The History of Tea

Tea in Ancient Times

Most historians agree that China was the birthplace of tea. Chinese legend attributes the first cup of tea to Emperor Shen Nung, a scientist and herbalist. In about 2737 b.c., the emperor was in his garden boiling water to drink when some leaves from a nearby camellia shrub blew into his cup. He took a drink of the liquid and found it to be flavorful and energizing. Shen Nung was the first to recognize the potential health benefits of tea and is considered the father of Chinese medicine.

Another legend, from India, attributes the discovery of tea to a Buddhist monk named Daruma, or Bodhidharma, who later became the founder of Zen Buddhism. Daruma went to China as a missionary, and he vowed to meditate day and night without sleeping. He did this for seven years, until he accidentally fell asleep. When he awoke, he was so distraught that he tore off his eyelids so he could never doze again. The legend says the first tea plant grew where his eyelids fell. Tea is considered a gift to monks so they can stay alert during long hours of meditation.


From Medicine to Mainstream

For centuries, tea was mostly a medicinal drink used to treat everything from sore throats to clumsy children. The first documented reference to tea's medicinal use is from a Chinese scholar named Kuo P'o, who in a.d. 350 refers to a "medicinal beverage made by boiling leaves."

Drinking tea became a vital part of Chinese life during the Tang dynasty (a.d. 618 to 906), which is known as the "Golden Age of Tea." During this era, tea became China's national drink, and tea-drinking customs, including tea ceremonies, became an integral part of Chinese culture. One of the most important works in Chinese tea history, the Ch'a Ching (Tea Classic), was written during this golden age. Still known as one of the quintessential books on tea, the three-volume tome was embraced by the Chinese people, and it elevated tea preparation and tea drinking to an art form.

During the Sung dynasty (a.d. 960 to 1279), tea drinking became a popular social activity. Green tea was the preferred drink, and at first it was prepared by the boiling method. But a new preparation method emerged -- tea was powdered and whipped into boiling water to make a frothy drink. The Emperor Hui Tsung (a.d. 1101-1125) was enamored of this kind of tea and even hosted tea contests in his court. Many elements of Japanese tea ceremony rituals have their roots in the preparation methods used in China during this era.

When Genghis Khan and the Mongols overran China, the Sung dynasty collapsed and the tea culture experienced a decline. But in 1368, when the Ming dynasty overthrew the Mongols, tea regained its popularity. Tea growers began experimenting with new ways of processing tea leaves. The leaves were steamed, dried, and crumbled -- methods that more closely resemble modern processing methods -- and they were steeped in teapots. The loose-leaf tea could be more easily shipped to far-off locations. Tea could now travel the world.

Journey to Japan

There are also two legends about how tea came to Japan. The first tells the story of a Buddhist priest named Yeisei, who on a trip to China noticed that tea drinking kept monks alert during long hours of meditation. Yeisei brought tea back with him to Japan, and he is considered to be the father of tea in that country. Another legend credits a Japanese monk named Dengyo Daishi with bringing the first seeds of the tea shrub to Japan around a.d. 805. However it entered the country, tea quickly became a beloved drink there.

Tea was first used in Zen Buddhist religious ceremonies, and the renowned Japanese tea ceremony was an outgrowth of this practice. The detailed and beautiful ceremony reflects Zen philosophy and inspired the development of many significant Japanese cultural institutions.

Though it took centuries, it was only a matter of time before tea made its way to the West. On the next page, learn about the arrival of tea in Europe.

To learn more about tea, see: