So true and wise to this day. Imagine, back a couple of thousand years when there was no digital temperature gauge. Or, hello, whistling tea kettles? How ingenious.
The bigger the eyeball size, the stronger the boil.
Lu Yu made his Powdered tea at the “Crab eye” boiling temperature.
In China, Lu Yu brought a new craze for sophisticated tea-things such as teacups, tea sets, and utensils. This Tang dynasty tea-making set is extravagated from the Famen Temple of China recently.
Step 3. Whipped tea
During the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), Cooked tea evolved into Whipped tea, in which tea was whipped by hand until tiny bubbles formed into a head of foam. A tea latte without milk was born!
In ancient China, this 10th-century tradition became a tea-drinking frenzy and a national pastime over what’s known as “Tea Battles” or Cha Dou茶斗 in Chinese. Tea-makers competed for the title the “King of Tea” based on the frothiness of one’s Whipped tea and the size of bubbles in the foam. These tea tournaments took place throughout the southern regions of China. Today, this Song custom still thrives in Wuyi Shan as tea battles are held annually in November.
Step 4. Steeped Tea
By the end of the 14th century, the newly established Ming dynasty ushered in a new tea type. The art of tea-making evolved, and loose tea was born. This practice gave birth to the method of tea steeping as we know it today. A tradition of more than 650 years old, steeped tea introduced new Chinese tea things, such as teapots, gaiwan, tea utensils, tea caddies, etc. This Ming tradition flowed to Japan from the bags of traveling Buddhist monks.
Step 5. Zen Tea Ceremony or Japanese Tea Ceremony
Zen and tea have gone together like hand in glove since ancient China. The Zen Tea Ceremony was said to have originated at the Mount Tai temple in Shandong province in China. Then this Zen ritual spread from temple to temple throughout China.
When Japanese monk scholars came to China to study during the Tang dynasty, they took tea as souvenirs back to Japan. Tea grew from there. Learn more about the history of Japanese tea culture here.
Step 6. Gong Fu Cha, or Gong Fu Tea
Around the mid-1600s (or Qing Dynasty), Buddhist monks invented Oolong tea. And a new tea-tasting ritual was born! The Gong Fu Cha Ceremony (some people may call it Kung Fu Tea or Kung Fu Cha) was used to appreciate this semi-fermented tea fully. Learn more about the invention of Oolong tea in Wuyi Tea Culture.
The practice of Gong Fu Cha spread throughout the southern regions of China. Today, this widely practiced tea-tasting ritual varies from region to region due to local customs.
In your future travels in the southern parts of China, I highly recommend that you make it part of your adventure to experience local Gong Fu Cha. It’s like wine-tasting, except you’ll be sober, intoxicated by tea!
Step 7. Japanese Tea Ceremony, or “Chado”
Remember Lu Yu and his “Cha Dao,” or The Way of Tea from the 8th century? The Japanese Buddhist monks highly revered Lu Yu and the tea sage’s philosophy. They then adopted Lu Yu’s “Cha Dao,” which became “Chado” in Japan.
In 1503, the Japanese combined the custom of Whipped tea, ground-up Green tea invented in China around the 10th century, Step 3), and named it Matcha.
Combining Matcha and Lu Yu’s Cha Dao, these elements became the tenet of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, as we know it today.
Called Chado or Chanoyu, the Japanese Tea Ceremony exemplifies the beauty and aesthetics of a well-preserved Song Dynasty tradition that dates back more than 1,000 years in China.
All this talk of tea drinking is making me want to take a sip of tea! How about you? As you know by now, the tradition of tea drinking has come a very long way, over 2,000 years!
Today, besides steeping loose tea leaves to make a pot of tea, you could also enjoy the convenience of making a cup of tea using a teabag, an entirely different story for another day.
For all tea lovers, learn more about tea’s health benefits by tea type.
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