Old Version


A popular TV drama highlights the tea contests that emerged during the Tang Dynasty, flourished in the Song and helped inspire tea culture in Japan

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated Oct.1

A Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) painting depicting a tea contest, Heilongjiang Provincial Museum

The 40-episode costume drama series A Dream of Splendor, starring A-list actress Liu Yifei, has gathered hundreds of millions of views since it began streaming in June.  

Inspired by the four-act play by Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) playwright Guan Hanqing, the series set in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) tells the story of heroine Zhao Pan’er, who rescued two women from abusive husbands while on her journey to the capital to seek justice for being treated unfairly by her fiancé. The three women later became partners in a successful teahouse in the city.  

Liu’s role of teahouse keeper demonstrates the dazzling skills of tea painting (chabaixi, literally “hundred tea shows”) – a traditional Chinese tea steeping technique that creates beautiful patterns or characters in its froth, similar to latte art with coffee.  

In 2017, tea painting was listed as an intangible cultural heritage of southeast China’s Fujian Province. Zhang Zhifeng, a tea painter, can create an image with tea and water that lasts around 15 minutes. Tea painting is also an integral part of tea contests (dou cha). 

Gaining Steam 
Tea contests originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in Jianyang, Fujian Province. Jianyang was well-known for producing tribute tea for the imperial court. Tea contests were held each spring, when tea farmers and merchants gathered to assess the quality of the new harvest.  

The popularity of tea contests reflected changes in the way tea was prepared. The early method was cooked tea (jian cha) which was popular in the Tang Dynasty. The method involved grinding a chunk from a cake of pressed tea leaves into powder. The powder was screened, boiled and served as a thick concoction seasoned with salt, ginger and other ingredients.  

In the Song Dynasty, a taste for pure tea developed, and the common way to brew it was by tea whisking (dian cha). All the seasonings were eliminated in this process. Instead, boiling water is added to powdered tea to create a paste, which is then further diluted and frothed with a bamboo whisk.  

Tea whisking became a form of entertainment, and required skills for which contests were created.  

In the poem “The Song of Tea Contests,” Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) statesman and writer Fan Zhongyan describes how changes in climate patterns helped Jian’an in Fujian Province replace Huzhou in Zhejiang Province as the major production center for tribute tea. Fujian officials encouraged tea farmers to participate in tea contests and selected the best tea leaves to present to the emperor. People of all social classes participated in tea contests, from the imperial family and literati to monks and common people.  

The Northern Song court set up the imperial tea plantation in Beiyuan, an area in Jian’an. Many imperial teas were molded into balls and cakes with embossed images of dragons and phoenixes, earning the name dragon-phoenix tea. The teas were extremely precious, and their value appreciated with time. When paid to the court as tribute, they were wrapped in golden packaging. Tribute teas were made exclusively for the imperial family. We can understand how precious these tea cakes were through the experience of Northern Song poet Ouyang Xiu, who wrote that he drank dragon ball tea once in his more than 20 years of service to the court.  

Production improved over time. Ding Wei, who supervised the production of tribute tea in Beiyuan, created a big dragon ball, or 16 balls from about one kilogram of raw tea. His successor, Cai Xiang, remolded it into small dragon balls, or 40 balls from the same amount. Ding and Cai had the same goal – to curry favor with the imperial court, and their strategy worked. Ding became prime minister and the Duke of Jin, while Cai joined the imperial academic institution Hanlin Academy and was named finance minister. Looking to copy their success, many officials scoured the country for new teas to develop. Some even took them by force.  

Zheng Kejian, a water transport official, created an exquisite kind of tea that topped both Ding and Cai. He harvested newly grown buds from the tips of tea branches, peeled off the outer layers after steaming, and kept only the most tender leaves. He then soaked them with precious utensils in clear spring water. What remained was a silvery strand, earning it the name “dragon garden snow tea.” The success earned Zheng the position of Fujian governor, who oversaw tea affairs in Beiyuan.  

