A simple fact: without China, we wouldn't have tea. As befits the world's oldest tea culture, there are many origin myths relating to tea- the most popular involving an emperor drinking boiled water when a few tea leaves blew into his cup, changing the colour and taste of the water. Hey presto, tea was discovered. Another story tells how the same emperor decided to try all plants to see if they were poisonous or not; tea, he decided, was not. (In yet another version of the story, tea is used as an antidote to all the poisonous plants he was eating.)
In reality, it is believed that the Chinese have been drinking tea for millennia, with the earliest evidence dating back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). It has an important place in both social and medicinal culture within China- it became apparent pretty early on that tea could both soothe you and perk you up. Throughout its history, tea has largely been used as a signifier of high social status, although this is no longer the case and tea has become an important part of everyday life in China.
China has grown its own tea for generations and it is considered an important crop. Traditionally, the tea was pressed into 'cakes', although from the 14th century this was gradually been replaced with loose leaf styles of tea, with green tea being the most popular. Keemun black tea is also widely consumed.
Tea has an important social role; it is customary for a guest to be offered tea as soon as they enter the house. Tea may be brewed in Yixing teapots, small teapots made of clay, and there are a range of tea utensils that may be used, depending on where you are in China. It is also common to thank the person serving the tea by tapping two fingers (index and middle), although in a more formal setting such as a tea ceremony, saying thank you or nodding of the head is more appropriate.
Although Japan is famous for its tea ceremonies, the ceremony itself began in China around 1200 years ago. Now mostly confined to traditional tea houses, it is also an important part of Chinese weddings, in which the bride and groom will perform the ceremony to show gratitude and respect for their new families.
Like China itself, the country's tea culture is ancient, fascinating and complex. With many teas to choose from, there is so much to discover.