What Is Tribute Tea?

Tea in China has a very long history, going back to around 3000 BCE. It was not always readily available to the general population, though. In fact, there was a time when the very best were claimed as “tribute teas” (gong cha) by the Emperor and his court (actually, several Emperors since the practice went on for 1,000 years or so), leaving the lower quality teas for everyone else there and for trade with other countries. Today, though, we all get to enjoy them!

Longjing – once a tribute tea reserved for Emperors
but now available to all. 

Long before Europeans came to China to start bringing tea back, the beverage was well-known in China. The practice of tribute tea began in the Western Zhou Dynasty about 3,000 years ago. It was very informal. Some farmers started presenting gifts of their most prized teas to Emperors. This voluntary “gift” was made compulsory around 700 A.D. in the Tang Dynasty and lasted for about 1,000 years, with many teas being produced specifically as tribute teas. Some records show that as many as 3 million people were practically indentured to the production of these teas.

Some of these tribute teas, according to historical records:

  • Changzhou Yangxian
  • Huzhou Guzhu Zisun
  • Muzhou Jiukeng
  • Shuzhou Tianzhu
  • Xuanzhou Ya
  • Raozhou Fuliang
  • Sijhou Lingxi
  • Yuezhou Yongzhou
  • Gap State Bi Jian
  • Jingzhou group of yellow tea
  • Yazhou Mengding
  • Ya-top (“fairy tea”)
  • Changzhou Yangxian
  • Huzhou Zisun
  • Jingzhou group yellow tea

During this same period trade with other countries was building up. Burma, India, and Tibet were some of the trading partners along the famous Ancient Tea Horse Road that supposed started around 1,000 years ago. In 1610 the Dutch arrived and heated up that trade by introducing tea to the Netherlands, France, and here in the Western Hemisphere. It was the beginning of the end of tribute teas, with wealthy customers willing to pay a premium price for these premium teas and the workers rebelling against what was regarded as a burdensome tax on their labor as well as propping up the feudal system in place there. The system petered out in the 1700s.

One of the key teas offered as a tribute tea was Longjing (aka Long Ching and Dragonwell). Yunnan black teas such as this Yunnan Fengqing black tea from the Yunnan Province was first grown as a tribute to the emperors. It was highly regarded for a unique malt and peppery flavor but was not traded outside of China for an additional 200 years (circa 1763). Black Dragon tea (aka Wulong or Oolong) started out as a tribute tea in cake form. All of these teas are now available to us at reasonable prices and in a way that provides for the farmers’ labor to be compensated.

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
This entry was posted in Tea Info for Newbies and Up and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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