Dec 2017 – The Spread of Tea Culture in Asia

SIAM TEABLOID - the blog inside Siam Tea Blog
December 31, 2017

Emergence of tea cultures beyond China's borders

Click map(s) / picture(s) to enlarge


We have already dedicated a blog article to the “Discovery and Development of Tea as a Beverage in China”. When reading that article, it becomes clear that all common cultivation and processing methods of tea have their origin in China. Accordingly, even other large producer countries initially have little to add to the actual tea as a product. And even less countries in Europe or the USA, where tea cultivation has no or a very young tradition.

Therefore, in countries outside of China, the respective national or regional character of the tea drinking habit is defined less by the tea itself but rather by the surrounding “tea culture”. Accordingly, what has developed outside of China is not the tea itself, but rather several individual tea cultures. These, in turn, owe their individual characteristics to the culture of their specific region or society. What remains the same, is the tea….

China's tea culture is the mother of all tea cultures

China’s tea culture is the mother of all tea cultures

1. Producer countries without tea culture

It seems remarkable to us that tea as a beverage plays just a minor role in some of the world’s most important tea producing countries. This means that although these countries cultivate tea, they hardly have a tea culture of their own. Therefore, countries such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia or Kenya are of minor interest, when looking at the evolution of tea cultures.

Here’s an example: Sri Lanka has produced about 340,000 tons of tea in 2014, of which 320,000 tons went into export. This leaves little for consumption in the country itself.

Background of tea cultivation in these countries is the struggle of colonial powers to break the Chinese monopoly on tea cultivation and the associated economic dependence on China. Namely, Britain at some point decided to prefer producing their tea in their own colonies, where cultivation, trade and export would be under their own control. However, diffusion of tea consumption into the general population has been rather limited in some of these countries.

2. Tea cultures within China’s cultural sphere

Pressed tea cake from Ha Giang, a province of Vietnam bordering China

Pressed tea from Ha Giang, Vietnam (bordering Yunnan)

A range of tea cultures have emerged within the immediate cultural sphere of China. While these might draw individual characteristics from their own cultures, the underlying influence of Chinese tea culture remains obvious. Among them are national tea cultures, such as Vietnam, Taiwan or Japan. Then, there are also many regional tea cultures, such as those of China-born mountain tribes in some Southeast Asian countries.

Whether we consider a country or region’s tea culture as “individual” is always a question of where we draw the line. While no one will deny the status of independence to the Japanese tea culture, Vietnam is already a borderline case. So, while granting some degree of independence to every tea culture, we’ll limit our ensuing deliberations to tea cultures with a bold significance of their own.

3. India

Tea cultivation in Assam in the 19th century

Tea cultivation in Assam in the 19th century

For a long time, India was also a country with a lot of tea but little tea culture. Rather, it was the British tea culture, for which tea production in India was assumed in the first place. This is why tea became known in India through the British colonial rulers in the 19th century only. Although the background of the origin of tea cultivation in India is quite similar to that of Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the development of tea culture has taken a different course here.

India has produced about 1,200,000 tons of tea in 2014, of which only about 200,000 tons went into export. This suggests that the consumption of tea as a beverage has been widely adopted by the Indian general population since the introduction of tea by the British at the end of the 18th century.

In addition to drinking black tea as we know it from India, Indians have developed their own “Chai” tradition. Indian Chai tea, or “Masala Chai”, is a blend of just that black tea and a number of characteristic spices. Accordingly, a considerable amount of India tea production flows into that “channel”.

Oriental Chai - classic Chai tea blend - spices on on black tea basis

Indian “Chai” – blend of black tea and spices

4. Taiwan

4.1. Roots of Taiwanese tea culture

Taiwanese tea culture is probably the national tea culture that is most similar to the Chinese. On the one hand, this is because China and Taiwan share much of their cultural roots in general. Therefore, the development of an “independent” national tea culture in Taiwan is a rather recent one. On the other hand, even more recent developments in Taiwanese tea culture are still very much based on that of the Chinese motherland.

"Formosa Tea" vintage postcard

At the beginning of the 19th century, migrants from China first set foot on the island baptized “Formosa” by the Portuguese before. Back then, Taiwan was a wild, almost completely uninhabited place. With them, they brought seeds of Oolong tea cultivars from nearby Fujian, which they planted on Taiwanese soil. Their efforts were to be successful. Not only did the tea plant thrive there, but also new cultivars emerged in adaption to the new environment, shaping Taiwan’s tea culture as we know it today.

Ancient Taiwanese "tea stamp"

4.2. Importance of Oolong tea in Taiwanese tea culture

The focus on Oolong tea cultivars arises logically from the chosen seed. After all, the Chinese province of Fujian is one of the 2 main traditional regions of origin for Oolong teas. Nevertheless, Taiwan – just like Fujian – also produces green and black teas..

Tea areas in Taiwan - Map

4.3. The tea ceremony in Taiwan

Although Taiwan’s tea culture has clear parallels with Chinese tea culture, it does have its own particularities. One example of this is the Taiwanese tea ceremony, basically resembling the Chinese one, but also showing features that are rather characteristic for Taiwan. As in China, the tea ceremony in Taiwan revolves around the ritual preparation of Oolong tea. The wide range of local Oolong tea cultivars contributes to the individual identity of Taiwan’s tea culture.

