Tea, Life & Health – Through Chinese Eyes
In the Orient, health and enjoyment are viewed as inseparable, entwined by the fact that to enjoy life you need to be healthy. The Chinese have been pondering and writing about the link between life, pleasure and health for thousands of years.
Our aim in this article is to give you an insight into the history, development and uses of tea as a Chinese herb and its relationship to health from a Chinese perspective. We will explore how Asian people have used tea for thousands of years to promote internal harmony and thus greater health and wellbeing.
Historically, culturally and therapeutically, the tea plant is one of the most fascinating of all medicinal herbs. It is the most widely consumed herb in the world, for the most part in the form of green and black tea, though other types and herbal blends are also popular. Beginning as a medicine, tea has developed into a cultural beverage and, one could even say, a lifestyle.
You could say the three great philosophies of China, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism all meet in the teacup.
Tea culture originated in ancient China alongside the development of Taoism. The Taoist ideas of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements are ways of perceiving our inseparable connectedness with nature. In the legend of Lao Tzu, the most famous Taoist, it is believed that he sipped ‘a cup of the golden elixir’ before riding off on his ox, disenchanted by the laws and moral codes of society. For the Taoists, right and wrong, like everything in life, were but relative terms.
Another Chinese tea legend relates how, in 2737 BCE, the emperor of the time, Shen Nong, learnt of the medicinal properties of tea when a tealeaf dropped from a tree into his pot of boiling water beneath.
A Buddhist legend tells of Bodhi-Dharma (monk), whose eyes kept closing while he was meditating. As a penance for his tiredness, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These sent down roots into the earth and, as a symbol of eternal vigilance, the shoots grew into the first tea shrub. An allegory perhaps for the stimulating properties of caffeine?
The ideas and health perspectives that arise from the East and the West are based on quite different assumptions about reality. Western science sits squarely on the shoulders of Descartes’ Mind Body Split – “I think, therefore I am” – and a propensity for breaking things down into smaller and smaller individual parts. In the West, the benefits of foods and herbs are described as containing certain amounts of protein, fat, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, anti-oxidants, chemicals, molecules and so on. This information is obtained in a laboratory by analysing foods, separating them into their basic ingredients. The nutritional value of this food or medicine is a statement of the sum total of its chemical ingredients before they enter the body.
By contrast, Eastern philosophies about life and well-being are based on recognising patterns of relationship and interconnection – and recognising concurrent levels of experience that are not merely physical, but may have emotional and spiritual dimensions as well. Food and medicine in the East are described as possessing certain qualities such as a warming or cooling nature, possessing certain flavours or acting on the body in a certain way. This information is obtained by observing the behaviour of the body after a food/medicine has been consumed. The nutritional value of a food/medicine is stated as a set of energetic properties, which describe the actions that a particular food has on the human body. Some food/medicines activate our metabolism, some food/medicines slow us down, others generate warmth in the body, some generate coolness, some foods/medicines are moistening, some drying, some nourish our kidneys, others our Liver or Heart. In Chinese thinking, food and medicine are inseparable, part of the same continuum – they both come from the same source and have predictable effects on the body, it is just a matter of degree.
Eastern medicine also recognises that how and when a person eats or drinks is equally as important as what one eats and drinks – recognising the spiritual and social dimensions that have very real and measurable effects on digestion and absorption of nutrients and the ensuing states of health. Consider the quality of handpicked, seasonally available tea, the care and focus that goes into growing, picking and processing on a small tea farm compared to the mass-produced, machine-harvested, pulverised ‘floor-sweepings’ that end up in the supermarket teabag. Then think about the awareness, care and patience that goes into the tea ceremony prepared carefully and lovingly in a relaxed setting, between friends and family, or by a professional tea scholar with many years of expertise to share – compared to simply adding, over-boiled water to a teabag, mixing it with milk and sugar and sloshing it down in a take-away cup – which one do you think provides greater nourishment, body and soul?
Tea and Chinese Medicine
The tea plant is native to southern China (Yunnan province) and was known from early times to Chinese botany and medicine. Ancient scholars have waxed lyrical in their poetic descriptions of the effects of tea, based on their experience and observations. (See Lu Tong’s poem at the end of article).
Scholars have recorded some of the therapeutic actions of tea in ancient texts, including to:
- Relieve fatigue
- Delight the soul
- Strengthen the will
- Repair the eyesight
The first three observations confirm the effects of what modern science refers to as ‘caffeine’ on the body/mind/spirit. ‘Repairing the eyesight’, is related to tea’s effect on the Liver and particularly tea’s natural ability to cool and repair the Liver from a Chinese medical perspective.
In ancient times, tea was not only used as an internal medicine, but also often applied externally in the form of a paste to alleviate rheumatic pains.