In The Record of Tea, Cai Xiang recorded that tea contests first emerged in Jian’an, the birthplace of famed Tang Dynasty varieties and tribute teas of the Southern Tang Dynasty (937-975). Only the top-ranking teas would be presented to the imperial court. As tea’s prestige increased, tea contests came into fashion.  

In Jian’an, in addition to the imperial tea plantation, there were more than 1,000 privately-run tea plantations. With the increased competition, tea contests flourished. Tang Geng, a Northern Song official and poet who was demoted to serve in Fujian, delved into the culture of tea contests and penned the essay “Record of the Tea Contest.” His methods for evaluating tea quality influenced generations. 

Tea painting, or chabaixi, is a traditional Chinese tea steeping technique that creates beautiful patterns or characters in its froth, similar to coffee latte art

The Classic of Tea written in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), National Museum of China, Beijing, January 10, 2022. The book describes the origins, characteristics and functions of teas in addition to the ways teas are made, brewed and consumed

Live by the Leaf 
All Song emperors were tea aficionados, but perhaps none more than Emperor Huizong. During his reign from 1082 to 1126, Huizong wrote Treatise on Tea, which details the process of tea harvesting, production and storage, as well as describing tea utensils and tasting methods. The book is key to understanding the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and stands second only to the Tang Dynasty work Classic of Tea, the world’s first text on tea by Lu Yu, China’s most celebrated tea master.  

Tea contests tested brewing skills. But there were also very strict criteria for the quality of tea leaves, water and wares. As whitish tea was especially valued in tea contests, dark-colored cups and bowls were designed to accentuate the white and green hues of the tea.  

Tea contests generally took place around Tomb Sweeping Festival in April when the newest tea harvests hit the market. Contestants brought their own tea leaves and wares to compete at tea shops or street markets, where locals and customers would gather to watch. The winning tea would demand a high price.  

The Song Dynasty was the pinnacle of tea aesthetics in Chinese history. The Song lifestyle valued simplicity and elegance, which tea appreciation accentuated. Scholars liked meeting friends over tea, as did ordinary people. A work by Song painter Liu Songnian titled Tea Contest in a Tea Market vividly depicts people of every social status taking part.  

Tea contests influenced tea culture in Japan, including the Japanese tea ceremony. The origin of tea culture in Japan can be traced back to China’s Tang and Song dynasties when a group of Japanese monks were sent to China. After visiting China in 804, the Japanese monk Saichō returned with tea tree seeds and planted them in Kyoto, marking the earliest record of tea cultivation in Japan.  

Tea became popular in Japan during the late Kamakura Period (1192-1333). But tea differed in quality from region to region. Toganoo tea produced near Kyoto was considered the finest quality tea. It was called honcha (literally “real tea”) and distinguished from hicha (teas other than honcha) from other places. The first tea contest (tocha in Japanese) was held as a simple guessing game to differentiate honcha and hicha. Similar tasting contests to identify Beiyuan teas were common during the Song Dynasty.  

Genkou Era Buddhist History, Japan’s first Buddhist history book by monk Kokan Shiren, records a more complex tea-tasting game popular in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) called shishu jippuku cha or “four teas and 10 cups.”  

The game involved four different teas. First, three of the four teas are prepared for each participant to taste for reference. Then, three cups of each of these teas are made, along with one additional cup of a tea the contestants have not yet tasted, called a “guest tea.” Contestants taste them in random order and are challenged to identify the teas they have tasted, as well as the one they have not.  

During this time in China, however, tea contests were already in decline. By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they had largely disappeared. The Ming’s founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang came from a poor peasant family and often went hungry as a child. Because tea cake production was labor intensive and posed hardships on tea planters, he abolished it in favor of the loose tea most consume today.  

Unlike tea powders and cakes, preparing loose tea is simple, straightforward and convenient. And for most modern-day tea drinkers, simpler is better.