The Discovery of Tea and The Legend of Shennong

According to The Classic of Tea written by Lu Yu in Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), the practice of tea drinking started since Shennong (also known as Emperor of the Five Grains). There are several accounts of Shennong’s discovery of tea.

According to the history of tea, Shennong was the first one who used tea. Shennong, also called Yandi, was one of the three emperors in the ancient time who was believed to be living in the Shennong period about 2700 year ago.

The first story said that Shennong often went to the mountains to collect herbs in order to treat people’s diseases. He not only needed to walk a lot, but also had to test the medical functions of different herbs in person. One day Shennong ate a poisonous herb and immediately felt dizzy and had a dry mouth and numb tongue. He sat down with his back leaning towards a tree right away and rested with his eyes closed. A few fragrant green leaves fell from the tree following a breeze. Shennong picked them up, put them in the mouth and chewed. He felt refreshed at once and all of the symptoms went away. He was surprised and looked at the leaves carefully. He found the shape, leaf vein and leaf margin were different from other trees. Shennong collected some and took them back for further research. He named it as “Tea” finally. This was said to be the first discovery of tea.

The second story went like this…Shennong was treating people’s diseases and often went to the mountains to collect herbs. He usually took the herbal medicine by himself first after cooking them so that he would have a better sense of their medical value. One day Shennong collected a big bag of herbs and divided into different groups according to their functions. He made a fire and started to boil a pot of water under a tree.  When he was about to put the herbs in the boiling water, a few leaves fell in the pot. He soon smelt a pleasant scent, and saw the water turning to yellow and green. He tried the soup, which tasted a little bitter at first but soon he tasted sweetness. What’s more, he no longer felt thirsty and tired but rather had a clear mind. He was really excited and picked up the leaves and watched slowly. It didn’t match any trees around him. Shennong thought it must been a present from the heaven as a reward to his devotion to improving the health of people. He continued to investigate the functions of this leaf and go to a lot of places to find them again. He eventually found the same leaves on some wild and huge trees in the mountain, and named it as “Tea” that we are drinking today. Tea is believed to be refreshing, preventing thirst, diuretic and detoxifying, and is thus beneficial to one’s health.

A Brief History of Chinese Tea

Tea trees according to many Chinese scholars were first found and used in China. Since ancient times, Chinese people has discovered and used tea in their life. According to Shennong Bencaojing (also called The Classic of Herbal Medicine), Shennong tested hundreds of herbs, 72 of which were poisonous every day, and tea was used in the end to detoxify him. Records show that tea was one of the articles of tribute in Bashu area (today’s Sichuan Province) during 1122 BC-1116 BC.

In a book called Tongyue written by Wang Bao from Sichuan during 57BC -54BC, tea drinking was popular in Sichuan province, and tea cooking utensils were also mentioned. It means as early as Qin and Han Dynasty, tea production in Sichuan has started to take shape. Tealeaves began to be famous for its three characteristics: color, flavor and taste, and are widely used in many ways such as medicine, funeral, ritual, food, or luxuries for upper class. And there were tea markets forming in Wuyang (today’s Pengshan county in Sichuan Province).

Several large-scale wars broke out during the Spring and Autumn and Warring State Period (770 BC – 221 BC), and early Western Han Period (202 BC – 8 AD). Several great migrations caused by the wars resulted in the exchange of regional business, techniques and culture. Production technology and drinking practice of tea were introduced from Sichuan to political, economic and cultural centers like Shanxi and Henan Province, which became two of the oldest tea growing areas in North China. And it further spread to the Southern part of China through Yangtze River. In Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), according to historical records, tea trees from Sichuan have been planted in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Province.

Tea production was growing during Northern and Southern Dynasties (265-587 AD) and tea was soon commercialized as a popular product instead of a luxury. Tea businessmen, however, still focused on quality control in order to sell at a higher price. In early Northern and Southern Dynasties, fine teas from places such as Zhejiang Province were used as tributes to the court.

Buddhism was introduced to China from the west in Han Dynasty, and it thrived during Northern and Southern Dynasties. Tea is closely connected to Buddhism and Zen as it is good for calming and meditation, and keeping someone sober at night. Thereafter, tea has been introduced to famous and local temples all over China. Many famous teas, including Mengding from Sichuan, Yunwu from Lu Mountain, Maofeng from Yellow Mountain, Yunding from Tiantai Mountain, Maofeng from Yandang Mountain, Yunwu from Tianri, Yunwu and Qingding from Tianmu, Jingshan and Longjing, are all produced near influential Buddhist and Taoist temples by famous mountains and rivers. In this regard, Buddhist and Taoist followers were also making a contribution to the planting, making and development of tea. After Northern and Southern Dynasties, quite a number of literati were escaping from the dark realities by drinking tea and writing poems all day long. The demand of tea continued to grow, when tea became a daily drink for everyone in the Jiangnan area.

