History of Tea – Qin Through Han Dynasty

During the mid Zhou Dynasty (1122-256BC) China’s three great religions came
to be: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, each embracing tea for its many
healthful benefits and powers of rejuvenation.  The monks and priests of these
religions declared tea to be the “elixir of life,” and that all people should drink
it. By the beginning of the Qin dynasty (221-206BC) they had helped spread the
word of tea’s many healthful properties far and wide.
It was under the Qin emperor, Qin
Shuhuangdi (r. 221-210BC), with help from
the holy men that the greatest number of
Chinese citizens heard of, and began to
consume tea.  It was also under emperor
Shihuangdi that 
China became a unified
country, bringing together a number of pre-
viously warring states into a single empire,
with a single, centralized government.
It was also under the Qin emperor that a
number of massive building projects were
begun. Under his rule remote sections of
previously built fortification walls were link-
ed together, creating one strong defensive
wall, completing what would one day be-
come the first stage of the Great Wall of
He also brought thousands of workers from throughout China to construct other massive and
elaborate projects, including grand imperial palaces and even his own tomb, complete with
thousands of terra cotta warriors, that are famous today.
The workers were made to live in compulsory labor camps and
during rest periods talked and shared stories of their families
and homeland.  It was here that workers from the western
provinces shared what they knew of this invigorating brew
called tea.  From there word spread across the empire and
everyone who heard of it, wanted to try tea.

Around 53BC during the Han dynasty, a
young man named Wu LiZhen is said to
have planted seven tea trees from tea bush
cuttings, cultivating a tea garden in a re-
mote spot atop Mengding Mountain, in
Sichuan province.  The tea that came from
the garden was said to be so pure and deli-
cate it was pronounced as one of the exclu-
sive Tribute Tea Gardens reserved for the
emperor’s use only.

Given the title of Master of Sweet Dew by
Emperor Xiazong of the

Song Dynasty (960-
1279), today Wu Li Zhen’s plants are referr-
ed to as the “Seven Tea Trees.” The
tea bushes planted by Wu LiZhen are
near a natural spring believed to be
very special, with a sweet scent and ability to run forever.
After his passing, the tea from his garden was called xian
cha, meaning “tea of the immortals.”  In the higher eleva-
tions of Mengding Mountain the early spring tea buds are
covered with soft, fluffy down, and made into a

yellow tea
                                                           known as gan lu (sweet dew), or Mengding Mountain
Huang Ya (or Mengding Mountain Snow Buds) in honor of
Wu LiZhen.  He’s also known as the forefather of tea
cultivation as it was the tea seeds from his first garden that Sichuan’s extensive tea
gardens originated from.
With the arrival of the Han Dynasty the destiny of tea and tea drinking would again face
many changes. The Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) was founded by Liu bang, referred to
posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han.  Spanning nearly four centuries this era was
considered a golden age in Chinese

history, with many of China’s majority ethnic groups
referring to themselves as “Han people” to this day.
It was also a time of economic prosperity, with a significant rise in
the money economy which began in the Zhou dynasty (1050-256BC).

Under Emperor Gaozu the Han empire was divided into areas directly
controlled by the central government, called commanderies.  This
brought together the former western barbarian territories, including
Sichuan and

Yunnan provinces, as well as all the southern provinces
under what was called the Chinese Celestial Empire.
With the entire empire under government control it became easier
for tea to be obtained from the western provinces by the common folk, as well as making
trade easier between the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

Even though tea had become more accessible and popular, its preparation still produced
a bitter drink.  In spite of the unsettling time of the Three Kingdoms Period and Period of
Disunity (220-589AD), tea drinking continued to undergo refinements, as well as the
processing and

brewing of fresh tea leaves changed.Where the tea leaves had been dried and charred before, now they were steamed to make them soft and pliant, then
dried, but no longer charred.  Once dried the leaves were pounded, compressed, and formed into small cakes of tea.
To harden and prevent them from spoiling, the tea cakes were then baked.  Bits of tea
were then scraped off and boiled to prepare tea.

These changes in processing and firing is said to have eliminated the bitterness, chang-
ing tea into a sweet tasting and enjoyable beverage.  A writer during this period named
Zhong Zi is credited with documenting the first description of tea production and tea
drinking.  His records tell of what was likely some of the first flavored teas, as he writes
of onions, ginger, and orange being added together with broken pieces of tea and

The next great changes to tea and tea drinking were ahead, coming during the refined and sophisticated Tang
 (618-907) with tea drinking becoming a more pleasurable and formal pursuit.  Enjoy.