The Tea Emperors of China
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
For thousands of years the men and women of China from all the social classes brewed the tea leaves into a drink that healed their body and opened the gates of creativity and the spirit. The tea leaves, originating from the wild tea trees of the southwestern Yunnan forests, were chewed by the field farmers to invigorate them through the hard day’s labor, and was drunk by the mystics of the Sichuan mountains in order to maintain their health, and to advance their pursuit of immortality. The spiritual and medical qualities of tea laced it into the pages of the earliest medical books, the religious ceremonies of the Buddhist monasteries, and the poetry and calligraphy gatherings of the literati. The Tang dynasty poet – Lu Dong couldn’t’ve expressed it better in his poem “Seven Bowls of Tea”:
"The first bowl moistens my lips and throat; The second bowl breaks my loneliness; The third bowl searches my barren entrails but to find Therein some five thousand scrolls; The fourth bowl raises a slight perspiration And all life’s inequities pass out through my pores; The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones; The sixth bowl calls me to the immortals. The seventh bowl could not be drunk, only the breath of the cool wind raises in my sleeves. Where is Penglai Island, I wish to ride on this sweet breeze and go back."
"The tea invigorates the body, satisfies the mind, and assists one to achieve his goals!"
On the account of its many qualities, it is not surprising that tea hadn’t escaped from the eyes of the emperors and the Chinese nobility who wished to have a share of the many benefits of this magical drink as well. The connection between the Chinese nobility and tea is evident in one of the most famous tales regarding the origins of this mysterious drink. As he was sitting and boiling water under the shade of a tea tree, the mythical king Shen Nong (神农), who according to legend taught the Chinese people the secrets of agriculture, was surprised to find out a few of the tree’s leaves in the hot boiling water. After a sip from the compound, he was filled with awe by its magnificent taste and the transcendent feeling he experienced. and so, he urged his subjects to drink it while declaring “The tea invigorates the body, satisfies the mind, and assists one to achieve his goals!”
Han to The Six Dynasties Period
From the earliest findings of tea-ware in China and the world in general, the deep connection between tea-drinking and the nobility is evident. In the tomb of emperor Jing (景帝) of the Han dynasty, who ruled in the first half of the second century, countless tea-drinking vessels filled its halls, although it is not clear if the drink was used to heal the dead ruler, or to pleasure him. Before the development of tea production methods that enhanced its flavor such as steaming the leaves, a technique that was used to prevent what was called by the ancients “the bitter water”, tea had a hard time competing with the ale which was prevalent in court ceremony and in daily life. But already by the 4th century, Zhang Yi’s dictionary points out several techniques to prepare tea which include baking the leaves, grinding them to a powder, roasting and mixing them with spices such as ginger and jujube.
This seasoned tea suited the taste of the people of those days so well that by the 5th century China experienced a tea-craze that was characterized by a growing consumption amongst big swaths of the population. This process culminated in the shift of tea from a medicinal life-preserving drink to a popular recreational one. The same craze wasn’t absent from the lavish courts of China’s different rulers who were competing for control over the divided nation. A prime example of this is seen with king Wu Di (武帝) of the southern Qi state. The king loved the drink so much he made it central in the offerings to his spirit after his death in 493 AD.
The 5th century laid the foundations that made tea the national drink of China as it is today. The Tang dynasty which ruled China between the 7th – 9th centuries was the golden age of tea drinking in China, thus making it a defining part of Chinese culture. The first century of the dynasty’s rule was marked by a stable central government, and by demographic and economic growth. It was a cosmopolitan empire stretching from the shores of the Chinese sea to the grasslands and deserts of central Asia. Its capital Chang-an (today known as Xi’an), was a massive city consisting of a population a million big, part of which originated from the many different peoples living under the dynasty’s rule, and who affected the material and spiritual culture of China. Exotic goods such as garlic and silver made their way into Chinese markets, and lacquered chairs made their way into the homes of the Chinese, thus changing their interior design, and the way the Chinese drank tea. Beside this, also foreign religions, like the Buddhist religion, went to become central in the daily life of the empire’s subjects.
a person’s status and respect were measured by his tea collection, and the way he served it to his guests.
During this cultural and material prosperity, tea was becoming a more desirable commodity, thus revolutionizing, and expanding the methods of growing and selling it. Young women plucked the leaves using only their nails, so their sweat and body heat does not spoil the leaves taste, and the tea was pressed into cakes and bricks to preserve its freshness against the hazards of weather and time. This type of tea was known back then as compressed green tea, although it defers a lot from today's green tea. The most expensive tea of the highest quality was grown on the mountain ranges, usually under the care of Buddhist monasteries, and its value was measured in gold. Those who set the standard of tea culture in China were the nobility who sought tea of the highest quality, and who hired professional tea experts to purchase and prepare the tea in the highest manner. Tea parties were lavish and excessive, and a person’s status and respect were measured by his tea collection, and the way he served it to his guests. This process solidified tea as a luxurious status symbol. For the first time, the imperial court set up tea plantations all around China that sent the highest quality tea as offering to the court. These plantations were set in places such as Fujian, Anhui, Guangdong, and Zhejiang which are central regions of tea-growing of south-east China until today.
