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In the Time of Legends

Five thousand years ago the legendary Emperor Shen Nung is reputed to have classified 365 species of medicinal plants and is considered the father of traditional Chinese medicine; an ancient practice deeply rooted in Taoism that encompasses the relationship between heaven, earth, and man, and the theory of “opposing natural forces”.

Three thousand years later Confucius was the first to apply this theory and declared that it was man’s responsibility to live a moral and just life, and that by following a code of ethics and behavior man could influence the opposing poles of good and evil that maintain the order of the universe. In time, this theory expanded to describe everything in the universe as opposites, or Yin and Yang – for example hot and cold, dark and light, happy and sad, push and pull, soft and hard.

By inventing the cart and plow, by taming the ox, and yoking the horse, and by teaching his people to clear the land with fire, thereby creating a stable agricultural society in China, Shen Nung is also known as the Agricultural Emperor.

The emperor worked to enlighten his people on the virtues of discipline and wholesome living, and passed strict laws to the citizens ordering them to boil all water before drinking in order to purify. Shen Nung frequently toured his country, observing farmers in their fields, tasting and classifying plants, sleeping upon the earth, and spreading words of health.

One day, while traveling, the Emperor and his court stopped to rest. While the servants boiled water for the traveling party to drink, leaves from a nearby tea tree fell into the water. Shen Nung observed that the leaves had stained the water, and out of natural curiosity as an avid herbalist, he tasted the infusion and found it very refreshing. It is said he came to discover that the liquid was an antidote against the toxic effects against some of the herbs, and the doses he was experimenting with while inventing herbal medicines.

Shen Nung commenced with large-scale cultivation of tea and the people of China, trusting their benevolent Emperor, began drinking tea in earnest. Of all Shen Nung’s accomplishments, and of all the herbs he was said to have tested and introduced to the world, it is his discovery of tea, as legend has it, which he is most famous and revered for.

Tea as Medicine

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Prehistoric Man (1978 – Editor – J. Jelinek), suggests that the first time tea was consumed was around five hundred thousand years ago in the early Paleolithic Period. Archeological evidence dating to that period, in the area now known as China, indicates that the leaves of the tea tree – Camellia sinensis – indigenous to many parts of the country, was placed in boiling water by Homo erectus. Camellia sinensis is the source of all true tea (excluding herbal infusion) including white, green, black and oolong.

Left on its own, under favorable conditions, wild Camellia sinesis grows as a tree reaching heights of up to sixty feet. Under cultivation the tree is pruned and kept at shrub size, a little over three feet, to make it more convenient to pick the leaves.

The Emergence of Modern Tea

It was during the Sui Dynasty (518-617 A.D.), and around 500 A.D., that tea bricks or tea cakes, which were pounded tea leaves shaped, pressed into molds, and dried over heat began to be used as currency in regions where coins lost their value, and traded for horses, wool, and other articles with Turkish traders along the Mongolian border. At this time tea was still primarily consumed as a medicinal herb, and used by the plains people to supplement their diet and to ward off disease, as occasioned by the lack of fruits and vegetables. They boiled the tea leaves with salt, yak cream or butter for an invigorating drink.

Drinking tea evolved into an art form during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), and the consumption of tea spread throughout Chinese culture and society. In 800 A.D. Lu Yu, a poet known as the Sage of tea, wrote Chájīng, The Book of Tea, now known as The Classic of Tea, and was the first to define the various methods of tea cultivation and tea preparation in ancient China. Although Buddhism was becoming an influence, Taoism was central and held the belief that every detail of life was an act of living and worthy of celebration, and that one should attempt to find beauty everywhere in the world. The Classic of Tea blended Taoism into tea and elevated the preparation of tea, the atmosphere in which it was consumed and the drinking of it, with an emphasis on tranquility and harmony. Lu Yu frowned on the practice of adding shallots, ginger, and tangerine peels to the tea, so the practice was discarded, although he himself still added salt, as did others.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) the processing and preparation of all tea changed to meet the court’s preference for a milder and more delicate “tribute” tea. Growers began exploring and innovating the way tea was picked and processed. The people of Fujian province created the rare White Tea, which over time became known as the best tea in all of China and the preferred drink of choice in the imperial court as it was highly regarded for its white color and health giving properties.

The tea leaves were harvested only once during the year in early spring while the leaves were still buds, and not fully opened. The buds were quickly steamed to preserve their color and freshness, dried in sunlight and then ground into a powder with the use of small stone mills.

The Emperor had high standard requirements for “tribute tea”. In order to present their “tribute tea” to the imperial court the tea growers of Fujian Province continued to innovate by creating tea cakes. Rice paste was added to the powdered tea and added to molds imprinting works of art on the tea cakes such as a dragon or phoenix, and then transported to the imperial court after careful packaging. A cake of high-grade tea could be worth several pieces of gold, while tea of the highest grade was priceless.

Tea drinking was transformed into the infusing method rather than the cooking method and the fine silver powder was mixed with boiling water in a wide bowl, and then whisked during what was known as the Song Tea Ceremony. Salt was no longer added, but flowers such as jasmine and roses were occasionally added for their fragrance and subtle taste.

Buddhist monks, while in meditation, were not to sleep or eat but allowed to drink tea helping them to stay awake, which gradually became a custom. A Buddhist monk, residing in China at the time learned the Song Tea Ceremony and upon returning to Japan introduced tea and the ceremony, in turn, inspiring the creation of the artful Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Over the next thousand years the Song Tea Ceremony disappeared and the powdered form of white tea was replaced with the now common loose-leaf version steeped in earthenware pots. Eventually this form of tea spread across the world, and next to water is now the most consumed beverage on earth.