The history of tea

The History of Tea

The Origin of Tea Legend

The tea story begins in China around 5,000 years ago. Legend has it that the emperor Shen Nung was a scientist and lover of the arts. One of his proclamations required that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. One day while visiting in the countryside of his far-reaching realm, he and the court stopped to rest. In accordance with his law, the servants began to boil water for the court to drink. Dried leaves from a bush fell into the boiling water, and a brown liquid was infused into the water. As a scientist, the emperor became intrigued by the liquid, drank some, and found it very appetizing. The bush happened to be a tea plant and this is how tea was created.

The Chinese

After the creation of tea, consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture. In 800 A.D. Lu Yu wrote the first book on tea, the Ch’a Ching. Utilizing his vast memory of observed events and places, he classified the differing methods of tea cultivation and preparation in ancient China. His work was so explicit and complete that it projected him into near sainthood within his own lifetime. Supported by the emperor himself, his work clearly showed the Zen Buddhist philosophy to which he was exposed as a child. It was this form of tea service that Zen Buddhist missionaries would later introduce to imperial Japan.

The Japanese

The first tea seeds were brought to Japan by the Buddhist priest Yeisei, who had seen the value of tea in China in enhancing religious mediation. As a result, he is known as the “Father of Tea” in Japan. Because of this partnership, tea in Japan has always been associated with Zen Buddhism.

Tea was heightened to an art form resulting in the creation of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Cha-no-yu. Irish-Greek journalist and historian Lafcadio Hearn described this ceremony: “The Tea ceremony requires years of training and practice to graduate in art…yet the whole of this art, as to its detail, signifies no more than the making and serving of a cup of tea. The supremely important matter is that the act be performed in the most perfect, most polite, most graceful, most charming manner possible”.

As more people became involved in the excitement surrounding tea, the purity of the original Zen concept was lost. The tea ceremony became corrupted, excessive and very elaborate. Three great Zen priests restored tea to its original place in Japanese society: Ikkyu, a prince who became a priest and was successful in guiding the nobles away from their corruption of the tea ceremony, Murata Shuko, the student of Ikkyu and very influential in reintroducing the Tea ceremony into Japanese society and Sen-no Rikkyu, a priest who set the rigid standards for the ceremony, largely used intact today.

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