The practice of drinking tea has had a long history in China, having originated from there. The Chinese drink tea during many parts of the day such as at meals for good health or simply for pleasure. Although tea originates from China, Chinese tea generally represent tea leaves which have been processed using methods inherited from ancient China. According to popular legend, tea was discovered by Chinese Emperor Shennong in 2737 BCE when a leaf from a Camellia sinensis tree fell into water the emperor was boiling. Tea is deeply woven into the history and culture of China. The beverage is considered one of the seven necessities of Chinese life, along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar..
Some writers classify tea into four categories, white, green, oolong and black. Others add categories for red, scented and compressed teas. All of these come from varieties of the Camellia sinensis plant. Chinese flower teas (花茶), while popular, are not a true teas. Most Chinese teas are consumed in China and are not exported, except to Chinese-speaking communities in other countries. Green tea is the most popular type of tea used in China.
Within these main categories of tea are vast varieties of individual beverages. Some researchers have counted more than 700. Others put the number at more than 1,000. Some of the variations are due to different strains of the Camilla plant. The popular Tie Guan Yin 鐵觀音, for example, is traced back to a single plant discovered in Anxi 安溪 in Fujian Province (福建省). Other teas draw some of their characteristics from local growing conditions. However, the largest factor in the wide variations comes from differences in tea processing after the tea leaves are harvested. White and green teas are heat treated (shāqīng (殺青)) soon after picking to prevent oxidization, often called fermentation, caused by natural enzymes in the leaves. Oolong teas are partially oxidized. Black and red teas are fully oxidized. Other differences come from variations in the processing steps.
Tea leaf selection
The highest grades of white tea, yellow tea and green tea are made from tender tea shoots picked early Spring. These young tea shoots may consist of a single terminal bud, a bud with an adjacent leaf or a bud with two adjacent slightly unfurled leaves. It is generally required that the leaves are equal in length or shorter than the buds.
The more oxidised tea such as red tea or oolong tea (烏龍茶) are made from more mature leaves. The Anxi Tieguanyin (鐵觀音), for example, is made from one bud with two to four leaves.
Not all high grade green tea is made from tender tea shoots. The highly regarded green tea Liu An Gua Pian is made from more matured leaves.
Traditionally these tender tea shoots are picked before 5 April, or Qing Ming Jie. The standard practice is to start picking when 5% of the garden is ready, or when the tea buds reach certain size. In some tea gardens, tea shoots are picked daily, or every 2 days.
Chinese tea may be classified into five categories according to the different methods by which it is processed.
1) Green tea: Green tea is the variety which keeps the original colour of the tea leaves without fermentation during processing. This category consists mainly of Longjing tea of Zhejiang Province, Maofeng of Huangshan Mountain in Anhui Province and Biluochun produced in Jiangsu.
2) Black tea: Black tea, known as “red tea” (hong cha) in China, is the category which is fermented before baking; it is a later variety developed on the basis of the green tea. The best brands of black tea are Qihong of Anhui , Dianhong of Yunnan, Suhong of Jiangsu, Chuanhong of Sichuan and Huhong of Hunan.
3) Wulong tea: This represents a variety half way between the green and the black teas, being made after partial fermentation. It is a specialty from the provinces on China’s southeast coast: Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan.
4) Compressed tea: This is the kind of tea which is compressed and hardened into a certain shape. It is good for transport and storage and is mainly supplied to the ethnic minorities living in the border areas of the country. As compressed tea is black in colour in its commercial form, so it is also known in China as “black tea”. Most of the compressed tea is in the form of bricks; it is, therefore, generally called “brick tea”, though it is sometimes also in the form of cakes and bowls. It is mainly produced in Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
5) Scented tea: This kind of tea is made by mixing fragrant flowers in the tea leaves in the course of processing. The flowers commonly used for this purpose are jasmine and magnolia among others. Jasmine tea is a well-known favourite with the northerners of China and with a growing number of foreigners.
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