It's easy to tell tea is China's national drink; tea is consumed in restaurants, at home and carried around all day in transparent thermos flasks. It's a serious habit and one that hasn't been broken by the introduction of coffee or the machinations of sugary soda companies.
Over 4,000 years ago, a legendary ruler of China named Shennong insisted his drinking water be boiled, while sitting under a tree a single leaf dropped into his cup and turn his purified water brown. When he braved a sip, he found the new drink refreshing and thus began the cultivation of the tea plant.
Scholars debate the historical veracity of this story and evidence of tea drinking only dates back to a slave's shopping list from around 50 BC. Research is made more difficult because the ancient character for tea also means "bitter vegetable". It's quite possible that tea has existed since the Xia dynasty and recent archaeological finds have found the Xia had a relatively advanced civilisation.
It was during the Tang dynasty when tea really caught on. The modern Chinese word for tea was adopted when Lu Yu wrote about it around AD 780. His three volume work covered tea from its growth to its brewing and the famous tea plantations throughout China. The book was influenced by Lu Yu's Buddhist beliefs and Japanese Buddhist missionaries brought the book to Japan along with tea plant seeds. Japan then developed their own complicated tea ceremony and rich tea culture.
Tea slowly began to creep west; Indian legends tell of Bodhidharma's delight in the new drink and by AD 850 it had reached Arabia. It wouldn't be until Portuguese and Dutch traders took the sea route around Africa in the 16th century that tea would reach Europe. England's East India Company began its trade in the mid-17th century.
In 1773, British taxation on tea shipments to the Thirteen Colonies led to the Boston Tea Party where colonists dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor. A trade imbalance that was unfavourable to the West later led to the Opium War, as foreign governments fought for access to "all the tea in China".
Restaurants and supermarkets are stocked with assorted types of tea of varying quality. Black tea is called red tea in China with green tea being more popular. Standard brews are provided for free in most restaurants, but if you are a connoisseur, then a trip to a specialised teahouse may be worth taking with the best found south of the Yangtze River. A new twist on an old drink is pearl milk tea, which is widely popular with the younger generation.