Image by Xu Jetian - Scanned by Szilas from the book Kínai költészet (Chinese poetry, ISBN 963 9283 06 1), Public Domain
Tea is truly one of the planet’s oldest traditions. So old that we have no historic record to indicate where it originated. The earliest writing on Chinese tea is a preparation guide written sometime between 760 - 762 CE in the Tang dynasty called The Classic of Tea, but just last year, the remains of tea cakes were discovered in an unearthed emperor’s tomb from the Han dynasty, which predates The Classic of Tea by at least 500 years.
Stop and think about that for a moment - how many things do you do on a daily basis that people still did 500 years ago? How about 2,000 years ago?
Because tea might actually be that old. We have no way of knowing, since myths and legends surround the origin of tea. Our only clue to the discovery of tea is a mythic Emperor God: Shennong.
Image by Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506) (attrib.) - Sesshu: Master of Ink and Brush (500th Anniversary Exhibition) Mainichi Newspapers 2002, Public Domain
The history of China is one of the longest traditions on the planet, and the earliest stories of Chinese history take on a mythic quality. The legendary emperor Shennong is a classic example. According to popular legend, he ruled sometime around 2800 BC, before the first recorded dynasty, the Xia. (The Xia dynasty is considered to be the first in traditional Chinese history, though the only records were written centuries later in the Zhou dynasty.)
The Xia dynasty predates the earliest known Chinese writing system, and no archaeological finds to prove its existence. Traditional Chinese history describes Shennong as a real person of ancient times, but he is also known as a god of farming and medicine.
Shennong's Discovery of Tea
Shennong is credited as being the first to recognize the benefits of tea as part of Chinese medicine, and it is at this point where history and myth collide. There are two popular versions of how Shennong discovered tea:
In one version, Shennong is a mortal emperor, and one day calls for a servant to boil water, purifying it to drink. As the servant makes his way back, a tea leaf falls off a tree and lands in the water without the servant noticing. Shennong drinks the tea-infused water, and is struck by its pure taste.
Image by Guo Xu (1456–c.1529) - Telling Images of China (exhibit). Dublin: Chester Beatty Library. Public Domain
The second version of Shennong is a god with transparent skin, through which he can directly observe the effect the herbs and plants he eats have on his body. One day after eating 72 herbs (some of which are poisonous) he tries tea for the first time, and it clears the toxins from his body.
While we have no idea how old the practice of tea farming and tea making are, Chinese legend dates tea to be nearly 4,000 years old. The next time you brew your tea, remember that you’re partaking in a tradition so historic that it was born in a time beyond human memory - a time when emperors were gods.
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