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The Origins of Tea

Aug 18, 2007
Besides water, green tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. It is estimated that over one-half of the world's population drinks tea in some form. Although England and other Northern European countries share a liking for tea with the rest of the world, they don't actually call it by the same word. It is instead called "cha", the Chinese word for it.

Chinese history attributes the origin of the drink cha to one King Shen Nong, also known as the father of agriculture and medicine. It was decreed by this king that for health reasons his subjects would have to boil water before drinking it. One day as Shen Nong sat in the shade of a tea tree while boiling water to drink, a light breeze blew some of the tea leaves into the kettle. When he decided to try a sip of this infusion, he marveled at its delicious taste and at once also felt invigorated. Tea had been invented! King Shen Nong then recommended it to his subjects, declaring that tea gives vigor to the body, contentment to the mind, and determination of purpose.

In short, tea is actually a stimulant drink just like coffee.

For the mythical story, we have the Japanese legend. It involves Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who also was to have brought Zen Buddism to China. So, Bodhidharma had been sitting facing a wall during nine years of meditation, and had fallen asleep during the fifth year. Waking with a start and angry with himself for his laziness, he cut off his own eyelids so that he would never sleep again. Throwing the eyelids to the ground, a tea bush was caused to spring from the ground on the spot. The bush's leaves, when infused with liquid, would prevent sleep.

For printing on the side of a tea box, that gory business with the eyelids is a little too intense for marketing purposes. So instead, the legend is sometimes augmented to say that Bodhidharma awakened and merely told his servants to scour the countryside until they found an herb to keep him awake, and tea was discovered that way.

The Chinese and Japanese later developed the tea ritual into a social and religious rite of exquisite refinement. Throughout the earlier centuries of its use the tea drink always was considered more of a medicine. Like many historic herbs, it was regarded as a remedy for nearly every and any human ailment.

The first published account of methods of planting, processing, and drinking tea appeared in an ancient Chinese dictionary published around 350 AD by Kuo Po, a Chinese author of the Jin dynasty. The book spread the knowledge of tea throughout China, and on into Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Slowly the practice of tea drinking evolved, from the classical "school of tea" where it was prepared as a cake of dried leaves during the Tang Dynasty, to whipped and powdered tea in the Song Dynasty, to the Ming Dynasty, where it was used in whole, loose leaves.

All of this went on and on in China, dating from the first millenium BC all the way to the year 879, as near as we can peg it, when it was at last spread to the Western world. In that year, an obscure and unnamed Arabian traveler brought back stories of tea to his home land, mentioning in his writing that tea and salt were main sources of revenue in a city in China. Next, the famous Marco Polo is credited with officially discovering tea for the West. By the early 17th century, a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company bought a cargo load of the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam from China. Tea was known in France by 1636, and from there spread on into the rest of Europe and the Western world, as well as Russia.

The different pronunciation of the Chinese word for tea, "cha", led to its being called by its English name. This bears an influence on the modern drink "chai", which is tea is prepared with steamed milk, sugar, and spices, rather like our richer coffee-based drinks.
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