Chinese Beginnings

According to Chinese legend, tea was discovered by emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C.E. While boiling water one morning, leaves from a nearby plant fell into the pot. He liked the taste and discovered that not only did this new infusion of herbs quench thirst, but also reduced the need for sleep and cheered the heart. He continued to drink what we now know as tea, and shared the beverage with others.

The Japanese legend tells a different tale. According to the Japanese, the Chinese Buddhist saint, Bodhidharma, became so overwhelmed by sleep while meditating that he tore off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. They took root and a tea plant grew. This explains both the invigorating effects of tea and the eyelid shape of the leaf (Ukers 1935: 7).

Demand in China for the new medicinal drink grew slowly, but eventually caused the destruction of many of the tea tree forests in China, as the entire tree was cut down to strip it of its leaves. With the appearance of tea cultivation, the plant was prevented from completely disappearing. By 350 CE tea drinking was common in China, and many grew the herb privately.

Tea was thought of as a medicinal drink in China until late in the sixth century. In 780 CE Chinese merchants commissioned the Ch'a Ching, a book about the history of tea to extol its virtues. An abridged version of the Ch'a Ching's description of the proper tea making process is as follows: after being plucked on a sunny day, the tea leaves must be baked over an even fire, with no wind. After baking they should be placed in a paper bag to cool. When completely cold the leaves can be ground. Then spring water should be heated to just under the boiling point and a pinch of salt added. Then bring it to a second boil, and stir only the middle portion of the liquid. Steep the ground tea leaves in this water in each cup individually and drink before it cools. The first and second cups taste the best, and more than four or five cups should not be consumed. The skill of making tea properly was highly valued in China, and an inability to make tea well, and with elegance, would cause disgrace. Making tea was an honor, and only the lord of the house was allowed this privilege and duty (Ukers 1935).

Tea drinking was especially popular in the T'ang Dynasty, 620 to 907 CE. Several different preparations were used to make tea, including the addition of onion, ginger, orange, or peppermint. Milk and sugar were never added to tea, although both were available and used in other foods. Different preparations of teas held different medicinal purposes, although by this time tea was primarily thought of as a beverage in spite of its believed healing properties.

Tea was a drink of the working people and the aristocracy, and was often drunk while entertaining, both casually and formally. Visitors were served tea, prepared by the lord of the house. Although consumed universally throughout China, tea was identified primarily with the southern and central provinces, where it played an important role in betrothals. It was the symbol of new marriages, as it was said that both tea bushes and new families must grow from a new seed. (Ukers 1935).

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