Tea Drinking in the Palace
Tea has been the chief drink in China since ancient times, and tea drinking has been a custom for almost as long. Tea was popular in the Tang Dynasty. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties prominent officials and eminent people used tea drinking as an occasion to foster friendships and discuss poetry. Tea drinking was an important part of palace life.

The Forbidden City was the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The tea drunk by the Royal Family was a tribute from the tea – growing provinces and was stored in the palace for use in all the halls. Its excellence and quality were beyond description. The numerous tea parties held in the palace related directly to civil affairs, education, and court rites.

Most tea parties in the Forbidden City were held in Wenhua Hall (the Hall of Literary Glory), Chonghua Palace (the Hall of Double Glory) or Qianqing Palace (the Hall of Heavenly Purity).

Upon entering the Meridian Gate of the Imperial Palace, one came to the Gate of Supreme Harmony. East of the Gate of Supreme Harmony was an external courtyard that contained three buildings: The main hall, called the Hall of Literary Glory, was in front, the Hall of Main Respect was in the middle, and the Imperial Library was in the back. It was in these buildings that the Qing Dynasty emperors honored Confucius, listened to lectures with their ministers, and kept the Four Collections of Books. They were the cultural center of the Forbidden City, and tea was served whenever the emperors attended lectures.

As early as the Ming Dynasty, it became an important rite for tea to be served in the Hall of Literary Glory when the emperors listened to lectures. The Ming Dynasty emperors and their ministers attended lectures in this hall three times a month. A lecturer spoke first about literature, then about classics, and last about history. After the lecture, the emperor gave tea to the lecturer and his ministers. Tea was served so the lecturer could moisten his throat, but more importantly, as a symbol to encourage education.

The system of lecturing the emperors in the Hall of Literary Glory continued during the Qing Dynasty, but the ceremony became even grander. Emperor Qianlong attended 49 grand lectures, each including a spectacular ceremony. When the emperor arrived, all officials saluted him. The lecture began with four officials of the Manchu and Han nationalities talking on the Four Books (the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects, and the Book of Mencius). Then the emperor expounded on the books and all officials had to listen on their knees. This was followed by a lecture in the same way on the Five Classics (the Book of Changes, the Book of Songs, the Book of history, the Book of Rites, and the Annals of the Spring and Autumn.)

After the lectures, the emperor asked those present to sit and have tea. Unlike a picnic or a chat in a tea house, tea was served in a solemn atmosphere not only in the palace, but also in the Confucius Temple and in the Imperial Academy.

The emperor also gave tea to officials when he made inspections. This showed that the tea offered by the emperor, apart from his wine and gift giving, was a symbol to promote Confucian doctrine and ethics, and to encourage education.

The emperors also gave a grand “tea banquet” in Chonghua Palace (the Hall of Double Glory) in the Forbidden City almost every year during the Qing Dynasty. Chonghua Palace was located in a compound north of the six Western Palaces.

Tea parties were first described in the Tang Dynasty. Large tea parties were also held in the palace during the Song Dynasty, with the emperor serving the tea. Cai Jing (1047 - 1126), a prime minister of the Song Dynasty, described how the emperor served tea to him and the prices in the Palace of Yanfu. He said the emperor ordered his personal attendant to take the tea sets, then personally poured boiling water into the cups of his guests. The guests all kowtowed in gratitude.

Zhao Ji, Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty, was a tea connoisseur. He poured boiling water into his guests’ cups to show his tea expertise and to share in the labor. Although he was a poor administer of national affairs, his personal tea service was a cultured art with a positive message. After that, being served tea by an emperor became a high courtesy; however, few emperors were experts in tea; therefore, few of them personally served tea.

Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong was a tea lover and a great tea drinker. It is said that he wanted to retire from his throne in his late years, and some ministers asked: “How can a nation be without an emperor even for a single day?” Qianlong replied with a smile, “ How can the emperor be without tea for a single day?” Chonghua Palace was Qianlong’s former residence before he ascended to the throne, and was called the palace after he became emperor.

Besides being an avid tea drinker, Qianlong also tried to write poems like a refined, elegant, sophisticated poet. He started giving tea parties it the palace, following the example of literati in ancient times. This was the origin of the annual tea dinner held in the Qing Palace. It was held on a lucky day chosen between the 2nd and 10th days of the first lunar month. Its purpose was to write poems while drinking tea. Initially, the number of people present was not fixed. They were mostly court officials who specialized in literature. Later, the emperor selected a current affairs topic about which the participants wrote poems. Only the long poems were recited.

Finally, it was decided the poems should have 72 rhymes, and only 18 people were invited to attend the tea party. They were divided into eight rows and each person wrote four lines. Qianlong personally chose the topic and made it known beforehand, but he only gave the beginning rhymes when the party began in order to keep the officials on their toes.

