If you plan on travelling to China or just want to know a little more about Chinese culture and daily life, you should learn the basics of Chinese tea. An understanding of Chinese tea will help you make friends with the locals, enjoy one of China’s more refined and relaxing past times and enable you to impress (or bore) your friends and family.
Drinking Chinese tea is like drinking wine. There are many different types of tea, you have tea snobs, tea drinking is a social activity, tea should be drunk slowly and savoured and a good tea demands respect. In the same way there is also a lot to learn about tea and you could write volumes with out covering everything so I have outlined the bare basics below.
Classes and Types of Chinese Tea
You can’t walk into a restaurant or tea house and ask for tea because there are literally hundreds of different types. All of these teas are divided into the following eight groups. Green, Oolong, Black, Red, White, Yellow, Flower and Compressed
Green Tea – The most common (around 50% of Chinese teas are green tea) and the most natural and least treated type of tea. Green tea is dried by heat and there is no fermentation. Reputed to be the most medically beneficial tea. The most common types of green tea are Monkey King (no joke), Dragon Well and Green Snow.
Black Tea – The leaves are withered (dried) , fermented for a long time then roasted. By the end of this process, the leaves are completely oxidized and black. The taste is pleasant with a mild aroma and a lot of caffeine, the most caffeinated of Chinese teas. Black tea is good fat and cholesterol emulsifier so popular with people on diets. Common types of black tea are Pu’er, Old Green Leaf and Edge tea.
Oolong Tea – Oolong tea is half fermented then fried, rolled and roasted. The leaves for Oolong tea are typically green in the middle and red at the edges due to the process used to soften the tea leaves. The flavour is normally strong and not a good choice for tea beginners such as foreign tourists. It is the most popular tea for Kung Fu tea that you’ll read about below. Popular Oolong teas are Iron Guanyin, Big Red Robe and Water Fairy.
White Tea – Often classed as a type of green tea and has a very low caffeine level. Common types of white tea are Longevity Eyebrow and White Peony.
Yellow Tea – Well known for its mild and refreshing taste Common types of yellow tea are Big Leaf Green and Silver Needle.
Flower Tea – Made from dried flowers with minimal processing. Often uses green or red tea as a base then mixed with scented flowers. Flower tea is more popular in northern Chinese cities such as Beijing. The main types are Jasmine and Chrysanthemum that you may know about and Dragon Ball.
Compressed Tea – This tea is made by steaming black tea then compressing the tea in to bricks or cakes that are stored for years or decades. Popular in west and south wast China and can be very expensive. Common compressed teas are Cake Tea and Pu’er Cake Tea.
The History of Tea
Legend – The history of tea is shrouded in the mists of time and began in 2737BCE when Emperor Shennong was boiling a pot of water and a leaf from a nearby tea bush fell into his pot.
Western Zhou Period (1046 to 771BCE) – Tea was used as a ritual offering
Prior to 800 BC – Tea was mainly used as medicine
Chu and Qiu period (770-476BC) – Tea leaves were chewed for the flavour of tea juice.
Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) – Tea turns from a medicine to a drink during the early part of the Han Dynasty. A simple form of processing tea was developed during this period and tea leaves were pressed into ball shapes and stored. The balls where then crushed, mixed with other ingredients such as green onion or ginger then boiled in pots.
Jin Dynasty (265-420) – Tea goes from being a delicacy for the nobles to a drink for the masses
Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) – People started to take their tea more seriously with specialized tea implements developed and tea literature such as the famous “Literature of Tea” by Lu Yue written. Tea cakes also became popular during this period.
Song Dynasty (960-1279) – Tea production takes off and China is exporting tea throughout South East Asia and the Arab world along the Silk Road.
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) – Tea was kept in a loose form not balls and brewing tea not boiling became the fashion towards the end of that period
There are too many different ways of preparing and drinking tea to describe them all so listed below are the four main types you are likely to experience in your travels. They are Kung Fu tea, pouring tea into a Gawain (Chinese tea cup), boiling the tea in a kettle and adding boiling water to tea.
Kung Fu Tea – A more elaborate way of preparing and drinking tea that is for serious tea drinkers who have spare time on their hands. Hot water is boiled, poured into a tea pot and tea is added. The pot normally holds just enough tea for one round. After a few minutes the first pot of tea is used to carefully rinse the tea cups. The process is repeated and the second pot is used for drinking. Good for Oolong tea but not for green tea. You can often see Kung Fu tea sets in peoples homes and offices.
Using A Gaiwan – Gaiwan in Chinese means a bowl with a lid and it is basically a cup with a lid that rests on a saucer. Tea is normally added to the Gaiwan then boiling water is poured onto the tea, the lid placed on top and you are ready to drink. Most common in southern China and ideal for drinking green tea or flower tea.
Using a Kettle – This method is frowned upon by tea snobs and mainly used by the working class and some of China’s minorities. You add compressed tea to the kettle, boil and pour.
Add Boiling Water to Tea – This method is a little like Kung Fu tea but much less troublesome. You boil water in a normal kettle then pour the hot water into a tea pot that contains tea. After the tea has settled for a few minutes, you pour it into any type of glass or porcelain cup and drink it. Good for low quality teas and busy occasions when you don’t have time to go through the elaborate rituals of Kung Fu tea.
The Health Benefits of Chinese Tea
Not only is drinking tea enjoyable and refreshing, it is also very good for you. Depending on who you speak to the benefits of Chinese tea range from longer life expectancy and increased virility to weight loss and cancer prevention. Outlined below are the main benefits that Chinese people believe drinking tea will give you.
Digestion and Weight Loss – Many types of tea such as Oolong tea and Pu’er tea can improve the performance of enzymes that break down fat, aid in digestion and promote bowel movement.
Prevent Cancer – Tea in general and green tea in particular contains a large amount of anti oxidants that help prevent cell damage from cancer causing free radicals.
Fight Tooth Decay – Tea contains Polyphenols that prevent tooth decay and fluoride that promotes dental health.
High Blood Pressure – Drinking some types of tea such as Oolong tea has shown to reduce high blood pressure. Possibly due to the relaxing practice of preparing and drinking tea not the actual tea itself.
So apart from being refreshing and delicious, tea is also probably good for your health in many different ways.
Interesting Tea Facts
-One of the seven necessities of Chinese life. The other six are firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar.
-All types of tea come from the same plant, the Camilla Sinensis bush.
-A typical tea plant will vary in age from 25 years to 90 years
-The best tea growing regions are misty and rainy with dry days and cool nights.
-The tea scam is one of China’s worst tourist scams
-Tea was one of China's main trade goods on the ancient Silk Road