Sichuan, a land of enchantment, has been adorned with the mystical leaves of tea for centuries. With a rich history in tea cultivation and consumption, Sichuan stands as one of the birthplaces of tea culture. Today, it remains a prominent province in the tea industry. In November 2022, the “Traditional Chinese Tea Production Techniques and Related Customs” was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. Sichuan’s Nanlubian tea-making techniques and Mingshan tea production were among the representative elements listed.
To further explore and promote the inheritance and development of Sichuan tea culture, Sichuan Daily’s channels, including Sichuan Observations, Tianfu Weekend, and Renjing Weekly, present a series of articles titled “Exploring Sichuan Tea – Appreciating Sichuan Tea Culture.” These articles delve into the historical roots of Sichuan tea, uncover the tea culture, explore tea-related heritage sites, and outline the geographical map of Sichuan tea. Through various perspectives, we invite readers to immerse themselves in the lingering aroma of tea, bridging the gap between history and reality, and fostering the creative transformation and innovative development of Sichuan tea culture.
Section 1: The Discovery of Tea in Ancient Sichuan
Tea drinking is a tradition that has been passed down for thousands of years in China. The earliest records of tea consumption can be traced back to the pre-Qin period in the region of Ba and Shu, which is present-day Sichuan. Historian Su Donglai suggests that most scholars believe that tea was first discovered and utilized in Sichuan, making it the birthplace of tea in China and even the world.
Over 3,000 years ago, the ancient people of Ba and Shu discovered that the leaves of wild tea trees were edible. Historical records mention the presence of tea in the Ba region during the Zhou Dynasty. The ancient text “Hua Yang Guo Zhi” states that in addition to mulberry, silk, and hemp, tea was among the tributes sent from Ba to the Zhou royal court. The text also describes the “fragrant foliage and aromatic tea” found in the region. Although the purpose of tea at that time, whether for drinking or medicinal use, is not explicitly mentioned, it can be inferred from later tea-drinking customs in Sichuan that the ancient Ba people had already discovered the brewing potential of tea leaves.
Other historical records also mention tea in relation to Sichuan. The works of Sima Xiangru, a poet from the Western Han Dynasty, mention tea in the Shu region. The “Fang Yan” by Yang Xiong states that the people of southwestern Shu referred to tea as “she,” indicating that tea production was present in the Shu region. The “Hua Yang Guo Zhi” provides further details about the excellent tea produced in Shifang in Guanghan County during the Han Dynasty. Tea was also mentioned in relation to other areas in Sichuan, such as the Pingyi County on the Sichuan-Yunnan-Guizhou border, where tea and honey were produced. These records provide evidence of tea cultivation and trading in Sichuan throughout history.
Section 2: The Market for Tea in Ancient Sichuan
More than 3,000 years ago, tea was a luxury enjoyed only by royalty and nobility. However, as tea cultivation became more widespread, the tea-drinking culture began to spread among the middle class and even the general public. Historical records indicate that tea trading already existed in Sichuan during the Western Han Dynasty. Wang Bao, a literary figure from Sichuan, documented this in his work “Tong Yue” (“The Servant’s Contract”). In this satirical text, Wang Bao mentions the purchase of tea in the market of Wuyang, which indicates the existence of a tea trading market in Sichuan during that time.
Wuyang, now known as Pengshan in Meishan City, was a renowned tea-producing area in ancient times. Historical texts such as “Hua Yang Guo Zhi” mention that “Wuyang produces famous tea.” The route Wang Bao took from his hometown of Zizhong to Yulei Mountain passed through Wuyang, suggesting that tea trading might have been flourishing in Wuyang due to its reputation for producing tea. Interestingly, this is the first tea trading market mentioned in ancient literature.
The existence of tea trading in ancient Sichuan reveals the growing demand for tea and the emergence of a market economy. Wang Bao’s “Tong Yue” provides valuable insights into the tea culture and tea market during the Western Han Dynasty in Sichuan.
