In China, it's almost always a good time for tea. This noble, yet humble beverage has been appreciated by Chinese for thousands of years. Both its taste and the profound culture that have emerged around it make for a fascinating drink.
Chinese people enjoy tea in a similar way to how Westerners appreciate wine. It is served to guests, valued by specialists, can be very expensive or rather cheap and is great when you are thirsty.
"Throughout the years, tea has always been a part of Chinese people's lives," says Shen Jiong, an official with Shanghai Tea Institute.
A China original, tea is appreciated by almost everybody in the nation. Everyone, from emperors to common people, has loved tea. It is listed as one of the seven necessities in daily life along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar.
Shennong, a legendary ruler and cultural hero in China, is always be remembered as the one who discovered the magic herb. In "Shennong Bencao Jing," or "Divine Farmer's Materia Medica," Shennong wrote about tested hundreds of herbs to learn about their effect.
It contributed greatly to the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine. According to one story, he was poisoned by 72 herbs one day, but was saved by tea.
"The legend probably isn't true," Shen says. "But since most legends are developed from certain facts, tea was very likely first discovered as a medicine. With its health benefits and pleasant taste, tea gradually became a popular drink nationwide with various cultures deriving from it."
Though drinking tea can be as simple as picking up the cup, swallowing the beverage and putting the cup down, it can also be appreciated at a much deeper level. This includes drinking tea in an appropriate room accompanied by incense burning and beautiful music. It also involves using a precise technique to bring out the best taste of the leaves, sharing with friends and composing a poem or completing a painting.
"Tea is appreciated in Chinese culture as a symbol of being reserved, one who is indifferent to fame and wealth, and for limiting desires, all of which are valued by Chinese scholars even today," says Shen.
It is believed that tea has been recognized and used by Chinese for more than 4,000 years, yet it was not until the Northern Dynasty (AD 386-518) that the drink started to become popular among scholars. Around this time, the idea of yi cha yang lian, or cultivating honesty through tea, became more mainstream.