4.4. Development and export of Taiwanese tea cultivars

Traditional Taiwanese Oolong teas such as Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea and Dong Ding Oolong Tea today enjoy worldwide reputation. But there’s more to Taiwan Oolong teas… Since the beginning of the 20th century, and especially since the 60s and 70s, Taiwan’s government has been pursuing programs to develop new tea cultivars. The purpose of such was the correspondence to specific requirement profiles, in orientation on a desirable taste and / or given environmental conditions. For example, one focus of development were particularly high-yielding, pest-resistant or climate-sensitive tea cultivars. Meanwhile, some of the cultivars resulting from this research have become successful Taiwanese export products.

5. Japan

Japanese Tea Culture - Japanese geishas drinking tea

Japanese geishas drinking tea

5.1. Origin of Japanese tea culture

Japan’s first contact with tea as a beverage dates back to 552 AD. At that time, Buddhist monks brought tea back from study trips to China. In 805 AD, the Buddhist monks Saicho and Kukai were the first to bring tea seeds to Japan. The resulting first tea plants of Japan grew on the island of Kyushu, at the most southern tip of Japan, where tea cultivation still plays a major role today.

However, as the actual initial spark of Japanese tea culture was the second planting attempt by Zen monk Eisei in Fukuoka in 1168 AD. Eisei’s activities were not limited to the planting and processing of tea, but also included the dissemination of the tea drinking habit to a broader audience. His own and subsequent plantings of his students in Uji mark the actual beginning of Japan’s tea culture. Therefore, Uji enjoys a special reputation among Japan’s tea cultivation regions until today. And until today, almost everything in Japanese tea culture revolves around green tea. In Japan, steaming is used to stop the oxidation of tea leaves in Japan. Therefore, Japanese green teas taste fundamentally different from Chinese green teas, which are roasted instead.

Japanese Zen monk Eisei - initiator of tea cultivation in Japan

Jap. Zen monk Eisei

5.2. Tea in Japan

In addition to tea seed, Eisei also brought from China the method of producing powder green tea from Tencha leaves. As was quite common in China at that time, too, he also produced Tencha by removing the stems and leaf veins from the tea leaves. The resulting Tencha was then ground in stone mills to produce the fine green tea powder, which we know as Matcha tea today. Shortly before his death in 1215, Eisei authored the first Japanese book on tea, “Kissa · yōjō · ki” (Japanese: 喫茶 養生 記, translated as: “The key to healthy tea drinking”). With his publication, he once more underlined his key role in the history of Japanese tea culture.

5.3. The Japanese tea ceremony

rad. Japanese Tea Ceremony - strict rules of procedure and conduct

Trad. Japanese Tea Ceremony – strict rules of procedure and conduct

A special role in Japanese tea culture plays the Japanese tea ceremony, Chanoyu. Unlike the Chinese one, it is highly ritualized, with mandatory meticulous rules for every single activity. Plus, an explicit catalog of do’s and don’ts. Altogether, the Japanese tea ceremony reflects many specific elements of traditional Japanese culture.

Although the Japanese tea ceremony cannot deny the Chinese role model as a source of inspiration, there are elementary differences between the two traditions. One peculiarity of the Japanese tea ceremony is that unlike in China, focus is not on whole leaf tea, but on green tea powder or “matcha” tea.

Sen no Rikyu - Famous ancient master of the Japanese tea ceremony

Sen no Rikyu

The most influential person in the development of the Japanese tea ceremony is Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). He spent his youth as a pupil of well-known tea masters of his time. Later, he served as a tea master even in high noble houses of the then Japanese society, up to the imperial court. The philosophical attitude of the hobby potter, writer and poet Sen no Rikyu greatly shows in his famous sentence:

“Even you clean your hands and wipe the dust and dirt from the jars, what’s the point of all the fussing when the heart is not pure?”

6. Tibet and its “Butter Tea”

Routes and branches of the ancient tea road from Yunnan and Sichuan to Lhasa in Tibet

Old Tea Horse Road from Yunnan and Sichuan to Lhasa in Tibet

From around 1000 AD, caravans brought tea from the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan to Lhasa in the Tibetan highlands via the Tea-Horse Road. The tea left his mark in the regions along the way, starting with Tibet. There and in the neighboring highland regions of Nepal and Bhutan, the regional tea culture has developed around the local invention of “butter tea”. This regional specialty is tailored to the region’s climatic conditions and resulting culinary needs. Tibetans drink butter tea already for breakfast, usually not from cups, but from small bowls. Butter tea also accompanies all other meals of the day. At this, it is customary to refill a guest’s cup, as soon as he has taken a sip. This way, one easily gets s to drink ten bowls of tea and more throughout the day.

Read the prequel, part 1 of our article trilogy “Development of Tea as a Beverage – Tea Cultures of the World” at the following link:

The Development of Tea as a Beverage in China

And read the sequel, part 3 of the article trilogy, via click on the following link:

Ancient Land and Sea Trade Routes of Tea from China to Europe, Ruassia and Middle East