Tea history begins with this legend: “Once, on a cool autumn morning, the Emperor Shennong was feeling a bit ill. He went to his favorite garden and had a little pot of boiling water sent in, to both warm him and ease his indigestion. A northwesterly wind was blowing through the air, and a few leaves were blown out of the beautiful tree that grew in his garden. The leaves landed in the hot water in his cup, and then, not noticing how they changed the color of his drink, the Emperor reached down and had a long sip! His eyebrows went up, and he looked down at his drink. After a crucial moment in tea history, he realized what had happened. He called to his servants, and there and then created the first tea farm in China!”
The legend is beautiful, but according to the somewhat flavorless standards of Western writers, tea history predates writing and is therefore lost to the mists of time. We can speculate that the drinking of tea first occurred just as agriculture reached into the highlands where China, Tibet and Myanmar converge and where the plant naturally flourishes. What is almost certain is that when these first primitive tribes of humans made their way through these mountains of Southeast Asia and settled down into villages, they found new kinds of plants everywhere and slowly tested them for edibility. Tea history actually began with this experimental period, when villagers also put grain in water and allowed to sit for awhile, creating alcohol (along with all its effects). This era was also when a few poppy plants were thrown into a fire, the villagers discovered that breathing the smoke had a soothing, dizzying effect, and so opium was discovered. And when a few leaves of the tea plant were brewed in hot water, a blessedly delicate broth with wonderful, healthy, mind-clearing effects appeared. The first written entry of tea history came when travelers brought the drink down from the mountains and northeast into China, about 6000 or 5000 years ago. When tea drinking made its way there, the world’s oldest ongoing civilization rapidly embraced the brew. The province of Yunan was the first area where the Chinese began drinking and growing the brew, and has thus is considered to be the “birthplace” of tea history.
From China, the practice of tea cultivation and brewing spread out across the world. Monks took the plant to Korean and Japan in about 500 AD to 600 AD, and the drink was known throughout Indonesia and India soon after. Tea made it to the Middle East by overland routes, and tea was popular in Turkey from the 12th century onwards. It took the Europeans about another 1000 years to make regular shipping contacts with China, in the 17th century, and the practice of tea drinking then spread to the rest of the world. Modern tea history concludes with its position today as the world’s most popular beverage, after water! Now cultivated on all seven continents and available everywhere, tea is a wonderful and healthy beverage that can be offered to anyone.