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History Of Tea

Updated on October 22, 2011

Most people among us are fond of drinking tea, however, few know that the cup of tea you hold in your hand has a long and fascinating history behind it. Tea history bears strong links to class, social status, elegance, culture, money and war.

Tea is nearly 5000 years old. Where did it come from? Well, according to a famous Chinese legend, the emperor Chen Nung discovered tea in 2737BC. One fine morning, he was preparing a boiling water drink when some wild leaves fell into his pot of drink. He tasted it and viola! The taste was good! Not only that, but this brew could also quench thirst, reduce the need for sleep and also cheer the heart. He continued to drink what is now called tea and also shared this beverage with others.

A Japanese legend, however, has something quite different to tell. According to the Japanese, a Chinese Buddhist saint, Bodhidharma, became so overwhelmed with sleep while meditating that he tore off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. And from there sprung the tea plant. And that is why tea has such an invigorating effect and tea leaves have the shape of an eyelid!

One of the earliest mentions of tea being prepared by servants is contained in a Chinese text from 50BC. Undoubtedly, tea was being cultivated in Szechwan by the 3rd century AD. The first detailed description of tea-drinking is contained in an ancient Chinese dictionary, noted by Kuo P'o in 350AD.

However, Lu Yu's definitive book on tea, the "Ch'a Ching", of the 800AD, had the most significant influence on the preparation and drinking of tea. Lu Yu was the first one to suggest that the correct manner of tea preparation and drinking is a code of symbolic harmony and social etiquette.

Initially, tea held an important medicinal value in China. As demand for this brew grew, a vast number of tea forests were cut down. To prevent this, tea cultivation started which has been going on with fervour till today. Gradually, tea became a favourite beverage, rather than a medicinal brew. In China, milk and sugar were never added to tea. Rather, various other flavourings like onion, ginger, peppermint or orange were used. The tea of the Sung dynasty was produced in imperial plantations in Fukien. This tea was moulded into blocks, perfumed, stamped with dragon designs and sent as an imperial tribute to the capital. It was an honourable thing and was treated with great respect.

Emperor Hui-tsung (1101-1126) is famous for his search for new varieties for tea preparation and qualities. He set the trend for drinking unperfumed tea, which is still going on in most of the world. Meanwhile, people were greatly appreciating leaf-tea, and the grinding of tea leaves into a powder for brewing was becoming pretty popular. This trend continued into the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

Japan

It is believed that tea was introduced in Japan by travelling Buddhist monks in the AD552. The first record of brick tea being used comes from 593, and the year 805 witnessed the first planting of tea seeds in Japan.

It is believed that by the end of AD800, the Japanese had perfected their Tea Ceremony by taking guidelines from Lu Yu's Ch'a Ching. The Japanese Tea Ceremony is called the "Cha-no-yu" or "the hot water for tea". This Ceremony requires years of training for perfection and each and every little detail of the serving of Japanese tea is considered to be an important part of correct etiquette and polite social standing.

The tea ceremony

When tea is being served, one person presides over the ceremony. Usually, this is the house-wife's job. Even the drinking of Japanese tea has a special sequence to it, which includes viewing the colour of the tea, inhaling its fragrance, tasting it, swallowing it and then relishing the lingering aftertaste.

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