The raw leaves of the tea tree were surely used as food from very early times by the native populations of the regions where they grew. In Chinese legend, or myth, the qualities of tea are said to have been first discovered by the Second Emperor, Shen Nung (Divine Healer) (reputed to have reigned 2737- 2697 B.C.), who also discovered millet, medicinal herbs, and invented the plough. His predecessor, Fu-hsi, the First Emperor, had given humanity knowledge of fire, cooking, and music, while the Third Emperor completed the Promethean task of human happiness by revealing the secrets of the vine and astronomy.
There is an early mention of tea being prepared by servants in a Chinese text of 50 B.C.. Certainly tea was being cultivated in Szechwan by the third century A.D.. The first detailed description of tea-drinking is found in an ancient Chinese dictionary, noted by Kuo P'o in A.D. 350. At this time the fresh green leaves were picked, then pressed into cakes, that were roasted to a reddish hue. These were crumbled into water and boiled with the addition of onion, ginger, and orange to give a kind of herbal soup that must have been very bitter but was considered to be good as a remedy for stomach problems, bad eyesight, and many other diseases.
In A.D. 519 the great Indian master Bodhidharma, the traditional founder of the Zen school of Buddhism, came to China. The Japanese sometimes claim that he brought tea with him from India, which seems unlikely; another story says that when he found himself growing weary after staying awake for seven years, he plucked off his eyelids. He threw them to the ground and two tea trees sprang up that had the power to keep him awake and alert. There is certainly an ancient Buddhist tradition of drinking tea before an image of Bodhidharma. However, the same story is also told about the origins of opium!
A major turning-point in the history of tea came in the 8th century, with the composition of the Cha Ching, the Classic of Tea by Lu Yu in 780, which summarizes everything known at that time about every aspect of tea growing and preparation. This seems to have been commissioned by the tea merchants of the time to give a new impetus to the consumption of tea in the upper classes. It certainly succeeded.
The crumbled cakes (or bricks) of tea were now boiled with nothing but a little salt and this was the form of tea that became the national drink of the elite in China's Tang dynasty (618-907). Moreover, since this kind of tea could be transported easily, a taste for it spread far beyond China, into Tibet, along the Silk Road to Turkey and India, and into Russia.
Click to go on to the next page or back to the Index