Origin of Tea

Chinese history sets the origin of tea in the year 2737 BC. The most commonly myth and legend state that it was Shen Nung-emperor, scholar, and herbalist-who first recognized tea’s healthful properties and refreshing taste when a few leaves drifted down from a tree and fell by chance into his container of boiling water.

Other stories of tea’s discovery have been told over centuries, but all praise tea’s ability to alleviate drowsiness, assist in concentration, restore energy, combat depression, and revive the spirit. Recognized from the earliest days as a tonic herb, tea was drunk by the Chinese as a digestive aid and applied topically in ointments to alleviate common ailments such as skin troubles and rheumatism.

During the rule of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), tea became more and more popular. By the end of the third century AD, tea had become China’s national drink, and in the year 332, Zhang Yi was the first to write about tea manufacture. During the fourth and fifth centuries, many new tea growing areas were established along the Yangtze River Valley and tea was now consumed not only as a tonic brew, but as a pleasurable drink as well. Under the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906), a strict code of tea etiquette evolved and a new professional class of tea masters acquired and important role in society as employees of the emperor and wealthy mandarins.

By the end of the eight century, the Chinese were trading their green teas to Tibet and the Arab lands in the west, to the Turks and tribes living in the Himalayas and along the Silk Road trading route linking India to Macedonia. From 960 to 1279, when the Song Dynasty ruled the land, the tea house became the focus of Chinese social life and gathering place for merchants, dealers, friends, and families to chat, talk business, relax, and play cards or chess while enjoying professional storytellers, poets, jugglers, and actors who entertained there.

China’s trade with the outside world gradually increased until, in the late sixteen century, Europeans began to show an interest in exporting tea back to their capital cities. By now most teas were no longer compressed into cakes, but were stored and sold as loose-leaf teas. The Chinese devised a method for manufacturing black teas that allowed the leaves to oxidize naturally before being dried to a dark, coppery color. The Chinese continued to mainly drink green tea, but the black variety found burgeoning markets as European trading companies imported ever-increasing amounts of tea.