The lavish tea culture of the Tang came to an end with the devastating rebellions at the end of the 8th century, but these laid the foundations of the way tea was drunk during the Song dynasty that ruled China as of the second half of the 10th century. During these brutal revolts, Sichuan province, which escaped the social and political chaos that was prevalent throughout the rest of the empire became a safe haven for tea growing, and a big draw for tea growers. The harsh economic state of the empire together with the lucrative potential ingrained in tea-growing made it an imperial monopoly, and private tea trading was banned. After the Song dynasty rose to power in the year 960, political stability returned to the land. By then, the Sichuanese tea growers have already become experts of the tea-growing craft. They were also in charge of setting up new imperial tea plantations. Most of the tea originating in these imperial plantations was sold for the state’s revenue but in one place, tea was specifically dedicated for the consumption of the emperor and his court and that is the “Northern Garden” (bei yuan) in Fujian province, also known today as the Wuyi Mountain range.
Song Dynasty and "The Northern Garden”
The “Northern Garden” was established initially to provide tea for the southern Tang rulers, but after the unification of China under the Song Dynasty, the reputation and renown of its produce made it the central provider of tea to the court. The “Northern Garden” was consisted of 25 tea fields spanning on 13 square kilometers (5.02 square miles) and of 40 stations where the tea was processed. In account of its high status, the ‘Northern Garden” hired professional tea pickers and processors as opposed to other tea plantation where corvee labor was used. The tea leaves that were personally picked for the emperor were cut off the bushes using golden scissors, a tradition lasting until the fall of Imperial China in the 20th century also known as “the imperial cut”. The tea was then pressed into cakes with carvings of the dragon and the phoenix who were the mythical animals representing the emperor and empress. These cakes were produces from the highest quality leaves – a single leaf on a bud. This process took between six to ten days depending on the size of the cake. Firstly, the tea leaves were lightly steamed in order to preserve their taste, and after that, were pressed for a whole night in order to squeeze out the bitterness. Later, the leaves were crushed with use of water into a paste that was poured into the dragon and phoenix molds finally to be dried for several days.
The dragon and phoenix cakes were considered a luxury product saved only for the highest social classes of Chinese society. This tea was also served by emperors to extraordinary literati and statesmen as an honorary reward, a process that solidified the connection between tea, hospitality, and respect in Chinese society until today. This is also reflected in the traditional tea ceremonies held for the parents of the newlywed during Chinese weddings in contemporary times. When the dragon and phoenix cakes were served in the imperial court, they were grounded into a fine powder, had boiling water added to them, and were mixed using bamboo brushes until reaching just the right texture. As a matter of fact, the Song dynasty created the way tea is consumed in Japan to the present day.
The Song dynasty did not only give rise to innovations in tea drinking, but also the only emperor to ever conceive a whole literary piece dedicated to tea – the emperor Song Huizong (宋徽宗) who ruled China between 1101 – 1125. Huizong was to become a controversial figure in Chinese history. On the one hand, he is regarded as a hedonistic ruler who brought about the loss of northern China to barbarian tribes. On the other hand, he is regarded as a brilliant man of his day, with profound knowledge of science, medicine, astronomy, art, calligraphy, and poetry. Huizong even painted a few pieces and wrote poetry on countless other ones. One of his many interests was tea, thus bringing him to write a whole literary piece about it. this piece called “Treatises on tea from the Daguan period” (Daguan Chalun), covers almost the entire knowledge about tea at the time. The process of growing tee, processing different types of tea, the way tea is graded and the way one should serve it are just some of the examples of its comprehensive content. In his book, Huizong dedicated a whole chapter to his favorite tea strand – white tea, that was grown by a handful of families that had wild ancient tea trees (gu shu 古樹) growing on their lands, and who were experts in processing this rare tea. The emperor described these tea leaves as very thin and glowing in the moonlight. According to him, these tea trees cannot be domesticated thus solidifying the monopoly of those handful of families which are able to produce the desired white tea cakes. These cakes were described by the emperor as “glowing like the finest jade”. He described the taste and texture of the white tea as harmonious inside and out, and that if it’s handled wrong it’s taste would be completely spoiled.
Huizong’s fondness for tea wasn’t expressed only through his writings about it but also through his paintings that describe the elaborate tea culture of the Song dynasty. In his paintings one can see how tea made by servants was served to guests who sit aside lavishly prepared tables. Tea wasn’t only integrated in poetry and calligraphy circles that were occasionally arranged by the emperor, but also in games such as the “Tea Contest” that included the host and guests having to determine the type of tea and its origin after tasting it. This game expressed the knowledge and wealth of a person out of the assumption that a civilized and well cultured man had in his possession the finest teas, and the knowledge about them. It is not surprising that a man who is deeply invested in the quest for knowledge, and in intellectual and artistic creation to bind himself into tea drinking because of its psychoactive properties as a natural stimulant and the inherent connection between tea drinking and high culture. Thus, emperor Huizong embodies Song dynasty tea culture and tea being a drink intertwined with status, culture and the creative spirit.