Section 3: The Renowned Mengding Tea
In the long history of tea in China, the Mengding Mountain tea in Sichuan has gained remarkable recognition. In 2004, during the 8th International Symposium on Tea Culture, representatives from 25 tea-producing countries worldwide jointly issued the “Mengding Mountain Declaration on World Tea Culture,” acknowledging Mengding Mountain as the birthplace of world tea culture and civilization. This is because Mengding Mountain is the earliest documented artificial tea cultivation site in China. Scholars have long considered the geographic origin of the tea culture in Ba and Shu, the ancient civilizations of Sichuan.
Located in the scenic area of Meishan City, Mengding Mountain has five peaks resembling lotus flowers. The Imperial Tea Garden, designated as a national key cultural heritage site, is nestled on the “heart of the lotus.” The garden is surrounded by stone railings, adorned with a twin stone gate at the front, and features an inscription that reads, “The water of the Yangtze River and the tea on the top of Mengshan.” Legend has it that over 2,000 years ago during the Western Han Dynasty, the “Father of Tea” Wu Lizhen planted seven tea trees here, marking the beginning of artificial tea cultivation in China. Many ancient texts mention Wu Lizhen’s tea cultivation on Mengding Mountain, including references by Ming Dynasty scholar Yang Shen. The accounts describe the tea’s unique characteristics, such as its fine and long leaves, sweet and clear taste, and yellowish-green color, with a lingering aroma that fills the cup.
Mengding Mountain tea holds a prominent place in the history of Chinese tea. Renowned poet Bai Juyi praised it in his poem “Qin Cha,” stating, “In the music of the zither, only the rushing water knows; in the tea, the old stories belong to Meng Mountain.” The “Tea Classic” by Lu Yu, a tea sage of the Tang Dynasty, ranks Mengding tea as the first and Guzhu tea as the second among famous teas in the world. Numerous ancient literary works and historical records have praised Mengding Mountain tea, emphasizing its exquisite taste and association with a sense of transcendence.
The success of Mengding Mountain as a prominent tea-producing region can be attributed to its unique geographical environment. Mengding Mountain falls within a subtropical zone with an average annual temperature between 15°C and 18°C, an annual precipitation of 1000mm to 1600mm, and a relative humidity of 70% to 80%. These conditions provide an ideal climate for tea cultivation. Over time, with continuous cultivation and improvement of tea varieties, Mengding Mountain tea became a tribute tea as early as the Tang Dynasty. The “Yuanno Junxian Tuzhi” records, “Meng Mountain is ten miles south of the county and offers tea as a tribute every year, making it the best tea in Shu.” Verified historical records indicate that Mengding Mountain tea held a prestigious position as a tribute tea from the Tang and Song Dynasties to the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In 2022, the Palace Museum discovered that among 50 types of tribute tea from 11 provinces, eight types originated from Mengding Mountain in Sichuan.
Even today, Mengding Mountain tea remains a shining star among the various tea varieties in Sichuan. It has been included in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list for the traditional Chinese tea production techniques, along with Nanlubian tea and its manufacturing methods. Generation after generation, the inheritors of tea-making traditions continue to use their diligence and wisdom to produce the captivating aroma of Mengding Mountain tea.
Sichuan’s tea culture has a history spanning over 3,000 years, with its roots deeply embedded in the region’s heritage. From the early discovery of wild tea trees by the ancient people of Ba and Shu to the establishment of tea trading markets during the Western Han Dynasty, Sichuan has played a significant role in the development of tea culture in China. The renowned Mengding Mountain tea stands as a testament to the excellence and enduring legacy of Sichuan’s tea industry.
Join us on this journey of exploration and appreciation as we trace the origins of Sichuan tea, immerse ourselves in its rich cultural heritage, and savor the aromatic essence that has captivated tea enthusiasts for centuries.