The origins of tea are a topic of legend and mythology. The first evidence of the use of tea are tea containers found in tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), but tea history surely extends much further back in time.
There are several stories about how tea was discovered. One of the most famous concerns the Chinese emperor Shen Nong who lived about 5,000 years ago. Shen Nong was an herbalist who identified hundreds of medicinal and poisonous herbs by personally tasting them. According to tea history, Shen Nong, while traveling with his entourage, stopped for a rest. While boiling some drinking water, leaves from burning tea twigs blew upwards and landed in the water. Shen Nong insisted on trying the liquid and found it to be tasty and refreshing. The year was 2737 BC.
Is Tea from India?
Another legend in tea history places the discovery of tea in India in the 6th century AD. Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who believed that extended periods of sleeplessness were necessary for meditation. He chewed tea leaves to keep himself awake and brought the practice with him when he traveled to China.
Did Bodhidharma bring tea to China? We can chalk that story up to fanciful mythology since tea history refers to Chinese writings as early as 500 BC. There is some confusion about these early texts, however, because the Chinese character for tea (cha) was not developed until the third century AD. Previous to that, the character "tu" was used, not only for tea, but for infusions from several different plants, much as we use the term "herbal tea" or "tisane" today.
The first records of tea history indicate its value as a medicinal plant, and although this aspect of tea remains important to the present day, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618 - 906 AD) that tea was established as refreshment rather than a medicine.
It was during the Tang Dynasty that Lu Yu wrote his famous work "Cha Ching" or "Classic of Tea." This is the first book entirely about tea and covered tea history, tea cultivation, tea brewing, and drinking of tea.
Tea Comes to Japan
Lu Yu wrote the Cha Ching in the late eight century, and shortly afterwards Japanese monks studying in China returned to their homeland with tea plants as well as the tea culture that was expounded in Lu Yu’s famous book. The tea brewing methods described by Lu Yu became the basis of the Japanese tea ceremony.