The Origin of Tea

Shennong

Shennong

       The origin of tea needs to be traced back to a long time ago. According to the legend story in China, it is Shennong, which is also known as the Yan Emperor, discovered the tea first. Base on the description, Shennong has a crystal belly, which allows seeing into it, so he could easily see how those herbs works and know if they are helpful or poison.

Classic of tea

Classic of Tea

       According to the “Shennong Bencao Jing” and “The Classic of Tea”, it was Shennong first discovered the tea. It was not named as “茶”(the Chinese name of tea, sounds as “cha”) but “荼”(sounds as “tu”) in the beginning. Until Lu Yu used “cha” in his “The Classic of Tea”, and then the word “cha” has been clarified as the formal name of tea.

Li Shizhen

Li Shizhen

       At the beginning, tea is mostly used as medicine. The efficacy of tea was recorded by books like “Xinxiu Bencao” and “Bencao Gangmu”. Recorded by “Bencao Gangmu”, tea is “bitter and cold, the most yin, shen, and low, best on put” Although people say that it isalso Shennong who first invented tea as the drink, the legend of how he invented the tea drink conflicts with the record of how he discovered the tea leafs could be use a medicine. 

tea picking

tea picking

       When did tea start to become a drink is unable to find out. But the records of tea using other than medicine can be traced back to about Zhou dynasty. According to the “Classic of Poetry”, farmers would collect tea leafs and use (drink or eat) them. By the Tang dynasty, tea was certainly been widely used as drinking. 

Additional Reading:

LIU, J. C. Y. (2011), Between Classical and Popular: The Book of Tea and the Popularization of Tea-Drinking Culture in the Tang China. The Journal of Popular Culture, 44: 114–133. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2010.00822.x

Lu Yu, The Classic of Tea