Beside the fact that the Song dynasty laid the foundation of the way tea is drunk in modern day Japan, it is also responsible for the way tea is drunk in present day China. The fervent tea trade with the steppe peoples of north-western China often included loose tea from the Sichuan tea plantations which was cheaper to produce. This was in tune with the custom of the steppe peoples to mix their tea with goat and cow milk which made the importance of tea’s quality a minor consideration because of the milk’s strong taste. Thus, the cheap production of loose tea made it more and more popular around China, especially with the rise of tea houses all around the realm. The problem inherent with selling loose tea has to do with the dramatic decline of its shelf-life. Hence, during the Ming dynasty that ruled China from the 14th – 17th centuries, tea growers came up with an ingenious solution for that problem in the form of bleached tea such as wulong tea (oolong tea) and red tea (black tea). This was done by letting the tea leaves oxidate in the open air before they are cooked, a process that considerably extended their shelf-life and durability.
The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, rose to power at 1644 with the fall of Beijing to the Manchurians. The Qing dynasty ruled a vast empire that stretched the borders of the China into its modern-day size and beyond, encompassing the Tibetan plateau, and the steppes of Xinjiang. In order to rule such a vast territory and such a diverse population, the Manchurian emperors tended to incorporate some cultural characteristics of their subjects. The Manchu emperors who were also of northern origin drank their tea with milk, but one emperor was known for his high esteem for Chinese culture and tradition and who also drank his tea like his Chinese subjects. Emperor Qianlong, who ruled the empire for 61 years between 1735 - 1796 was a poetry and art enthusiast and had the habit of touring and travelling all along his realm. One of his favorite destinations was the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, where he loved to enjoy the magnificent view of the “West Lake” as he was drinking the famous local green tea, the Longjing. The emperor loved Longjing tea so much he wrote a song describing the experience called “Enjoying Longjing tea as long as I can”:
“The Longjing tea that was just picked near “Dragon Well” spring,
From one of the houses, the famous local smell rises out of the steam of the boiling water.
Few buds are born and blooming, and mould started to grow on the stones,
A moment before spring, the leaves are dried in the valley, right before the rain.
How can you not gather together and praise the emperor’s tea?
Enabling, for a fleeting moment, to enlighten my pure heart like the lotus.
A moment before the difference between my past and the here and now is revealed,
A laughter arises within me. And like olden times, the words are written, and the mind is silent…”
Qianlong’s famous journeys throughout the southern provinces of China gave rise to one of the most famous legends regarding Cantonese tea-drinking. According to legend, the emperor and his servant sat at a local tea house in Guangdong province. There, the emperor witnessed for the first time the local tea-pouring technique. This technique was done using pots that once their waters were heated it is poured out into nearby cups without human intervention. The emperor was so amazed by this that he decided to try it himself and pour his servant in the same manner. Because the emperor used to conceal his identity during his tours in order to experience what he sees without a façade, his fearing servant who couldn’t bow the traditional way, thanked the emperor by tapping both his fingers on the table. This is the legend behind that tradition of gratitude revolving tea drinking around south China, and today all throughout the country.
"How can the emperor survive one day without a cup of tea?"
The emperor’s love for tea reshaped courtly life, making it so that at every first lunar month lavish tea and poetry parties with the most talented literati were held. During the event, the literati had to compose a poem on a subject that was chosen by the emperor himself and tea was served by the emperor to the best composers, an act regarded as the highest honor in the empire. Furthermore, massive tea parties were held in “Heavenly Purity” hall that included thousands of literati and members of the court to mark the emperor’s birthday and other important occasions. The emperor’s love for tea is also expressed in another legend regarding him. In that legend, when the emperor wanted to resign his position in his later years, the servants begged him saying “How can the empire survive one day without it’s emperor?” but to them he replied, “How can the emperor survive one day without a cup of tea?”. Like emperor Huizong, emperor Qianlong was also a medium expressing the inherent connection between the arts and tea, and a lush source of never-ending folklore around the magical drink that is still residing in the hearts of the Chinese to this day.
Chinese history and tradition taught these special emperors that tea is not only a drink, but a lifestyle of ceremony, artistic creation and therapy for the body and mind. As we can see in emperor Qianlong’s poem, tea inspired him to describe the magic in the simple moment of enjoying the magnificent scenery, and also opened the gates of deep and serene introspection. What is the value of one moment of silence infused in the daily tense routine? A moment where this magical warm compound caresses the throat, and heals our body and mind from the daily dose of stress? Like the mystics who chased immortality in the high mountains of China, the tea emperors also keep on living forever through the art they have left behind and through the legends and stories that are told about them around the tables of the Chinese to this day.