The father warned him, saying, “I led the army for a long time, and now I am tired. our people have been drinking tea and wearing embroidered silk for thirty years. This is a flavor of the Song. We should not be ungrateful.”
– Peace speech to Tangut Crown Prince Li Yuan-hao (1032) from Peace, War and Trade Along the Great Wall
The Historic Importance of Tea In the Tang Dynasty (China)
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), tea culture in China experienced a profound evolution, marking a pivotal moment in the historical trajectory of tea consumption and appreciation.
Tea, previously regarded primarily for its medicinal properties, began to transcend its utilitarian origins and assume a prominent role in elite social and cultural circles. The Tang era witnessed the emergence of tea as a symbol of refinement and sophistication, with the beverage becoming an integral component of courtly rituals and elite gatherings.
The nuanced preparation and consumption of tea became an art form, with connoisseurs actively engaging in the discourse surrounding tea appreciation. Influential figures such as Lu Yu, whose seminal work “The Classic of Tea” (茶经, Chá Jīng) crystallized the complexities of tea culture, played a pivotal role in shaping the discourse surrounding tea during the Tang Dynasty. The flourishing tea culture of this era not only elevated tea to a status beyond mere sustenance but also laid the groundwork for the subsequent development of elaborate tea ceremonies and rituals in Chinese society.
Looking back at the opening quote about then Song Dynasty, the era that follows the Tang Dynasty, we note that tea culture evolved extensively in China before it migrated arount the globe. Like Song Dynasty China, we all owe great debt to the ancestors that preceeded it. So, we look at that era and how tea gained importance to the daily culture.
Tang Dynasty Era, Recognition of Nutritional Value of Tea
Tang T’ai-tsung (600-649), the most heroic ruler in all Chinese history, overcame some 100 challengers to unite the country under his Tang dynasty. After extending his authority throughout Mongolia and across Central Asia into Afghanistan and Kashmir, he brought Tibet under Tang suzerainty by marrying his daughter to its king. The tea which Princess Wen Cheng brought to Tibet for the first time created a stronger bond between the two countries than any dynastic tie, as the inhabitants of “the roof of the world” still find China’s tea indispensable. Not only Tibet but most of Central Asia amounts to a vegetable-free zone whose inhabitants subsist mainly on the milk and meat of their flocks and herds. Tea was not only a very welcome aid to digesting such a diet, it was very nearly the only source of vitamins.
Turkic nomads north of China took to tea well before the Tibetans, according to Chinese records, but tea first played a central role in China’s foreign policy under the Tang rulers. The nomad’s most important domestic animal and the item of trade most coveted by Chinese was the horse. For the Tang armies to defend their heartland, much less hold outlying expanses, it was absolutely essential for China to acquire the superior horses bred and raised in the lush pasturelands to the northwest. The most prized breed came from Ferghana, near Samarkand, and these are the horses Tang sculptors loved depicting in ceramics, with rather violent yellow-brown and green glazes, as if to show us for a moment Tang exuberance and forcefulness.
It was not tea alone that paid for the horse, the peace the horse protected, and the art the peace made possible-silk and cotton textiles and grains were also traded. But increased tea production became government policy and for the first time large government plantations appeared, chiefly in Sichuan. This became known as West Route Tea because it was destined for Mongolia or for transport along the Silk Route to Central Asia and eventually the Middle East. Most tea for Tibet came from Yunnan and became known as South Route Tea. Tibetan-style tea was never a flavorful drink, being churned then as now at elevations where boiling water is not hot enough for extraction and consumed with yak butter and barley meal added. Tibetans think of tea as a bouillon, some sort of greasy, salty soup.
Tang brick tea was the first currency exchanged throughout these regions and even in Tang times was scored for convenience of breaking into smaller sections and “making change.” These bricks were practically indestructible. According to historian Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, a British explorer of the 1860s saw quantities of tea bricks “believed by the natives to be a great age” which were dug from the ruins of a Tang-era garrison town in Central Asia. “This tea, despite its age, is in great demand among local people, particularly as supplies from China have (recently) dried up.” While exploring this region in 1873 Sir Aurel Stein also noted “black bricks of tea, old and musty, exposed for sale in the bazaar” which had been dug up near Yarkand. Thus tea imported during the Tang occupation was being sold and drunk a thousand years later!
Although harmony began to return after 960 as China was gradually reunited, the new Song dynasty did not regain Central Asia. The herds of war-horses which China desperately needed now lay outside the Empire’s borders, and the Song established the policy of “controlling the border regions with tea” to obtain them. The Song laid out new plantations on a vast scale and enforced the strictest control of the tea trade throughout the border regions. A Tea and Horse Commission was granted a monopoly on all the tea produced in Sichuan, which it would exchange for ten thousand to twenty thousand horses each year. (The average horse went for fifty jin, or pounds, of tea while exceptional horses brought 120.) Sichuan had supplied Tang emperors with legendary Tribute Teas from Mt. Mengding and elsewhere, but Song poets never mention Sichuan tea, now a low-quality product produced strictly for export.
The powerful Tea and Horse Commission was to operate for almost five hundred years in western China and defying its monopoly meant death. Even the son-in-law of the first Ming emperor was compelled to commit suicide for smuggling border tea. The Commission itself, grown too corrupt to reform, was finally abolished outright in 1424. Its enduring contribution is the invention, sometime in the early Ming era, of hongcha or black tea, which the Commission developed for its barbarian customers. The birthplace first of loose leaf tea and later of black tea also was probably Sichuan. Only over the centuries to come would these tea-manufacturing discoveries be transplanted to China’s coastal provinces and provide non-Asian 10 fan from Europe with their first experience of tea.
Lu Tong, Tang Dynasty Poet
Lu Tong 盧仝; 790–835), pseudonym Yuchuanzi (Chinese: 玉川子), was a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, known for his lifelong study of Chinese tea culture. He never became an official, and is better known for his love of tea than his poetry. (Wikipedia)
Lu Tong’s Seven Bowls of Tea
The first bowl moistens my lips and throat; 一碗喉吻潤，
The second bowl breaks my loneliness; 二碗破孤悶，
The third bowl searches my barren entrails but to find 三碗搜枯腸，
Therein some five thousand scrolls; 惟有文字五千卷，
The fourth bowl raises a slight perspiration 四碗發輕汗，
And all life’s inequities pass out through my pores; 平生不平事盡向毛孔散，
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones; 五碗肌骨清，
The sixth bowl calls me to the immortals. 六碗通仙靈，
The seventh bowl could not be drunk, 七碗吃不得也，
only the breath of the cool wind raises in my sleeves. 唯覺兩腋習習清風生。
Where is Penglai Island, Yuchuanzi wishes to ride on this sweet breeze and go back. 蓬萊山﹐在何處，玉川子乘此清風欲歸去。
This article has been updated from the original publication in 2007, the second year of T Ching. James Norwood Pratt was one of the most generous early supporters and we continue to feel gratitide for what he has contributed to tea education.