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History of Tea in China

While most agree that tea was first discovered in China about 5000 years ago, the specifics of tea's discovery are lost forever in the mists of time. The oft repeated tale tells the story of the legendary emperor Shen Nung who discovered tea in 2737 B.C., when a few leaves from a wild tea plant fell into his boiling water. The emperor found the resulting drink to his liking.

Chinese historians warn that this colorful story should not be taken literally because Shen Nung, who is also known as the Divine Cultivator, may never have existed as more than a Chinese legend. Still, any literary reference to tea, no matter how ancient, is more likely based upon the far older oral traditions of China, so tea is without a doubt one of the oldest beverages known to man.

During the third millennium B.C. in China, healers experimented with the medicinal qualities of herbs, and it is likely that the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, was among those used at that time.

One of the difficulties in clearly identifying the origin of tea stems from the early use of the Chinese character t'u to represent tea and at least one other plant, the sowthistle, which is botanically unrelated to the tea plant. While several early references to the character t'u exist in Chinese literature, there is much uncertainty as to whether the tea plant was actually the herb being discussed. It is known that Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was an advocate of a beverage made from an herb called "t'u;" although some doubt that this was an infusion made from Camellia sinensis, it is quite likely that this was indeed the same tea that we enjoy today.

It appears that the character ch'a was in use by the time of the western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-7 A.D.), as a specific reference to tea (Camellia sinensis), but interestingly, ch'a differs from t'u only by the lack of a single stroke. An early use of ch'a may have been to differentiate the higher grade teas from those of lesser quality. By the eighth century A.D. ch'a became synonymous with tea -- more correctly, green tea (the Chinese had not yet developed a process for making black tea).

According to tea sage Lu Yu's Canon of Tea, which was written in the eighth century (T'ang Dynasty), tea was used as a medicinal during the Zhou Dynasty (eleventh century B.C.), and tea's use as a medicine probably continued for several centuries before it became more widely consumed as a beverage. Even today many Chinese believe that tea has health benefits beyond those which can be ascribed to its vitamin and mineral content. Certain teas, such as Pu-Erh, are especially prized for their health benefits, and increasingly, modern scientific studies are substantiating some of these claims.

The use of tea as a non-medicinal beverage probably began about two thousand years ago, but the scarcity of tea leaves restricted consumption to royalty and wealthy elders. By the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), tea became a drink not only of the privileged few, but also of poets, scholars, and artists. During the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), tea was the customary beverage offered to visitors, and from that time forward tea has been, more than any other beverage, the symbol of social grace in Asia and around the world.

During the Song dynasty, tea was commonly prepared by grinding the leaves into a very fine powder, which was then whipped with hot water and served in shallow bowls. The entire process of preparing tea became a means of tranquilizing the mind, and eventually tea gained an even greater appreciation as a way to achieve a balanced and wholesome relationship between the body and the soul.

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