The story of tea and tea-drinking begins in China some 5000 years ago. According to Chinese legend, the mythical Emperor Shen Nung (r.2727 to 2698 BC) discovered the health giving properties of tea while tasting plants to test their medicinal powers. Tea, he found ‘gives vigour to the body, contentment to the mind and determination to the purpose’, properties that are today understood to derive from its high levels of antioxidants and caffeine.

The Emperor was so pleased with his discovery that he encouraged new plantations of tea in his land and urged his people to enjoy its refreshing and revitalising effect. By the time that the first book on tea, the Chajing, was written in 780, tea was widely regarded as “an elixir of immortality” and was being cultivated across southern China.

Depiction of a man, woman and child preparing tea in a mural in the tomb of Zhang Gongyou, Xuanhua

Although initially raw tea leaves were simply chewed to release the flavours, the practice of boiling tea leaves in water had become established by the 1st century BC. In the days of China’s Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907), freshly plucked tea leaves were steamed, pounded with a pestle and mortar, compressed into cakes, and dried. To prepare the tea for drinking, the cake was broken into pieces, ground to a pow­der, sifted, and boiled in water in a cauldron. During the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279), tea producers continued to compress the leaves into cakes, but they also manufactured loose-leaf teas. Both were ground to a powder and placed in a tea bowl into which water was added and the mixture whipped with a bamboo brush to create a frothy drink.

Depiction of a man, woman and child preparing tea in a mural in the tomb of Zhang Gongyou, Xuanhua

CCN 459. Song Dynasty ‘hare’s fur’ tea bowl, China, 960-1279

At around this time, kilns began to emerge in various regions of China, each producing different types of ceramic teawares. The ‘hare’s fur’ tea bowl above (CCN 459), so called because its mottled glaze resembles the fur of a hare, was made in the Jian kilns in the province of Fujian approximately 1000 years ago. During this period connoisseurs prided themselves on their ability to prepare whipped tea and tea parties often included tea-whisking contests. As the winner was the person whose froth lasted the longest, a dark coloured tea bowl that best showed the froth was highly desirable. In his Cha lu (Record of Tea) the Song Dynasty scholar Cai Xiang noted that: ‘The froth of the tea is seen most clearly in a tea bowl with black glaze. The tea bowls made at Jian’an have purplish black glaze with hare’s fur pattern. The body is slightly thicker and so retains the heat well’.

Detail from An Elegant Party depicting a small Chinese banquet hosted by the emperor for scholar-officials. Although painted in the Song period, it is most likely a reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art. The painting is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD).

From about 1300 the fashion for powdered tea gave way to the method of brewing loose-leaf tea and this in turn led to the development of the teapot. The first written record of a teapot dates from around the year 1500 but it is likely that other similar shaped vessels, such as wine or water ewers (such as CCN 463 below), were being used to brew tea much earlier. The first ‘official’ teapots are considered to be those made in Yixing in the Jiangsu province of China, located about 120 miles northwest of Shanghai.

CCN 463. Porcelain ewer, China, North Song Dynasty, 960-1127 and CCN 257. Yixing teapot, China, 18th century

The 18th century example above (right, CCN 257) bears all the hallmarks of a classic Yixing teapot. The distinctive purple, red clay, called zisha, creates a pot with a fine texture and thin walls. They are also ideal for brewing tea as they allow the colour, smell and flavour of the tea to absorb into its surface which develops a seasoning after repeated use.

Tea was introduced to Japan in the early Heian period (794-1185) by monks who had travelled to China to study Zen Buddhism. Initially, it was drunk primarily in monasteries and aristocratic circles but from the 12th century onwards it spread to Samurai society and even to the rural communities. Unlike in China where brewing loose leaves became the dominant method of making tea, in Japan powdered or whipped tea, known as matcha, remained the preferred type.

At the Ise-ya Tea-house, Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper, Isoda Koryūsai, ca.1773.

The Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu) evolved gradually from a variety of tea drinking practices that became formalised through the influence of Buddhist thought. During the 16th century, tea masters perfected the meticulous orchestration of preparing and serving tea as a means to mindfulness and enlightenment. The intimate setting of the tea room, which was usually only large enough to accommodate four or five people, was modelled on a hermit’s hut and within this space participants could temporarily withdraw from the outside world. The tea ceremony was also an opportunity to display knowledge, social status and wealth through the use of expensive utensils and tea tasting contests to identify the origins of different types of tea.

Katsushika Hokusai, Teahouse at Koishikawa the morning after a snowfall, c.1830

Porcelain production began in Japan in the early 17th century, several hundred years after it had first been made in China. Prior to this, many early Japanese tea wares were made from stoneware, a high-fired substance which can be made from many different types of clay. They were usually hand moulded and un-glazed utilitarian vessels. However, during the early 17th century, the technology for making and firing ceramic vessels improved, allowing potters more control over their work than ever before. Formed on a potter’s wheel and glazed in white, the tea bowl below (CCN 820) is exemplary of the stoneware pieces that were created with a greater emphasis on aesthetic considerations.

CCN 820. Stoneware tea bowl ‘Akebono’ (Dawn), Japan, Edo period, 17th century.
Tea bowls were often named by their creators, owners or by a tea master. The name of this bowl is ‘Akebono’, meaning dawn. It was at one time owned by Mujin Sosa (1901-1979), the 13th master of Omote Senke School of Tea, who inscribed the accompanying box.

CCN 945. Natsume, Goto Hokkyo Ichijo, Edo Period, 19th century.
These Japanese vessels are known as natsumes because of their resemblance to the jujube fruit (natsume in Japanese). This example is particularly rare because it is made from copper rather than wood.

It was not until the late 18th century that an alternative, and less formal, concept of the tea ceremony was practised. This was senchado which made use of steeped loose-leaf tea rather than powder and drew upon the Chinese literati tradition. Today, the tea ceremony is most often experienced in the form of large scale demonstrations or at group learning sessions but it remains an important aspect of Japanese culture.