Tea has a long and storied history, dating back thousands of years. Some of it is more folklore than fact, but the stories are entertaining and the ancient uses of tea are fascinating. The origin of tea can be traced back to China, India, Myanmar, and the lower elevations of the Himalayas.
The earliest legend about tea tells of its discovery by Shennong, a character of somewhat mythological proportions in China. Legend has it that around 2737 B.C.E. Shennong was sitting near a campfire where a cauldron of water was boiling. Then a breeze blew the leaves of the tea plant into the boiling water. Shennong drank the tea leaf-infused water and remarked how alert and clear-headed he felt (an effect we know today to come from caffeine and L-Theanine). Shennong is considered one of the great early emperors of China, is thought to have introduced agriculture practices to China, and is regarded as the father of Chinese medicine including acupuncture and herbalism.
One of the foundational texts on Chinese herbalism, known as Shennong’s Classic of Herbs, complied around 206 B.C.E. discussed the use of tea as cure-all for many common illnesses and an antidote to poisoning from others herbs. This book is also called The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic (神农本草经; pinyin: Shénnóng běncǎo jīng).
Among the more fantastical stories of tea is that of the 5th Century C.E. (AD) Bodhidharma. During his 9 year meditation vigil, the Bodhidharma fell asleep. When he woke up, legend has it he cut off his eyelids to prevent himself from ever falling asleep again. Where his eyelids landed, the first tea plant grew. And ever since then monks have drunk tea to promote wakefulness and focus during meditation.
The first comprehensive guide to tea was written by the Tang Dynasty poet, Lu Yu, in the year 760 C.E. The Classic of Tea (茶經; pinyin: chájīng) describes everything from the origin, to the characteristics of quality tea leaves, to processing and drying, to proper utensils for and means of preparation, to methods and reasons for drinking tea.
Returning to a medicinal perspective on tea, The Compendium on Materia Medica (本草綱目; pinyin: Běn Cǎo Gāng Mù), describes tea in herbalism terms. “Tea, bitter and cold … is strongly anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is the cause of many diseases” (source). This book by Li Shizhen was written during the Ming Dynasty (1593 AD).
With a history like that, how could you not love tea?