According to the book The Classic of Tea, written by a tea master named Lu Yu from China’s Tang Dynasty, the custom of drinking tea is derived from the legendary cultural hero Shennong after he tried thousands of varieties of herbs.
A legend said Shennong, the “Divine Farmer,” tried various herbs and encountered 72 kinds of toxic substances every day. But he survived the toxins by chewing on tea leaves.
In order to find herbs to cure diseases for people, Shennong collected herbs all the time in mountains and remote areas and tried every herb that he collected. By doing so, he experienced and distinguished the different functions of each herb species.
One day, Shennong took in a toxic herb, and immediately had a dry tongue and a cotton mouth. He found a big tree and decided to sit down against it for a short rest, when a breeze brought him a few glossy dark green leaves.
Intuitively, he put those leaves into his mouth and started chewing on them. To his surprise, the leaves then emitted a fragrant scent, which together with his saliva, made his tongue feel moisturized again. He was also full of spirits and all the discomfort was swept away.
Development of Tea
The practice of drinking tea has lasted for thousands years in China. According to The Classic of Tea, Shennong, after discovering tea, developed the custom of drinking tea.
During the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), tea was mainly used as a type of sacrificial offering until 771 B.C. Later on, fresh tea leaves were used as vegetable for people to consume between 770 and 476 BC. After the wars broke out in the Warring State period (470-221 B.C.), it was used as a kind of drug.
It was not until 400 years later that tea was included as a drink and a precious item to show courtesy and hospitality in the Qin and Han dynasties.
When the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) arrived, tea was rolled out in front of the public formally, and gradually evolved from its original medicinal use to become a common daily drink. Tea practices and customs, performed by both nobles and commoners, gradually took shape.
Many famous literati from the Tang and Song dynasties adored tea drinking and described and praised tea in their magnificent works. “Treating guests with tea” has been a custom in China for welcoming visitors. This custom illustrates the important status tea came to hold in traditional Chinese etiquette.
Today, tea has become an important aspect of Chinese culture.
This is part one of a five-part series. Read part two.
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