The country was unified again in Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), and the national policy emphasizing the importance of agriculture resulted in the growth of tea production. Tea business thrived in the peaceful and prosperous environment and reached its first peak in the history. Tea drinking was popular around the country and became a custom for common people. Tea planting areas expanded to 14 districts including Yangtze River, Zhujiang River, Shanxi and Henan Province. Steamed green tea from Wuyi Mountain had a high reputation at that time as well. The tea industry continued to develop in Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), which could be seen from the expansion of planting areas, the rising new brands of teas, and the increase in production.

Tea production had a further development in Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD). As the techniques of small tea business were improving, more and more local brands were created and regarded as precious teas that were especially popular in the South. Another achievement of that time is the use of mechanical devices in the tea production process.  According to the records by Wang Zhen, watermills were used to grind tea leaves, which was an advancement than the previous dynasty.

In Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang replaced the old policies with those that were promoting the innovation of tea production techniques. Thus, Ming Dynasty is an important era of the history of tea in China that has the fastest development as well as biggest achievements in tea production. In terms of the tealeaves processing techniques, steaming used until Yuan Dynasty was replaced by stir fixation in most tea workshops, while sunning was used in few places. Tea leaves were lightly rolling in a better shape for the first time. And tea making was no longer of a process of boiling tealeaf powder with water in the pot, but instead steeping tea leaves directly.  It set up a great foundation for the birth of modern tea techniques.

Tea production has become a considerably developed industry until the end of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD), when 16 provinces (districts) and over 600 counties(cities) were producing tea in mainland China. There were up to 1500 acres of tea tree planting areaa, which is the largest and also accounts for 44% of the total area in the world. Tea production since then has exceeded 8 million dan, the second largest in the world, and takes up 17% of the total production. In 1984 more than 2.8 million dan of tea were exported abroad, accounting for 16% of the global exports. Statistics also shows that about 2.54 million dan of tea were exported to other countries from mainland China in 1880, and increased to 2.68 dan in 1886, which was the best record ever.

Alternative Looks at the History of Tea

Tea drinking has become a popular activity not only for the royal families but common people during Tang Dynasty. Gong Tea from Mount Tanggong in Yangxian was a rare and luxury tea loved by the royal family. In order to be delivered to Chang’an (the capital) by Qingming, the tea was carried by horses galloping days and nights. Upon arriving the capital, it was used in grand rituals and Qingming feasts, and then rewarded to high-ranked officials. With the support from the government, tea trees are not growing in the wild any more, but instead planted and cared deliberately. Tea tax was hence invented for farmers who were planting tea trees.

The fashion in the upper class is definitely influencing the taste of common people. Tea drinking gradually turned from an activities in the court to a popular practice for thousands of ordinary people, especially for those in the big cities. Records can be found in more and more historical materials showing the popularity of tea drinking. Lu Yu (733–804) of the Tang Dynasty is respected as the Sage of Tea for his contribution to Chinese tea culture. He wrote a the Classic of Tea, the first definite work on cultivating, making and drinking tea. There are three volumes and ten sections in the book, which gives a broad introduction to the origin, tools, making and rituals of tea. It provides the guideline for all the later writings on tea culture.   

Many other celebrities of Tang Dynasty were tea lovers, such as Lu Tong (795-835 AD). Lu Tong is a poet known for his lifetime study of the Tea culture.

Tea was also exported to other countries at that time. An official position was specially set to manage tea export issues. In addition, there were many Japanese students coming to study. One of them was a Buddhist monk Saichō. He took a tea tree sapling with him when he returned to Japan, which is believed to be the first tea tree in Japan. Another Zen master Eisai came to China in Song Dynasty and he wrote a book Tea Drinking Cure in 1214, which became the classic of tea in Japan. Thereafter, tea ceremony became popular in Japan and many schools rose. They imbued tea ceremony with Japanese spirit, religious and ritual meaning and made it as Japanese tea ceremony.

Song Dynasty 

Tea drinking practices of Song Dynasty basically followed the rules of Tang, and was further developed to a higher stage. Tea drinking matches the theory of neo-Confucianism at that time and therefore, literati were eager to talk about the quality, cooking, drinking and benefits of tea. And mint, orange skins were no longer added while cooking tea. There are more poems and writings about tea. And tea is an indispensable part of daily life and rituals such as for wedding ceremony.

And Emperor Huizong who was famous for his strong interest in arts, was the author of twenty articles about tea.

