Tea is as much an indispensable part of Chinese culture as Confucianism and plays an important role in the daily life of the Chinese people. In modern day China, tea is not a product solely for the bourgeoisie upper class, a flask of green tea can be seen carried by every factory worker and labourer.
According to legend, around 2737BC, Shen Nong, legendary Chinese emperor and founder of agriculture and medicine, was said to have been sitting under a tree drinking boiling water when a leave fell into his cup. He saw the water change colour and tasted it, being surprised by the pleasant flavour it produced. Another legend involves the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma (Chinese: Puti Damo 菩提达摩), who meditated for 9 years facing a cave wall and then fell asleep. Angered by his laziness, he cut off his eyelids and where they fell to the ground, tea plants grew.
The Chinese word for tea is chá (茶). In ancient Chinese it was known as tú (荼), and then changed to being called míng (茗), which it is someones still known as, particularly in Taiwan. The English word tea originated from the Fujianese/Taiwanese dialect, which pronounces the word as "tê".
In China serving someone tea can be seen as a sign of respect. In old China, during a wedding, the bride and groom would offer tea to their parents, and during the ceremony of a Kung Fu master accepting a disciple, they would offer the master tea. If he accepts it, then he accepts the student. Typically, someone of a lower status would serve the person in a superior position (boss, teacher, older person etc) tea, it wouldnt be expected the other way around. In the south of China people will tap the table with the fingers to say thank you when being served. This is because an Emperor once travelled China in disguise. He served a servant tea and he was so happy he wanted to bow, but couldnt, so he just tapped his fingers so as not to give the Emperor away.
There are 5 common types of tea sold in China. Green tea (绿茶, lu cha) , jasmine tea (茉莉花茶, molihuacha), which is green tea scented with jasmine flowers, wulong (乌龙), which is semi-fermented and makes the water go a golden colour, pu er (普洱), a strong black tea which comes from the Xishuangbanna region of southwest China, on the borders of Burma and Laos, in jungle areas and tieguanyin (铁观音), a variety of wulong which comes from Fujian and Taiwan, in the southeast of China. Green tea is the most widespread and is grown in many different areas around China, particularly the south. Some good types of tea are Long Jing (龙井), which comes from the West Lake in Hangzhou, Biluochun (碧螺春), which comes from Jiangsu and the area where I live, Qingdao, sells a lot of Laoshan (老山) tea, which is grown at the local mountain, which is a sacred taoist area. Tea is never in teabags, its always loose leaves or bricks.
In China the most common way to brew tea is using a gàibēi (蓋杯), which is a lidded cup, a small jug and a small cup. Firstly, the teaware is all rinsed with hot water to heat it up. Then, tea is put into the gaibei, and then washed quickly with hot water to remove dust and it helps prevent bitterness. Then, more hot water (around 70-80c depending on tea type-the blacker the tea, the hotter the water) poured over it and left until the tea leaves open, then it is quickly poured into a small jug, from which it is served, typically in small cups. Tea can be reused several times. Another way is called Kung Fu tea and originates in the Chaozhou region in Guangdong. It is where you put a large amount of tea into a small teapot and put hot water in for a very short time, and serve it immediately into tiny shot glass sized tea cups.