Actions & Qualities of Tea
The qualities and actions of the tealeaf, recorded from thousands of years of observation by the Chinese can lead us to a greater understanding of the effects. Here’s what some respected scholars have written about the medicinal and energetic effects of tea:
Li Shizhen (1518-1593) in his Compendium of Material Medica wrote:
“Tea is bitter and cold, the coldest of colds and most able to subdue human heat. Once the heat goes, the body goes right.” [i]
In a more modern Classic text, Dan Bensky says:
” Cold, Bitter green tea clears heat from the eyes and moderates the undesirable effects caused by the other warm, drying properties of some of the other ingredients” [ii]
Another modern text by Will McLean and Jane Lyttleton states:
Tea – Green, red and black
Sweet bitter and cool; improves digestion, promotes urination, benefits the eyes. Green tea is cooler than red and black tea.
Good for – wind heat headache and visual disturbances, Summer-heat disorder, thirst, indigestion from rich foods, painful urination, scanty urination, dysentery, diarrhoea, mouth ulcers, herpes (topical)
Bad for: Excessive tea can generate phlegm damp and weaken the kidneys. Not recommended for those suffering from insomnia or gastric ulcers.[iii]
Another interesting observation in TCM is that many of the foods/herbs that come from the warmer regions are naturally cooling and those from the cooler regions are naturally warming. The tea plant needs a tropical or semi-tropical climate and thrives at altitudes, generally above 1500m. An ancient principle in herbology is that local foods/herbs can remedy local imbalances. The fact that tea naturally comes from a warmer region may also give us clues to its actions.
History of Tea Preparation
It is also important to understand that before the west was exposed to tea, there were different stages of tea development and preparation throughout Chinese history.
The three main developments in the evolution of tea preparation are:
- Boiled tea
- Whipped tea
- Steeped tea
Boiled tea – the origins of tea brewing. It is interesting to note that the boiling of tea, like a traditional herbal decoction, was how tea became so famous and well respected as an herbal remedy.
Let’s have a closer look at the process of preparation described by some of the ancient tea texts:
“Boiled tea: leaves steamed, crushed into mortar, made into cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk and sometimes with onions.”[iv]
Sounds more like a soup than the style of tea we are familiar with, yet the remains of this ancient custom can still be seen today, used by the Tibetans and the Mongolians. Also the Middle Eastern (Bahrain) people boil black tea with cardamom and ginger and even add pepper as a remedy for a cold and flu. Russians use of lemon in their tea stems from this ancient method.
From a Chinese medicine point of view, this boiling process and the added ingredients are very interesting as they tell us something about the herbal ‘action’ of tea. All the added ingredients are considered in TCM, ‘warming’ and ‘moving’, suggesting that tea is cool, slowing things down possibly leading things to become sluggish or get stuck. In Chinese medicine it is believed that consuming too much cooling food or medicine damages the ‘fire of digestion’ and the ability to convert food into usable energy. Damaging the digestive fire has a detrimental effect on the body’s ability to produce Qi and Blood. I believe these other ingredients were added to moderate the possible cooling side effects of the tea. We still see evidence of this in Japan and Korea, where roasted rice is added to the tea to give it a more warming nature and to counteract the possibility of ‘over-cooling’ effects on digestion.
Whipping – the second development – was the shortest lived in mainland China, reaching its highpoint in the Tang dynasty (618-907). It appears to have been developed more for the art of the ceremony, used predominantly by the upper classes and is said to have a much stronger effect on the mind. The whipping-tea method was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks as an aid to meditation around the time of the tang dynasty, and is still practiced in Japan today where much of the extant adopted culture was derived from this period of Chinese history.
Steeping – the final step in the evolution of tea brewing – was already well established by the time Westerners arrived in China and it is this method that Westerners are most familiar with. The technique of steeping stimulated experimentation with a huge variety of tea production and processing techniques. Chinese medicine has a long history of processing herbs to influence the effect on the body, to increase the clinical action and/or reduce the undesirable side effects. The processing method changes the ‘actions’ of the tealeaf on the body. For example, green tea (the least processed) has the coolest effect on the body, black tea (most processed) the warmest, while oolong tea somewhere in between. Informed with this knowledge we can use the different types of tea to harmonise the body.
From an Eastern viewpoint all foods/medicines have a particular action on the body. Therefore the Chinese have been able to use food as medicine for thousands of years. Tea is not only a drink, but is also used as a cheap herbal medicine to have the desired effect on the body and mind. Another clue to the effects is provided by the way the ancient texts describe seasonal drinking habits.
“In summer drink green tea, winter black tea and in Spring and Autumn, flower teas”
Traditional Chinese Saying
This also suggests green tea has a cooling action on the body in the heat of summer, while black tea a warming action in the cold of winter. The in-between seasons of Spring and Autumn are considered times when the body is vulnerable to catching colds and flu as the external environment is less predictable and therefore recommends flower teas (like chrysanthemum). Flower teas, as the upper and most external part of the plant, lead the Qi to the upper and exterior parts of the body to protect it from wind*, ‘the chief of the hundred diseases’, from entering the body.
