The Importance of Religion for Tea in China

Religious ideas, institutions, and individuals throughout history strongly influenced the long lasting significance of tea in Chinese culture.

McMaster Researcher


Benn, J. A. (2015). Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History. University of Hawai’i Press.

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What is this research about?

Tea played a significant role in Chinese culture and the way of life of the Chinese. The popularity of tea throughout China from the eighth century led to a culture of tea connoisseurship, which became a marker of wealth, status, leisure, and good taste. Tea also inspired poetry, possessed religious significance, and became a drink of choice for the Chinese. The purpose of this book is to uncover the contributions made by religious ideas, institutions, and individuals to the invention and development of tea drinking. The importance of this study is to gain a different perspective on the religious thought and practice in China by appreciating the effect of tea on Chinese society and culture.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher at McMaster University studied importance of tea in the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties (7th through 18th century). He examined historical texts in Chinese such as elite poetry, writings on the therapeutic properties of tea, gazetteers, monastic regulations, and academic literature.

What did the researchers find?

The researcher found that:

  • Religious ideas, institutions, and individuals influenced the invention and development of tea drinking. Individuals who discussed tea in certain ways invented the cultural and religious significance of tea.
  • Buddhist ideas and Taoist concepts influenced the acceptance of tea as a beverage. Buddhist ideas of abstinence from alcohol helped tea compete with alcohol as a national beverage.
  • Tea's role as a gift that was often exchanged between individuals facilitated the exchange of ideas and helped create important cultural statements in the form of poetry and painting.
  • Buddhist and Taoist institutions influenced the growing, processing, and marketing of tea. For example, tea-drinking ceremonies were significant ceremonial events in Chinese Buddhist monasteries. Monks grew many famous, rare, and expensive teas in and around monasteries. This attracted rich tea connoisseurs to these places and stimulated their interest in Buddhist institutions.
  • Individuals with marked religious affiliations played crucial roles in the invention and dissemination of tea drinking. Different religious practices and worldviews shaped the way these people thought about tea.

How can you use this research?

This research will be of interest to historians and to anyone interested in Chinese culture and religion. The study also helps understand long-term cultural processes in one of the world’s largest societies. It offers a Religious Studies perspective on commodity culture in pre-modern societies

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