When the poems were finished, Qianlong immediately read them one after another, then bestowed cups of tea and awarded prizes. Those who received awards carried the prizes out of the palace themselves to display their glory. Inviting 18 people to attend the tea party followed the example set by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, who selected 18 literati from all over the nation to live and work in the Hall of Literature. Additional people outside the palace also composed verses, but they were not admitted to the party.

Following Qianlong, succeeding emperors also gave tea parties in Chonghua Palace, but none matched those given by Qianlong. Most of the poems composed at these tea parties were words of praise and flattery. Moreover, in the depths of the heavily guarded palace and in the presence of the emperor, it was impossible for the literati to mix tea with poetry, man with nature, or their inner world with an objective frame of mind. Nevertheless, the relationship between tea and cultural circles was strengthened through the tea parties, and helped link tea with art.

The biggest tea party ever held during the Qing Dynasty was held in the Palace of Heavenly purity and was attended by more than 1, 000 people. The Ming Dynasty emperors had used the Palace of Heavenly Purity as sleeping quarters, but this changed during the Qing Dynasty. The Qing emperors used it to handle national affairs, summon ministers and officials, meet common people, hold palace ceremonies, receive foreign envoys, read books and memorials, and give comment and instructions.

During their reigns, Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong (1662 - 1795) held large banquets for more than 1,000 people in the People in the Palace of Heavenly Purity. These banquets had the largest attendance with the highest ranking officials in the history of tea culture.

The 52nd year of Kangxi’s Reign (1713) coincided with his 60th birthday. Local officials throughout the country encouraged their local elders to travel to the capital city to congratulate Kangxi on his birthday. Emperor Kangxi, therefore, decided to give a “1,000 Elders’ Banquet.” He gave the banquet in the Garden of Flourishing Spring rather than in the palace, and more than 1, 800 people attended it.

An important part of the banquet was tea drinking. The banquet began with everyone taking his seat for tea. The band played royal music, and the princes, dukes, and ministers saluted when the officials of the Imperial Kitchen presented cups of black tea with milk to the emperor and his crown prince. After the emperor finished, he asked the princes, dukes, and ministers to drink together. They received the tea sets afterward, and they all kowtowed in gratitude when they received the cups. After the protocol was finished, they began to eat. Ever since the Tang Dynasty there has been a saying in China that tea is above wine. This saying was embodied in the “1,000 Elders’ Banquet.”

Eight years later, Emperor Kangxi gave a second “1,000 Elders’ banquet” in and outside the Palace of Heavenly Purity in the imperial Palace. More than 1,000 people 65 or older attended. Qianlong held two other banquets of this kind during his reign. In the first month of the 50th year of his reign, Qianlong gave a banquet in the Palace of Heavenly Purity for more than 3,000 elders. The oldest was 104 years. In order to attend the banquet, many people came to Beijing days ahead of time.

In the 61st year of his reign, Qianlong gave another large banquet for more than 3,000 people in the Hall of Imperial Models. Another 5,000 people were invited but did not have sears. Ministers of the first rank were inside the hall. Officials of the second rank and foreign envoys were under the eaves. Officials of the third rank were on the steps and passage to the throne. Officials of the fourth and fifth rank and Mongolian officials were below and around the steps, and all others were outside the Gate of Peace and Longevity.

There were 800 tables arranged on two sides – east and west – six rows on each side. The shortest row had 22 tables; the longest had 100. There were too many people to receive the emperor’s tea service; so tea kitchen officials presented tea to the emperor on behalf of all those present. Those who drank tea received a tea set while those who drank wine received a wine set. Only the Royal Family could afford to host such a tea party, and this party was probably a record in Chinese and world history.

The Qing Palace blended tea drinking with political and cultural activities in five ways:

1 Tea drinking ceremonies were used to honor Confucius, inspect the Imperial Academy, and listen to lectures. The ceremonies were used to link tea with Confucianism, distinguish the emperor from the ministers, and preach ethics, ideology and education.

2 Tea drinking was combined with poetry and cultural affairs meetings to promote culture. As an example, Emperor Qianlong combined tea drinking with writing poetry, compiling the Four Collections of Books, and inspecting the Imperial Academy.

3 Tea drinking was used at birthday celebrations, national festivities, and congratulatory occasions. In the Chinese tea culture, literati, Taoists, and Buddhists stressed poverty, honesty, and retreat from public life while the imperial court and the common people stressed joy, gaiety, and festivity. Tea parties held in the Qing Palace pushed the latter three to new heights.