Chinese also believe in consuming foods and medicines naturally in-season and locally available to remedy local imbalances. Green teas are first to be picked in the season and are available in spring as the weather warms up in the preparation for summer. Green teas only remain fresh for around three months and by the time winter arrives there are only the processed black teas, which have a much longer shelf life, available.
Tea, like all other foods and herbs, is beneficial when used in the right circumstances and in the right dosage. By now you will be able to recognise that if a person has a cooler constitution too much cooling green tea may have a deleterious effect on their digestive system and therefore their body as a whole, whereas for a person with a hot constitution, green tea may be the perfect balancer. As we have seen, the ancient Chinese had a variety of ways of maintaining balance and harmony, including practicing moderation in all things. They were aware of the various properties of different teas and were careful to apply the right type of tea for the right season and for the individual constitutions of the drinkers. If by chance you feel distension, cramping or uneasy after drinking a lot of green tea, then you will most likely be better off drinking oolong or black teas that have a more warming effect on the body. If you tend to have a cold nature – pale face, pale tongue, thin or thick white coat on the tongue, cold hands/feet, easily get cold, not much thirst, ‘hypo’ type conditions including low blood pressure and possibly have a more introverted character – then I believe you should only drink green tea in summer (if at all) and only in small amounts but you will get the most benefit from drinking black (Puer & hong chas) and more oxidized oolongs, such as rock oolong teas (yan cha). Interestingly, women being more yin, suffer from this type of cool pattern more than men. In my personal experience, I often see women naturally preferring the black teas like rock oolongs (yan cha’s), and brick (puer) teas. If you feel you have a cooler condition and prefer green tea for the taste or the health benefits, then drink the Japanese or Korean styles with roasted rice to moderate the cooling effects on digestion. If ‘cooler’ people drink excessive amounts of green tea, they may generate patterns in TCM such as phlegm-damp and weaken the Kidneys, giving rise to urinary, digestive and gynaecological issues.
On the other hand, if you are more of a hot person – more red face, red eyes or a bright red tongue, with no coating or yellow coat and tend towards a more extroverted character, then tea-drinking might be just what you need to achieve balance in your life. Health issues associated with heat include, heat exhaustion, fever, irritability, high blood pressure, acne, skin eruption, nose bleed, constipation, thick or yellow phlegm, headache, excessive eating, shortness of breath, or wheezing – then green tea and lighter oolongs (tie guan yin) are most likely most suitable for you to help clear heat from the body. Interestingly, men, being more yang, seem to suffer these heat symptoms more often than women and, in my experience, they seem to be attracted to the green and less oxidised oolongs like Iron goddess of mercy (tie guan yin). One of my personal favourites to help clear heat and strengthen the will is raw puer (sheng puer) from Yunnan province.
If you feel you don’t have any obvious systemic heat or cold in the body, follow the recommended seasonal drinking advice, green in summer, black in winter, flower or oolongs between seasons.
Happy sipping and don’t forget to slurp! – It’s a sign of appreciation!
Lu Tong’s Poetic Musing on Tea…
“First cup moistens the mouth and throat;
Second cup dispels loneliness and boredom;
Third cup makes the brain quick and lively,
capable of writing five thousand volumes;
Forth cup brings mild perspiration, draining
all life long grievances through the pores;
Fifth cup refreshes muscles and bones:
Sixth cup brings communion with immortals;
No sooner has one drunk the seventh cup,
than a cool breeze lifts one up from under one’s arms.”
Lu Tong -Tang dynasty (618 -907)
The poem gives a full account of the functions of tea. First, promoting saliva secretion and quenching thirst; second, making one strong and exhilarated; third, helping digestion and dissolving greasy food; fourth, inducing perspiration and curing common colds; fifth, reducing weight; sixth, invigorating thinking and strengthening memory, and seventh, prolonging life. When one has drunk the seventh cup, one feels as light as if one has broken the bonds of this world and become a winged immortal.
* Chinese medicine terminology is very different from biomedicine; for example, illnesses are described using environmental terms like ‘wind’, ‘heat’ and ‘dampness’. ‘Wind’, in this context, is considered to be the primary cause of what we call in the west, colds and flu. In TCM, catching a cold is related to both the strength of the external environmental influence, and the internal resilience of the body at that time.
[i]Liu Tong. 2005. Chinese Tea
[ii] Bensky and Gamble. 1990. Chinese Herbal Medicine ‘Formulas and Strategies’
[iii] Mclean & Lyttleton. 2002. Clinical handbook of Internal Medicine
[iv] Okakura. 1906. Book of Tea