Wood to burn, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and inevitably the tea: these are the seven fundamental needs for living in China! Chinese tea is considered precious for curing the soul and the body thanks to its legendary properties and as old as the thousands of years-old culture to which it belongs. Today we want to look back over its history, between myths and legends, and go looking for its curiosities, such as the name of the most expensive Chinese tea in the world, and list its varieties and precious properties for everyone’s health.
The history of Chinese tea
Its origins: a story that starts 5000 years ago
It seems that all the great stories happen thanks to the forces of gravity, that’s how it was with the apple for Newton and with the leaves of a tree that 5000 years ago fell into the Emperor Shen Nung’s water. According to legend, the history of Chinese tea seems to originate with an “accident” which led some fragrant leaves to land in the Emperor’s kettle. Intrigued by the perfume that emanated from this combination, he decided to taste a little, and he immediately had the sensation that this hot, aromatic liquid was “investigating” his body. This is why Shen Nung decided to call it ch’a, the Chinese character which has the meaning ‘to control’ or ‘investigate’. So strong was the impact of this story that in 200 B.C. an emperor of the Han dynasty established that when reference was made to tea, it was necessary to use a special written character that illustrated branches of wood, grass and a man between the two, symbolic of the balance that tea brought between humanity and nature.
When the market changed the color of tea
With the passing of time, tea was no longer used only for its medicinal properties, but became, to all effects, a ritual. The plantations multiplied and Chinese tea became one of the major sources of wealth in the country. Up until the mid 17th century, all Chinese tea was green tea. Then, as so often happens in the history of the world, the market decided to change the rules. In order to keep up with the demand for exports, the Chinese cultivators discovered that they could preserve the tealeaves with a special fermentation process. Thus, black tea was born (Chinese red tea as it is called in China), or pu erh tea, which managed to maintain its flavor and aroma longer than the more delicate green teas and was better adapted to long journeys of exportation.
The university of tea
Tea has remained a protagonist in the lives of the Chinese, who are obviously at the top of the world ranking in terms of quantities consumed per capita. In particular it is recognizable as a fundamental element in important moments such as weddings, where by tradition the couple serve tea to their respective families as a sign of prosperity and respect towards their parents.
Furthermore, tea has also become an all-round academic subject at the Lu Yu Tea Art Center, a specialist school, founded in 1980 in Taipei, and which today has many schools including ones Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai. The entrance exam is highly selective, but the lucky students who still today are keen to sign up will be able to learn all the phases of a perfect Tea Ceremony and to be called, “Tea Master” at the end of their course of studies.
Besides being a study course and commitment, tea allows you to have aggregation and fun. The Tenfu Tea Museum in fact is the largest museum in the world dedicated to the history, the preparation and the traditions of this thousands of years-old drink, and can be found in Zhangzhou in the Fujian region, one of the leading producers of tea in the country.
The curious facts about Chinese tea
This infusion hides many more curiosities than we think in the folds of its history. The first of these refers to the great variety, one of the principal characteristics of Chinese tea. But perhaps not everyone knows that actually they all come from the same plant, the Cammelia Sinensis, a woody plant grown mostly in Bangladesh, India and, obviously in China.
But of all the different types of tea, which is the most expensive? Obviously that of the Ming dynasty, one of the most famous Chinese dynasties in history. Da Hong Pao tea (literally «large red dress») has a value of 1300 Euros per gram and is grown in the former Chinese gardens of the dynasty of Ming emperors, in the Wu Yi mountains. This most precious of infusions, according to legend, cured the mother of one of the Ming dynasty emperors from an illness.
If we think about how we drink tea every day, the image that springs to mind is that of tea bags, the little sachets of tea which contain the leaves to be immersed in boiling water. But this method was only introduced in 1800 in America, and for those who are most knowledgeable, this does not respect the best way to prepare it. In fact, the most appropriate method is that of immersing the leaves directly into water, without altering its taste.
In terms of tea production, China is second to none. There are numerous varieties grown, processed and exported but they are easy to classify.
The most important factor in the diversification of the finished product is the methods of processing that the leaves undergo after being harvested. What differentiates the various types of Chinese tea is determined by the level of fermentation. As you may remember, we mentioned how black tea came about due to the need for tea to be preserved for longer periods of time for its journeys to international destinations. And in fact the two extreme categories into which the types of tea divide themselves are those which are “non-oxidized” such as the green teas, and those which are completely oxidized like the black teas. In between are the “semi-fermented” teas which have an intermediate level of oxidation between these two extremes, called Qingcha, and translated with the name of green-blue” or “blue” tea.
The properties of Chinese tea
For every health problem, there is a suitable tea. The lesser fermented teas, such as the green variety, are an excellent natural antibacterial. The substances that constitute it are excellent allies against streptococcus, which helps to keep the mouth and teeth healthy, but the most precious substance in green tea is EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate) a potent antioxidant which helps in the prevention of cardiovascular illnesses.
Black tea, on the other hand, characterized by its higher levels of teine/caffeine, has effects on our brains, helping us to concentrate (without overdoing it). Furthermore, like the green variety, the black variety too contains antioxidants, the flavonoids, that help the body to prevent cell aging, to work against the action of free radicals and maintain a healthy cardio-circulatory system.
Whether it be for its history, for its beneficial properties, or because you would need more than an entire lifetime to taste all of its varieties, tea seems to give us the best reasons to make it part of our daily routine. You could start by tasting one of its more characteristic varieties: the Pu Ehr. What makes it unique, both in the flavor and its appearance, is its aging process: in fact the leaves are exposed to microflora and bacteria that make it ferment, giving it a strong taste but at the same time a low level of caffeine. Exactly like wine or liqueurs, this tea becomes more valuable with the passing of time, just think that some of the most appreciated and expensive teas of this type are more than 30 years old!
In China, or in one of the more-well-stocked bars in your city, try this experience and tell us if you, too, had the sensation that the tea “was investigating” your body, exactly as happened to the emperor Shen Nung 5000 years ago.