Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tea in Han Dynasty

Emperor Gaozu of Han Dynasty
China is today’s largest producer of tea. Tea is one of most drank beverages and leveled equally with coffee. In China, a legend about the origins of tea is traced to one of its legendary Emperor Shennong. Tea, according to the legend, was a result of a coincidental falling of a dried camellia leaf to the boiling water of the Emperor. However, tea would only be exclusively to the Emperor until the age of the Han Dynasty which rule China from 206 BCE to 220 BCE. 

The Han Dynasty began to rise in power after the death of the first Emperor of China. In 210 BCE, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi died, probably due to his mercury poison, and a bloody civil war erupted. Eventually, the leader of the Han, Liu Bang took control most of the empire and in 206 BCE he captured the Qin capital of Xianyang. He then became the emperor and took the reign name of Gaozu. During his reign and his successors, China saw huge progress in the economy, in the military, in the sciences, and in the culture and education.

It was during this period that tea began to expand its reaches. Before the time of the Han Dynasty, tea was just an exclusive drink for the emperor. But, during the Han Dynasty it started to spread to the other upper echelons of society. It was becoming a drink for the nobility, for the rich and fabulous.  So important tea became in Han society that most of the aristocrats buried their favorite tea with them as part of the Chinese tradition that what buried with you comes with you to the afterlife.

It was also during the Han Dynasty that tea bricks. Tea bricks were made by drying the leaves and compressing them in a box so as to a brick. This allowed the tea to be easily measurable as well as easy to carry and transport.

Tea also expanded its reaches to scholars. Tea became popular to scholars because of their need to calm themselves after the pressures of study and the burden of memorizing or analyzing. Tea was perfect also to make the scholars more focus on their work. Tea’s role in a scholar’s life became immortalized in Wang Bao’s A Contract with a Servant written in 59 BCE. In the story, a servant named Bian Liao was upset by the good treatment of her lady, Yang Hui, to a scholar friend of his deceased master, Wang Ziyuan. He then went to the grave of his master and husband of Yang Hui and ranted about the good treatment of Yang Hui to Wang Ziyuan. Upon learning, Wang Ziyuan and Yang Hui offered Bian Liao to be the srvant of the former in exchange of a salary of 15,000 coins and do the following in a list of chores. In the list of chores, all it involved tea, from brewing to cleaning of the wares.

When Buddhism arrived in China, tea became popular to the monks of the religion. They were attracted by the harmonious scent as well as its calming and relaxing properties. With the expansion of the religion in China, tea also expanded with it.

Although Tea became widely drank by the scholars, monks, and nobility, tea, nevertheless, still reached the majority of the Chinese. The task of making tea accessible to the population would land to the succeeding dynasties.

Reid, D. The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea. London: Singing Dragon, 2012. 

Wang, L. Tea and Chinese Culture. California: Long River Press, 2005. 

“The History of Tea.” House of Tea. Accessed March 18, 2014. http://www.houseoftea.ie/the-history-of-tea

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