Gongcha 貢茶, tribute tea, was tea of high quality which was presented by the local governments to the imperial house. This custom emerged during the Jin period 晉 (265-420) and was continued through the ages.
There is a story in the book Huayang guo zhi 華陽國志 narrating that the rulers of Ba 巴 send red lacquer, tea and honey as tributes to King Wu 周武王 of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE).
The earliest reference to tribute tea dates from the Jin period, when Wen Jiao 溫嶠 (288-329), a high dignitary, presented the emperor with 1, 000 jin 斤 "pounds" (see weights and measures) of tribute tea and 300 jin of quality tea (ming 茗). In 700, special fermenting facilities for tribute tea (gongbei 貢焙) were founded in the region of Changxing 長興 and Yixing 義興 (today's Yixing 宜興, Jiangsu), where in the beginnings, 500 strings (chuan 串) of tea were produced annually, later up to 18,000.
From Tan Yue's 談鑰 (jinshi degree 1181) local gazetteer (Jiatai) Wuxing zhi (嘉泰)吳興志 it can be learnt that the facilities at Mt. Guzhu 顧渚山 consisted of more than 30 workshops with more than 1,000 workers. Li Jifu 李吉甫 (758-814), author of the geographical book Yuanhe junxian tuzhi 元和郡縣圖志, even speaks of 30,000 workers. They were recruited from the peasant families in the vicinity, delivered the obligatory corvée labour (yaoyi 徭役) in the tea factory, and returned home after several months of service.
During the Tang period 唐 (618-907), there were 17 spots throughout the empire where tribute tea was produced. The most famous were Yangxian 陽羨 and Zisun 紫筍 in Jiangsu, and Mengding 蒙頂 in Sichuan. The Song-period writer Wu Zeng 吳曾 (fl. 1162), author of the biji-style essay Nenggaizhai manlu 能改齋漫錄, explains that the early harvest was the best at Mengshan 蒙山 (i.e. Mengding). The encyclopaedia Tongdian 通典 refers to the tea regions of Ankang 安康 (today in Shaanxi), Wuling 夷陵 (today's Yichang 宜昌, Hubei) and Lingxi 靈溪 (today's Longshan 龍山, Hubei).
In the late Tang period, tribute tea was produced in 17 prefectures. In a song on tribute tea (Chashan gongbei ge 茶山貢焙歌), Li Ying 李郢 (jinshi degree 856) explains that (the boxes with/bricks of?) tribute tea were marked with an official chop in red (chiyin 赤印). The same can be learnt from Li Yuxi's 劉禹錫 (772-842) song Shicha ge 試茶歌. The tea was to be expedited to the imperial capital to arrive just before the Tomb-Sweeping Festival (qingmingyan 清明宴). In order to hasten the delivery, the imperial chop indicated that the commodity as an urgent one. In addition, the supervisor or the transport was given a passport of urgency (die 牒). The transport of tea – and tribute rice – was supervised by transport commissioners (zhuanyunshi 轉運使).
The Five-Dynasties 五代 (907-960) period experienced an expansion of the tribute tea system. Ma Yin 馬殷 (r. 926-929), ruler of the state of Chu 楚 (926-951), delivered 250,000 jin of tribute tea to the nominal emperor, the ruler of the Later Liang 後梁 (907-923). The ruler of Wu-Yue 吳越 (907-978), one of the Ten States, delivered 100,000 jin of tribute tea from Zhejiang to the founder of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279), as well as 10,000 jin of tea from Fujian. The states of Southern Tang 南唐 (937-975) and Min 閩 (909-945) also sent tribute tea to the early Song court.
The apogee of the tribute tea system was the Song period. In 1013, Emperor Zhenzong 宋真宗 (r. 997-1022) ordered to institutionalize a tribute tea delivery in more than 30 prefectures – this was almost half of all prefectures in the empire. Wang Cun's 王存 (1023-1101) geography Yuanfeng jiuyu zhi 元豐九域志 remarks that six prefectures yielded an amount of 1,650 jin of the best tea of the whole empire, but other figures prove that it must have been much more: The regions Beiyuan 北苑 (Mt. Fenghuang 鳳凰山) and Longbei 龍焙 yielded 47,100 "strips" (pian 片) of high-quality tea, with an amount of 8 strips per jin (in the case of a tea type called da longfeng cha 大龍鳳茶), 28 strips per jin (for xiao longfeng cha 小龍鳳茶), or even 40 strips per jin, as in the case of the tea type miyun longcha 密雲龍茶. Another type of tea was called ruiyun xianglong 瑞雲翔龍. Besides strips, tea was moulded into the shape of cakes (bing 餅), "pendants" (kua 銙) or strings (chuan 串). Lose leaves of tea were not yet common at that time.
The tea gardens of Beiyuan were rated as the best during these decades. They yielded an annual amount of 216,000 jin of tribute tea. This tea region was so important that scholars wrote studies on it, like Xiong Fan 熊蕃 (early 12th cent.), author of Xuanhe Beiyuan gongcha lu 宣和北苑貢茶錄, of Zhao Ruli 趙汝礪 (1160s-1180s), who wrote Beiyuan bielu 北苑別錄.
The organization of the factories was not totally in the hands of the central government, but left room for the local authorities to produce more tea for local demand.
At the end of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), the empire produced 41 different types of tribute tea, with a harvest of more than 50,000 strips. Of these, 5,000 jin were of highest quality. "Wax tea" (lacha 蠟茶) from Jianzhou 建州 (Fuzhou) was produced in amounts as high as 216,000 jin annually. Thereafter, the yield declined and reached but a fourth of the former outputs. Around 1180, the quota for tribute tea was 50,000 jin. Nonetheless, the number of types was still considerably high, with a total amount of more than 40 types, five "lines" (gang 綱) of which were of finest quality (xise 細色), and seven rather crude (cuse 粗色).
The best tea had a price of no less than 40 strings (min 緡) of coins per cake, which was more expensive than gold. Depending on the quality, various types of tea served as presents to officials or princes of different status, as can be learnt from Yang Yi's 楊億 (974-1020) Yang Wengong tanyuan 楊文公談苑.
During the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368), the centre of tribute tea production shifted to the Wuyi Range 武夷山 in Fujian.
The founder of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) did more or less abolish the tea cakes (bingcha 餅茶) and only allowed small amounts of loose tea (yacha 芽茶) to be shipped to the imperial capital. Tan Qian's 談遷 (1594-1658) Zaolin zazu 棗林雜俎 speaks of just 4,022 jin hailing from 44 districts. The monk Chaoquan 超全 (1627-1712) composed a ballad narrating the history of Wuyi tea, Wuyi cha ge 武夷茶歌.
The delivery of tribute tea to the imperial court was in late imperial times a kind of tax which tea farmers had to pay. Apart from being sent to the court for consumption, tribute tea was used for presents by the emperor to meritorious officials, scholars, or to diplomatic envoys from foreign countries. The Song, for instance, were obliged by treaty to deliver annually more than 200,000 jin of tea to the powerful Western Xia empire 西夏 (1038-1227).