The History of Tea

By Michael Kachitsa

It is difficult to tell who invented tea or where and how the first cup of tea came to be brewed. Legend has it that the discovery of tea was made when Emperor Shen Nung of China came across the Camellia sinensis plant back in 2737BC; a few leaves stirred by the wind fell into a pot of boiling water as his troops took refuge under the tree, giving the world its first taste of tea. Others claim that tea originated in 1500 BC–1046 BC in China and was discovered by the Shang Dynasty as a medicated drink.

There are other gruesome tales that tell of the origin of tea; the founder of Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma, accidentally fell asleep for nine years and woke up in such disgust that he decided to cut off his own eyelids. It’s believed that these took roots in the ground and grew to become the first tea bushes. Whether or not these legends have any real facts attached to them can never be decoded, but the fact of the matter is that tea has played a significant role in Asian culture for centuries and become a staple beverage. It is not just a curative but also a status symbol, and it comes as no surprise that its popularity spread to the world over the years.

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Tea is believed to be discovered sometime between 30th century BC and 21st century BC. It was initially used as medicine in ancient China, where people chewed on fresh leaves for their refreshing and invigorating effect before they learned to brew it in water to make a drink out of it. By 722 BC – 221 BC, the Chinese started to brew the leaves, adding to the concoction other ingredients like ginger, tangerine peel, scallion, and cornel.

Tea became a part of their food, and the Lei Cha of Tu Jia is evidence of this. This concoction was mixed with rice and eaten as a meal, rather than enjoyed like a beverage. It was only between 202 BC and 220 AD that tea evolved as a beverage in China, offered as a refreshing drink to officials and noble lords. By then varieties of tea had been discovered, and rare kinds were brought to emperors as gifts because it was a coveted trade object. It is also during this period that trading of tea became a commercial activity. In the years that followed, between 420 and 589 BC, tea drinking became popular as a Chinese tradition.

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Its consumption increased rapidly, and methods for cultivating tea started to be explored to keep up with demands. In Lu Yu’s Cha Jing’s time, tea cultivation became prosperous. In the years between 618 and 907 BC, the Tang Dynasty planted several tea trees all over the country and Japanese monks travelled back to their own countries with a few seeds. From here on, tea left the Chinese soils for the first time and was introduced to Japan. Years 960 – 1279 BC saw more development, as varieties of scented tea were explored in Wu Yi Tea from Fujian Province in China.

Between the years of 1271 – 1368 BC, there was a remarkable development in tea crafting methods. made tea was tried out, though the commoners still used loose tea for their drinking practices. Tea Cakes and Tuocha were still popular as tribute given to royal and noble Lords in exchange for favours, as these were still indulgent items that were also the best in quality. It was during the Ming dynasty that the concept of roasting tea leaves came into being. Years between 1368 and 1644 as the time that the leaves were made into strips and cakes were replaced with loose tea leaves to make drinks. When the Qing dynasty ruled China in the years from 1636 – 1911, tea had become a staple and various species like the yellow tea, oolong tea, green tea, white tea, dark tea, flower tea, black tea and more had become quite popular. As the export of tea became popular, tea brought foreign trade to Chinese shores and became a popular drink.