4 The tea served at the “1,000 Elders’ Banquets” in the Qing Dynasty was black tea with milk. The Royal Family drank black tea with milk in their everyday life. “The number of milk cows supplying milk to the Royal Family was fixed. The milk was delivered to the director of the Tea Kitchen. The tea kitchen made milk cakes during the spring and autumn seasons.” This passage shows that residents of the Qing Palace drank both clear tea and milk tea.

Originally, people in the northern parts of China drank milk tea, and the drinking of milk tea in the Qing Palace was at first intended to maintain health. However, at the “1,000 Elders’ Banquet”, the tea served by the emperor added the color of the northern nationalities to the tea culture. It shows that China’s tea culture was synchronized with the blending of China’s different nationalities. All of China’s nationalities recognized tea as a cultural concept; it was not exclusive to the Han nationality.

5 Tea culture activities in the Qing Palace flourished during Qianlong’s reign, the greatest tea lover of all the emperors. Between the 8th and 60th years of his reign, Qianlong gave tea banquets every year for 48 years, except for the funeral service for the empress dowager. During Qianlong’s reign, the economy was prosperous, the cultures of the Manchus and the Hans were well blended, and culture was flourishing. This coincided with the law of development of China’s tea culture, which is, the tea culture flourished under three conditions: economic prosperity, cultural growth, and peace. The frequent tea drinking activities in Qianlong’s reign were proof of this law.

Tea and Its Healthy Effects

Tea has been drunk in China for five thousand years. Scholars credit the discovery of sea leaves and their medicinal value to Shenlong in the remote ages. The Materia Medica of Shenlong is the earliest book in China to mention tea. It says: “Sehnlong tasted various herbal plants and was poisoned by 72 herbs one day, but their poison was neutralized after he found tea.”

There are two different renditions of this passage: one is that he tasted all kinds of herbal plants to learn their curative properties so he could cure the ills of the common people. One day he was boiling water when a twig of fresh tea leaves fell in to the water. He found the water bitter, sweet, fragrant, and tasty. Afterward, people began using tea as a drink.

Another legend says that when Shenlong was tasting herbal plants to learn their curative effects, he was poisoned while tasting a green plant called gunshanzhu and died under the tree. At the right moment, water from the tea shrubs flowed into his mouth and rescued him. This was how tea leaves were found to have a detoxifying effect.

Chaye (tea leaf) was called ming in ancient times. Shenlong’s discovery of tea leaves revealed that tea could cure illness. Over the millennia, tea has been found to contain hundreds of chemicals and is an effective medicine for preventing and curing illness. The evolution from using tea as a sacrifice to using it as a cure for illness and a drink shows we should not underestimate its value.

Ancient Chinese medical books thoroughly discuss tea’s medicinal value. The earliest description is found in the Newly Revised material Medica of the Tang Dynasty: “Ming is a bitter tea. Ming tastes sweet, bitter, slightly cold, and is nonpoisonous. It is effective in curing fistula and boils, and is a diuretic. It eases expectoration, reduces internal heat, quenches thirst, and makes people alert. It is picked in spring. A bitter tea, it helps control the upward, perverted flow of vital energy, and improves digestion. ”

This does not contradict the fact that the medicinal use of tea originated in the Shenlong period. Following the continual discovery of knowledge about its properties and a genuine study of its medicinal use, tea was used widely as a drug during the Tang Dynasty. Lu Yu, a scholar of the Tang Dynasty, was among the first to research tea. He has been called the God of Tea since the Song Dynasty.

In his famous writing, The Book of Tea, Lu Yu concluded: “The use of tea as a drink started with Shenlong.” He also pointed out: “The more you drink tea, the more vigorous and refreshed you are.” There are many records and prescriptions for the medicinal use of tea, His book was the world’s first book on tea, and described in detail tea’s nature, qualities, growing areas, picking, processing, brewing methods, and utensils. Later, people worshipped Lu Yu as the Tea Sage

In recent years, tea specialists have discovered that tea contains many chemicals. These can be divided into two categories: Nutrients needed by the human body and nonessential elements that improve the health in some pathological conditions. The latter are referred to as the elements with medicinal effect. Descriptions of some of these chemicals follow:

1 Alkaloids. Tea contains purines, among which are caffeine and theophyllinge. The amount of caffeine varies greatly with the variety of tea. Caffeine dissolves in water. If someone drinks five to six cups of tea a day, about 0.3 grams of caffeine is absorbed. This amount is significant, but caffeine is not accumulated in the human body; it is excreted.

Caffeine and theophylline have similar pharmacological effects; they both stimulate the central nerve system. Caffeine can improve thinking, increase energy, and decrease sleepiness. Stimulation of the spinal cord helps strengthen the muscles and reduce fatigue. The caffeine in tea does not result in secondary depression or bad side effects.

Theophylline works as a muscle relaxant and vasodilator, whereas caffeine is primarily a stimulant and diuretic.