Literati such as Ouyang Xiu, Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Si Maguang and Cai Junmo in Song Dynasty were experts on tasting tea. They left us beautiful poems and writings on the merits of tea, the most famous ones among which were the competition between Su Dongpo and Cai Junmo, and the debate on tea and ink between Su Dongpo and Sima Guang. In addition, a well-known story of Cai Xiang goes like… A monk from Nengren temple in Jian’an, Fujian Province made eight teacakes, and named them as Shiyan White. He gave four to Cai Xiang, and the other four to a Hanlin Academy member Yu Yu. One year later Caixiang visited Yu Yu in Beijing and was served with Yu’s best tea. Cai merely took a sip before he said it tasted just like the Shiyan White tea. He was praised such an expert on tea.

Yuan Dynasty

The greatest development in the history of tea in Yuan Dynasty was that tea was introduced to a much larger domain, which reached Russia in the North, Persia and the east coast of Mediterranean in the West. Although there is no records about tea business at that time, considering that Yuan was dominated by the nomads, who had been awarded tea by rulers in Tang and Song Dynasty. It is very possible that tea will be gradually accepted and appreciated by the Yuan rulers and be introduced to a larger area along with their territorial expansion. And we can see from the Yuan poems that tea is already as usual as rice in the life of ordinary people at that time.

Ming Dynasty

The shape of tea turned from teacake to loose tealeaves in Ming Dynasty. Thereupon, the standards of Tang and Song dynasties were either revised or removed. Tea cooking was replaced by tea brewing, and the process was simplified. Stir fixation was invented, which initiated the production of green tea and red tea. However, the tea brewing method then is similar to the tea cooking method, which just simplified the use of utensils and the whole process after all. It was still more complicated than what we are doing nowadays. Teahouse were everywhere as the tea tasting were transferring from indoor to outdoor activities. Besides, tea ceremonies or competitions were often held, when people could show off their skills in tea tasting.

Tea drinking became more and more popular since the Tang and Song Dynasty mainly because the stir fixation was invented and the new trend of loose tea leaves. It made tea drinking simpler than ever before. Tea drinking practice of today is inheriting that of the Ming Dynasty. In other words, it has a history of about 600 years. Nanjing, the capital of Ming Dynasty located in Jiangnan, the origin of tea. Literati had a higher social status than any other classes because of the importance of the imperial examination system in the society. And the four major activities of literati, Guqin, Go, calligraphy and painting are long related to the drinking of tea, which was ranked higher than wine. Tea was also considered an elegant subject for poetry, painting and writing. In addition, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang set a very low tax rate for tea so that people could make greater profits from tea business. As a result, farmers were eager to plant more tea trees and businessmen were selling tea to more and more places. Tea was extremely popular in the whole society in Ming Dynasty. And tea continued to function as an award to the neighboring countries for peace.

On top of the renovations on tea production and making, the preference of tea ware also switched on pottery from porcelain. And there was a much simpler ceremony when tea was used as an offering to the respected ancestors than Tang and Song.

On the other hand, monk Eisai Zenji in the Song Dynasty introduced tea to Japan, so tea offering ceremonies still exist in Japan. If we continue to explore, even the tea ware and their names are the same as those in Song Dynasty. The tea whisk is a good example. Hence, the Chinese tea ceremony of today is an extension of that in Ming Dynasty, while the Japanese tea ceremony inherits the legacy of Tang and Song dynasties and is combined with Japanese culture. There are big differences between those two traditions.

Qing Dynasty

In early Qing dynasty, after the implementation of particularly strict regulations and several literary inquisitions, the majority of literati were frustrated. When the Opium wars broke out, the morale of the whole country was rather weak. The practice of tea drinking was far less popular. And there was few writings or discussions on tea. And tea serving, which used to be the best way of welcoming the guests, instead became a gesture implying or ordering the guests to leave.

Upon the establishment of the Republic of China, tea has become a fully commercialized product. Tea houses had their own features in different area, for example, those in Fuzhou were also running as a bathhouse, those in Guizhou had storytellers, and those in Guangdong offered Kungfu tea. In the case of Taiwan, as the business of coffee shops is developing rapidly over tea houses, it is thus very hard to find a decent tea house. It is not until recently when tea is proved to be beneficial to our health that tea is attracting more and more attention, and more and more teahouses are setting up again.

Tea drinking is definitely part of Chinese life and culture since Ming and Qing Dynasty. It is natural for Chinese to say “drink a cup of tea” when we are thirsty. Nevertheless, when it comes to Tea ceremony or “teaism”, it is considered as part of Japanese culture, just like calligraphy, Go and fencing to Chinese culture. As a response to the requests for reviving Chinese culture, the tea associations are taking responsibility of educating people on the concept of Chinese teaism, allowing them to experience the art of tea.

Tea has a history of more than 2000 years in China since its discovery by Shennong, through the development during Tang and Song, and innovations in Ming and Qing. It has shaped history throughout China and is now a beverage that has both shaped the health and history of China with the rest of the world.