Blog post

Tea from China

A cup of wonder: how tea from China conquered the world

a colour photograph of a smiling woman with a straw hat, holding a basket, in front of a green plantation of tea plants
Sofie Taes (opens in new window) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

According to legend, tea was discovered when leaves fell off a tree in a pot of boiling water. The beneficial potion resulting from this coincidental collision was tasted and endorsed by Shennong: a mythological ruler nicknamed ‘The Divine Farmer’.

A chinese ink drawing of a man in robes, with a grumpy expression and a long white beard.

For millennia, tea was consumed as a medicinal beverage, before it became a social drink and a staple of the daily diet. At that point, around the 3rd century CE, tea cultivation really took off. The intricate process of producing and preparing tea became the pinnacle of Chinese inventiveness and finesse.

several drawings in rectangles, showing different stages of the tea plant and different stages of tea manufacturing.

After harvest, leaves have to be wilted, oxidized and fermented, fixed, rolled, dried and - in some cases - left alone to age for years.

a coloured lithograph of a tea plantation, intersected by dirt roads and adjacent to houses. A man is unloading a basket of tea leaves in the foreground.

Then sorting and grading, sifting and breaking, packing and sealing the tea conclude the process.

a drawing of two bare-chested men holding on to a wooden beam above their heads and standing on sacks of oolong tea, crushing it with their bodyweight.

A plethora of guides and methods describing the intricacies of cultivating tea have been published throughout the centuries, both in and outside of China. Many travellers to China applied themselves to studying Chinese strategies and techniques, to later report on them in extensive publications.

the front page of a yellowed book, it reads 'an account of the cultivation and manufacture of Tea in China'

For many photographers too, the elaborate process and almost ritual handlings needed to produce tea have proven to be a lasting source of fascination and inspiration.

a lithograph of four women sitting down on stools wearing traditional clothes, in front of a wooden house..

From cup to pot

As tea cultivation, preparation and consumption became part of a refined and formal ceremony with a social as well as a spiritual dimension, the need arose to switch from individual teacupstea cups to larger pots in which the drink could be prepared. In the Song era (960–1279) a special pot used for brewing tea is mentioned for the first time.

a clay teapot with a small spout and large upright handle

From the 16th century onwards potters from the Jiangsu province used their local clay to produce dedicated brewing pots. The reddish earthenware of the Yixing teapot has an exquisite texture and pots tend to grow more characterful with long-term use.

a large clay teapot decorated with clay relief of flowers. The lid has a clay decoration of a dragon on top of it.

The small format, short spouts and clay material make these teapots stand out from the porcelain, long-spouted vessels later created in China for export to the West, where tea was brewed and consumed in a different way.

a white glazed teapot with colourful flower decorations
three men admire earthenware, standing in front of a table with dozens of versions of the same teapot placed down next to each other.

Vessels specially made for storing tea became a necessity too. Tea needs to be kept in a dark space, ideally in an airtight container, preventing the aromas from diffusing and protecting the costly product from harmful exposure to moisture or dampness.

a bright blue glazed rectangular earthenware box, with a round lid.

Boost for body and soul

Classified on the basis of provenance, the type of tea plant used, the ratio of large tea leaves versus smaller, broken grades, and the manufacturing process, tea today comes in a plethora of forms, strengths and tastes.

a tea cup on a saucer in white enamel with blue glazing is filled with heaping black tea leaves.

Green tea, with its typical pale colour palette, lemony taste and slightly bitter zing still is mainly grown in China, as are the more smoky flavoured oolong and pouchong teas produced in the south.

a black ink drawing on paper of three people in traditional Chinese robes, above their head is Chinese writing.

Green tea in particular is a worldwide favorite of the health-conscious, as it is rich in natural antioxidants, contains caffeine as a booster and fluoride against caries. Furthermore, having tea is associated with stress relief and mindfulness. With its spiritual and physical health benefits tea continues to be at the very top of the leaderboard of most popular drinks in the world.

Ceremony & culture

In China, ‘gongfu’ is the designation used for a particular tea brewing ceremony that aims at making tea ‘with skill’, so that it not only tastes good but also benefits the soul. By using a relatively high amount of leaves the brewer instigates a process that involves multiple infusions, each producing slightly different intensities and taste experiences.

Because of the symbolic aspect of preparing, sharing and consuming tea, it’s good to think before you sip: in Argentina you’ll insult your brewer by stirring your cup with the bombilla, while when Touareg tea is served you might be surprised by the panache with which it’s poured from great height.

In Russia, tea isn’t consumed with meals but during dedicated breaks. To prepare the brew, a samovar is used: a special device producing the strong-flavored ‘zavarka’.

a coloured woodcut of an inside ballroom with tables and people sitting at them, Westerners at Yokohama, Japan, enjoying a lavish tea ceremony as a cellist plays to them
two mean in heavy winter fur clothing sit at a table drinking tea from white porcelain teacups.

While brewing as well as enjoying tea entail different ceremonial practices in different parts of the world, most cultures regard the offering of tea as a gesture of hospitality and politeness.

A global phenomenon

gouache painting of people packing tea into boxes, with a large tea plantation and mountains in the background.

China tea reached mainland Europe with the Dutch East India Company early in the 17th century, followed by the English East India Company importing tea to London.

a richly decorated tea saucer standing upright so it shows the glazing decoration of two people in eighteenth-century clothing in a panel of scalloped decoration

By the dawn of the 20th century, the whole world was sipping the aromatic beverage, from Kenya and Queensland to Russia and Peru.

a colour drawing of three people in colourful south American clothing. One woman is wearing a large rucksack and is holding out her hand to a gentleman who is in the process of pulling coins out of his pocket.

What people’s ‘cup of tea’ entails exactly, differs from country to country: enjoyed with a lump of sugar by some, others will add honey or lemon, yak butter or condensed milk, mint leaves, cinnamon or tapioca balls.

a black and white photograph of a teapot and teacup filled with tea. A tea bag hangs out of the teapot, prominently showing the label which shows the Compack tea company logo. In the background stand boxes of tea bags with the words 'Lipton teabags' on them.

So how do you prefer your cup of wonder…?

a wooden cabinet shaped like Dutch house facades has multiple little pull out drawers with different labels on them.

This blog post is a part of the PAGODE project, which explores Chinese cultural heritage in Europe.