There are many legends in China and the East about the origins of both green and black tea. In addition to the accidental discovery of tea by Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 BCE, there are other stories and legends throughout the world as to how tea first came to be and about the many healing properties of the herb, Camelia sinensis, that all true teas come from.
Tea in China
The herbalists, healers and doctors of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) are renowned for their vast knowledge of how to diagnose various diseases and illnesses as well as how to treat them through the properties found within the herbs. For millennia, these healers studied the properties of the plants and handed them down from teacher to student.
One of these ancient herbalists had managed to gather the healing knowledge of no fewer than 100,000 herbs and their healing secrets and properties. The master herbalist, being advanced in years, began to pass his knowledge along to his son. Over the course of a few years, the herbalist did manage to pass along the knowledge of 80,000 herbs and healing secrets to his son.
Unfortunately, however, the herbalist became gravely ill. He realized that he was not likely to pass on the remaining 20,000 secrets to his son before he died. On his deathbed, the herbalist made his son promise to come to his grave on the anniversary of his death when five years had passed. In return, the old herbalist promised that he would then pass along the remaining 20,000 secrets to his son and he would know all that he needed to in order to be an effective healer to others. The old man then closed his eyes for the last time and died. His grieving family buried him somewhere in the mountainous regions of China where he loved to spend time in nature and gathering herbs.
Exactly five years later, on the anniversary of his father’s death, the son kept his promise and returned to his father’s grave. In the spot where the master herbalist was buried grew a beautiful and fully mature tree. This tree was the tea plant. It is said that true the word given to him by his father, the young herbalist learned the remaining 20,000 secrets that his father knew just by working with this single plant.
Tea Legends of Japan
Tea is considered the official national drink of Japan. There are rules and ceremonies surrounding tea, such as how it is presented, brewed and consumed within Japanese culture. While scientists fully admit that tea originated in China and later migrated to Japan, one legend that is centuries old claims that it was a young dedicant to a Shinto or Shaolin temple who discovered tea during meditation.
As part of his penitence, he vowed he should not sleep for seven years. Of course, being young and inexperienced in the rigors of meditation for long periods, he fell asleep that same night. Furious with himself, he cut off his eyelids, and threw them onto the ground. Almost instantaneously, tea plants grew in the exact spots where they landed. The monk was so amazed by this he prepared himself a drink from the leaves of the plants that had grown.
People of every class all over Japan heard of the wonder that had happened to the young monk and came to witness it for themselves. The drink was both stimulating and relaxing and became inextricably linked within Japanese life. It is interesting to note that the kanji letter in Japanese writing used for the word eyelid and the word tea are based on the same character.
The Legend of Tea in India
The legend of how tea came to India is very similar to the one told in Japan. The People of India believer that in the year 500 A.D. it was Bodhidharma that discovered tea during a meditation exercise at a Hindu temple which lasted seven years. Bodhidharma, not unlike the Japanese monk, also began to feel exhausted during his meditation. Rather than succumb to sleep, Bodhidharma removed his eyelids so that he could continue to meditate without falling asleep.
In a similar fashion to the Japanese legend, Bodhidharma also cast aside the offending flesh and tea plants sprung up where they landed. Bodhidharma, however, did not prepare a beverage. Instead he picked a few of the leaves and ate them in order to help stave off the hunger in his belly. After eating the leaves, Bodhidharma noticed that not only had his hunger disappeared, but he felt energized and more wakeful than before.
Such legends give us clues as to how tea and its use spread across the world. People across Asia and India appreciate find that this particular legend wonderfully ties the consumption of tea to aspects of daily life, their cultural and spiritual practices and to meditation.
Tea Legends of Korea
The people of the Korean Peninsula also consider tea to be an important part of their religion and culture. Koreans know that tea originated in China and celebrate their own legend of tea’s origins. King Suro, who was descended from the deities of the sky, married Princess Heo Hwang-ok who came from the Ayuta region of India. She brought with her a boat laden with tea seeds as part of her marriage dowry. Korean monks had journeyed to China and learned how to plant, nurture and harvest the tea seeds. One of those monks, Yandi Shen Nong, is to this day regarded as the Korean saint of tea.
The Migration of Tea Around the World
Of course, because both green and black tea are so delicious and enjoyable, it managed to make its migration on its own to even more regions in Southeast Asia and the Middle East as well as Russia and Eastern Europe.
It wasn’t until the 17th Century that tea arrived in England and Europe. In 1669, was brought to England and was only allowed to be consumed by royalty and then later by well-to-do nobles. In that time, tea was something that only the wealthy could afford. Later, however, through the establishment of the East India Trading Company and other entrepreneurial merchants in England, tea came to be enjoyed throughout the ever-expanding British Empire and the world.
While the legends and history surrounding tea and its origins may vary depending on where you go, one thing is certain, tea production and consumption around the world has grown and is now enjoyed around the world today by nearly everyone.