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There’s no denial that on today’s tea market, everybody wants loose-leaf tea. Especially in the U.S., Loose-leaf represents a higher grade, much premium tea product.
Most of tea products we drink are now packaged in the loose-leaf form. In fact, besides dark teas (e.g. Pu’er tea) and some white teas (Shou Mei/Gong Mei), we hardly see any teas that aren’t in a loose-leaf form.
However, loose-leaf tea hasn’t always been dominant. Loose-leaf tea was developed through the transformation of tea-making along the history.
When we discuss loose-leaf tea, we have to talk about the person who probably made the most contribution to the development of loose-leaf tea: Emperor Hongwu (or Emperor Zhu, Yuanzhang, 1328-1398, Chinese: 洪武皇帝/朱元璋).
Emperor Hongwu was the first emperor of China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644). As the person who founded a new era, Emperor Hongwu wasn’t actually born a noble. His parents were peasants, and so was he. His birth was so poor that at a time of his life, he had no choice but to become a monk just to be fed. In the history of China, there were no emperors that had a worse early life than Emperor Hongwu.
Emperor Hongwu’s humble beginning made him aware of a commoner’s life, and it eventually influenced his viewpoint of tea.
Before Emperor Hongwu’s era, tea were made into small tea bricks, or Tuan Cha/团茶 in Chinese. During Song dynasty (960-1279), the making of “Tuan Cha” reached its peak. Nonetheless, the making and the drinking of Tuan Cha was extremely difficult and wasteful. There was even a saying that “one tea brick equals authentic gold”.
As expensive as it was, tea at that time was exclusive for the rich and powerful royals. The huge demand from the royal court made tea production a political objective. Each year, a vast amount of public resources were put into tea production to ensure the supply to the court. At a certain level, the heavy pressure on tea production somewhat contributed to the destabilization of the society.
On the other hand, the utmost demand of tea-making skills (much more difficult than the tea-making today) forced some tea makers to “play dirty”. They’d mix tea with other spices to muddle through.
Knowing the limitation and malpractice of the old world’s tea production, Emperor Hongwu ordered to stop making “Tuan Cha” and start to making loose-leaf tea. At the same time, he abolished the royal tea tribute garden.
Strictly speaking, Emperor Hongwu didn’t create loose-leaf tea by himself. The making of loose-leaf tea existed decades before Emperor Hongwu’s tea revolution. But Emperor Hongwu’s effort forever changed how people enjoy tea.
Since the establishment of loose-leaf tea, tea makers were able to constantly advance and perfect their loose-leaf tea-making skills. This directly led to the creation and advancement of oolong tea and black tea.
Interestingly, there’re always people who mourn how “tea tradition” was lost by this change. According to their claim, the “Tuan Cha” way of tea-making and tea-drinking are always best.
If you hear or read this type of statement, you really shouldn’t be bothered at all. Such claims lack the basic understanding of the evolution of history. If the oldest way is the best, Tuan Cha cannot be the best as claimed because Tuan Cha also evolved from an older tea-making method.
Without Emperor Hongwu’s tea revolution, black tea could never be created, and tea can never become popular around the world. Loose-leaf tea is the result of social-economic development for hundreds of years, and it is the reason why we can all afford and enjoy tea today.
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