Diuresis. Together, caffeine and theophylline are believed to produce diuresis. They dilate blood vessels in the kidneys so the kidneys excrete unnecessary water, and they stimulate the bladder to increase urine excretion. For these reasons, tea drinking has some effect in curing cardiac edema and pre – menstrual syndrome.

Stimulation of the cardiac muscles. Animal tests have found that tea stimulates the heart and strengthens the systole of the left ventricle, but how the tea is processed affects this ability. Unfermented green tea has the strongest effect, semi – fermented tea is less strong, and fermented black tea is the weakest.

Dilation of blood vessels. Longjing tea used in tests on a rabbit was found to lower serum cholesterol and reduce arteriosclerosis.

Digestion and breathing. Caffeine stimulates the secretion of hydrochloric acid in the gastric juice. Therefore, drinking tea helps improve digestion.

Respiration. Caffeine relaxes the smooth muscle of the bronchus. Therefore, drinking tea helps control asthma.

Hormones. It is reported that theophylline can increase female hormones.

2 Polyphenols. Tea polyphenol is also called tannin. The pharmacological effects of polyphenols are:

Amines. Tannin stimulates the adrenal gland thereby increasing energy. It helps strengthen blood capillaries and blood vessels.

Anti – inflamatories. Tea helps improve the metabolism of vitamin C and the resistance and anti – inflammatory properties of blood capillaries. Foods high in vitamin C, together with green tea, have been found to increase the body’s ability to resist infection. (Black tea lacks this effect.)

The increased ability to resist infection is caused by the combined effect of tea and vitamin C. Tea protects vitamin C from being oxidized. Tea increases the accumulation of vitamin C in the liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, brain and blood, and thereby reduces the amount of vitamin C excreted in the urine.

Antibiotic effect. Green tea inhibits the growth of salmonella typhi, dysentery bacilli, aureus staphylococcus, and cholera vibrio. Experiments in China have shown that tea inhibits and skills dysentery bacilli.

3 Ester polysaccharide. This is an important component in the cell walls of the tea leaves. Animal tests have shown that tea ester polysaccharides help prevent radioactive injuries, improve blood – building functions, and protect the blood.

4 Proteins and amino acids. Tea leaves contain both amino acids and proteins. The protein contained in black tea is 15-30% of its dry weight, but less than 2% dissolves in water. Cow’s milk added to tea reduces the astringency of tea, but does not affect the absorption of protein.

Black tea contains few amino acids, but green tea contains 16 to 24 amino acids, including cystine (a major metabolic sulfur source), serine, and theophyllamine acid. Of these three amino acids, theophyllamine acid is unique to tea, and accounts for 50% of the total amino acids in tea. Almost all amino acids needed by the human body are found in tea.

5 Sugar. Tea is low in calories. The sugar obtained from tea made in boiling water is only 4 –5% of the solubles. However, drinking tea increases the body’s absorption of sugar. If milk and sugar are added to tea, and someone drinks six cups a day, the calories obtained from tea will equal 7 –10% of an adult’s daily caloric requirements.

6 Fats. Fats account for about 2 –3% of the weight of processed black tea.

7 Vitamins. Tea contains vitamins A,B,C,E, and K, all of which are essential to the human body. Generally, green tea contains more vitamins than black tea. Black tea and green tea contain roughly the same B vitamins, but their composition and content vary by region due to different cultivating and processing conditions.

8 Minerals. Tea contains many minerals. Fresh tea leaves and black tea contain about 4 –9% minerals, most of which are needed by the human body. The quantity of minerals contained in tea grown in different parts of the world differs. Russian scholars report that tea does not contain much iron and copper, so tea has limited effectiveness in curing anemia. Tea contains little sodium and so is a good drink for those suffering from hypertension. Tea shrubs are apt to accumulate manganese, aluminum, fluorine, and some rare elements.

9 Aromatic compounds. Tea leaves contain aromatic matters. These volatile matters account for 0.6% of the dry weight of the tea leaves. Using tea liquid to rinse the mouth helps remove grease, strengthen the teeth, and prevent bad breath.

10 Selenium. Selenium was recognized in 1973 as “one of the 14 trace elements indispensable to human life.” The amount of selenium in tea varies by region; in some places it is very high. As selenium is a strong antioxidant and protects the cell membranes, it can help prevent cancer and other diseases, and it has no side effects. It “is effective in preventing Keshan disease, which is caused by a selenium deficiency, and Kaschin – Beck disease.”

Some people argue that the selenium extraction rate from tea is as low as 20% to 40% and, therefore, is insufficient to make up for a selenium deficiency. However, it is believed that the extraction rate can be raised. Tea bags and instant tea raise the extraction rate to 60% to 80%. Moreover, eating food with tea also helps raise the extraction rate.

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