The true origins of tea as a beverage are unknown, but it is believed that tea drinking began about 5,000 years ago in China, where the tea plant, “Camellia sinensis,” is native.
It is perhaps because of this lack of verifiable information on the beginning of tea and tea drinking that a number of legends have sprung up around the creation of tea as a beverage.
The World’s First Tea Drinker?
One of the more popular legends of how tea drinking began center around “Shennong,” who was believed to be an ancient Chinese emperor, herbalist and farmer (in fact, his name means the Divine Farmer).
Shennong was fairly knowledgeable about science in his day and he believed water should be boiled in order to make it safe enough for drinking. While on a journey around 2737 B.C., he stopped briefly to rest. His servants gathered twigs, including those from a tea plant, to make a fire to boil his water in.
A few of the tea leaves from the burning tea twigs floated in the heat from the fire and landed into the pot of boiling water. His curiosity piqued by the discoloration of the boiling water caused by the tea leaves, Shennong decided to try the accidental brew. He apparently enjoyed it, and thus tea the beverage was born. No word on whether Shennong took his tea with sugar and milk, though.
Wan Tu Drink Some Tea?
A variation of the Shennong tea legend has an evil, cruel man by the name of “Wan Tu” as the discoverer of tea. The way this variation goes is that Wan Tu was banished to the southern areas of China because of his despotic temperament.
While there, he too falls prey to falling tea leaves in his pot of boiling water. Wan Tu drinks the tea and, as legend has it, he finds tea so refreshing he becomes a kinder, gentler man.
There is another Chinese legend on the discovery of tea, albeit with a twist of Buddhism. This particular legend has it that “Bodhidharma,” an Indian Buddhist monk famous as the founder of Zen Buddhism, travelled to China. While there, he became so angry at his drowsiness during meditation, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. His eyelids sprang into tea bushes immediately, thus creating instant tea, in a manner of speaking.