The history of tea is intertwined with the history, philosophy, medicine, economics, religion and literature of many Asian countries. The stories that trace its origin are a mixture of myth and history that makes the exact beginnings difficult to ascertain. While there is evidence that tea cultivation began in the first century B.C., it was around the 5th century A.D. that tea cultivation became much more widespread.
According to Japanese myth, the origin of the tea plant itself is credited to the Chinese Buddhist saint Bodhidharma. While meditating one day Bodhidharma fell asleep and was so distraught by this shortcoming that he tore off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. The eyelids took root and sprouted the world’s first tea plant. This myth explains both the tea leaf’s shape and its invigorating effects.
The discovery of tea’s comestible qualities is credited to Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 B.C. Shen Nong, known as the father of Chinese agriculture, invented the plow and was actively interested in researching various plants and herbs for use as both food and medicine – many of which were toxic and purportedly brought him close to death several times. On one such occasion, the emperor was suffering under the shadow of a tea tree. Out of desperation, he plucked a leaf from the tree and ate it. The leaf not only cured his ailment but he found that it also had an intriguing flavor. In a less dramatic tale, Shen Nong’s servants boil water for the emperor’s meal and some dried leaves from overhanging tree make their way into the pot of hot water. Curious, Shen Nong tasted the now amber liquid and was astonished by the fine flavor.
Following its discovery, tea was quickly incorporated into Chinese medicine and its gustatory qualities were further revealed. Apart from its medicinal uses, tea was often consumed as a vegetable. Sometime in the 3rd or 4th century A.D., tea leaves steeped in hot water became a part of the Buddhist religious practices. It was at this time that tea became appreciated for its ability to stimulate the mind while also enhancing a state of contemplative calm very well suited to the practice of meditation.
Tea drinking continued to gain popularity in the 6th and 7th centuries, especially as a popular drink in everyday life. Yet even casual tea drinking retained a spiritual association; families and friends shared in what was becoming a private ceremonial act. In 800 A.D. the Chinese poet Lu Yu wrote the Ch’a Ching, a very detailed account of the cultivation, preparation and enjoyment of tea. This book, commissioned by tea merchants, further established tea drinking as an opportunity for introspection , a chance for deeper understanding of others and the achievement of harmony with both nature and society.
Tea made made its way to Japan in 1193 A.D. when a Japanese monk named Eisai, after studying Zen Buddhism in China returned to his country with a tea plant stashed in his napsack. He later wrote the first Japanese book on tea, “Treatise on Drinking Tea for Health”, marking the start of tea cultivation and tea culture in Japan.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that tea made its way to Europe. Portugese traders most likely had the first contact with tea, and the magical leaves came to England from Venice in the early 1500s. Large-scale transport of tea from China by the Dutch didn’t occur until the early 17th century.
Today, tea still comes primarily from China (including Taiwan), India, Sri Lanka and Japan. Cultivation, harvest, preparation and production varies from the largest bulk tea producers to the most exquisite artisan teas from the rarest plantations handled only by hand from plucking to preparation. The world of tea has moved away from the classic black tea blends of Western Europe to single varieties of black, oolong, green and even white tea. While the majority of tea consumed in the United States is by way of the tea bag, more and more people are discovering the special qualities found only in whole leaf loose tea. The discovery of tea and its diversity of colors, aromas and flavors continues to play out not only in individual tea “ceremonies” but also in the scientific community as recent studies of tea’s health effects have shown a correlation between the consumption of green tea and positive effects on the cardiovascular system.