Chinese herbal tea: history, health and how to make it

September 01, 2018


Known as leung cha, herbal tea is found throughout South China, and tea shops have been a familiar fixture of the Hong Kong landscape for more than a hundred years.

What is herbal tea?

A quick-fix remedy, leung cha is thought to cool "internal heat" and is used to treat a range of health problems. An affordable alternative to doctors since the late 19th century, leung cha was officially selected as one of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage in 2006. Here are some of the more typical ingredients:

Referred to in English as herbal tea, leung cha translates literally as "cooling tea". An infusion of herbs originating from China’s Guangdong province, it is believed to contain medicinal properties. In fact, the drink rarely contains any elements of the tea plant and is more like a bitter-tasting medicinal soup.

People throughout China are traditionally attentive to their body’s inner harmony and believe diet affects their overall well-being. Food and herbs are traditionally categorised by whether they heat or cool a person’s metabolism. Many acidic foods are classified as "heaty", regardless of their temperature or spiciness. "Cooling tea" should be consumed piping hot to cleanse the body of excess heat and to relieve early symptoms and head-off illnesses before they develop in full.

South China’s hot and humid weather acts as a breeding ground for germs and diseases in the region and, according to traditional Chinese medicine theories, people’s internal workings are also susceptible to the accumulation of "heat" and "dampness" from the same environment. And bear in mind, Hong Kong has seven months of highly humid, hot weather.
One of the ways to naturally regulate body temperature is by producing sweat which cools the skin as it evaporates. However, excessive ambient humidity compromises the body’s ability to cool itself and heat accumulates internally as a consequence, according to traditional thinking.

"Heat" and "dampness" accumulate inside the body when too much "heaty food" is consumed in a humid environment

People from Guangdong province drink leung cha for its cooling benefits to rid the body of excessive internal heat and dampness

Excessive herbal tea may lead to dizziness through the body becoming too "cold". The following people should avoid herbal tea:
It is advisable to consult your doctor if you are new to drinking leung cha.


The first tea shop is thought to be "Wanglaoji herbal tea", established in 1828 by Wang Zebang who set up a herbal tea store in Jingyuan Street in the "Thirteen Factories" area of Guangzhou, then Canton. The tea was consumed as a remedy for body aches and pains by labourers and businessmen alike.

Doctors’ services in late 19th century China were prohibitively expensive for most, so people often turned to herbal tea if they started to feel unwell. When unskilled labourers began to set sail in search of work overseas, especially in the United States, they often took supplies of herbal tea with them. In 1869, the colonial Hong Kong authorities banned herbal tea ingredients from being unloaded when the labourers docked at their destinations.

In the 1940-60s, herbal tea shops also functioned as neighbourhood entertainment centres. Since television was still a luxury for most people, the tea shops would install a television set to attract customers. Whole families and friends enjoyed the convivial atmosphere by flocking to the shops to drink leung cha and watch TV together.

Hong Kong’s manufacturing sector continued expanding rapidly throughout the 1970s. Air conditioners began to appear in bing sutts, the traditional cold drink houses started in Guangzhou and revived in Hong Kong. These predecessors to the cha chaan teng (literally: tea restaurant) provided light meals and drinks and were neighbourhood-oriented. But as manufacturers began to install air conditioners in their factories, and people could now afford to visit a doctor, the herbal tea shops became less competitive.

Herbal tea shops today

Most Hong Kong tea shops share similar characteristics, with one or two people serving customers and everything is kept within easy reach to save space. The tea is meant for fast consumption so customers do not need to hang around. A long table is placed next to the open entrance from which people can buy and quaff their herbal tea either inside the shop or outside in the street.

Health properties (such as "clearing the heat", or "cooling and moisturising" the lungs) are written in Chinese on a board hanging on the wall.

Customers can have their tea poured into takeaway plastic bottles.

Some shops display the herbs to decorate the shop.

In a traditional herbal tea shop, there are

The copper gourd
The gourds storing turtle jelly cups symbolise peace and health. Some shopkeepers display them as ornaments because of their distinctive style.

The copper tripod
Some herbal tea shops sell turtle jelly – a medicine reputed to have similar properties to herbal tea. As the name implies they are made from turtle shells and herbs and stored in the copper tripod.

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The traditional herbal tea shop is a family-run business, with secret formulas and prescriptions handed down from generation to generation. As the Chinese saying goes, “there are 100 different kinds of herbal tea in 100 different shops”.

Herbal tea has recently seen a rise in popularity as people take a keener interest in leading healthy lifestyles. The shops have modernised and are increasingly frequented by new generations. However, the growth in the number of herbal tea shops has slowed compared to coffee shops over the past 10 years.

Herbal tea and coffee shops are generally associated with Asian and Western cultures, respectively. Herbal tea shops serve as an alternative to consulting a doctor, while coffee shops are cosy places to hang out and socialise. A traditional herbal tea shop usually consists of one to three members of staff, typically the shop owner’s family members, compared to their coffee counterparts which are often chains run by teams of baristas, cashiers and wait staff.


Here are some of the awards that this graphic has obtained

  • Bronze Medal

    Society For News Design
    Edition 40

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