According to the Tea Association of the USA, tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, second only to water. Able to be consumed at nearly any time of the day and for any occasion, its versatility over coffee is clear. But have you ever stopped to wonder: just how old is the tea tradition?
The answer might surprise you.
Long ago, a farmer by the name of Shennong (神農) began to ponder the medicinal value of the plants around him. This curiosity was a natural extension of his agricultural passion. Not only did he use a wide variety of seeds in his lands, but like Thomas Edison, he was a revered inventor, identifying all manner of problems and devising wondrous solutions, such as the hoe, the plow, the axe, irrigation methods, and even the Chinese calendar. Like his body in the fields, Shennong’s mind was constantly at work.
As a natural inquisitive, he boldly sampled the various plants he would encounter, meticulously cataloging their appearances and any effects they had on himself, for better or worse. According to legend, he had the unfortunate experience of poisoning himself more than seventy times!
How did Shennong manage to survive?
On one account, as he lay dying, struggling to survive, a tea leaf managed to fall into his mouth, and as he worked up the strength to begin chewing it, he began to feel rejuvenated.
On another account, Shennong had prepared a fire in the wilderness, desiring to boil a cauldron of water. As he was waiting for the water to boil, some of the leaves from the twigs he had used for kindling were lifted up by a draft before floating back down into his water. Unbeknownst to Shennong at the time, he had accidentally made his first pot of tea (and grandfather style at that!).
Although there are many variations, the two stories aren’t necessarily at odds. It was long known that Shennong would use tea as a kind of antidote whenever he was out in the wilderness sampling herbs and plants, and so it’s always possible—and fun to imagine—that he was preparing an antidote brew in a pot when things went awry and, luckily for him, it just so happened that tea leaves accidentally infused his antidote brew by the time he reached it.
No matter your take on the authenticity of these accounts, the importance of Shennong to Chinese culture cannot be emphasized enough, and for those interested in the history of tea, his legend is traced back to around 2437 BC, more than 6,000 years ago! This means that for every sip of tea you take, you are participating in one of the oldest traditions alive today, beginning with Shennong’s adventurous spirit.
Although tea may not be able to instantly cure any deadly poisons in the way that Shennong had imagined, its health properties are the subject of many rigorous scientific studies today, and there’s little doubt that it has profound psychological effects on our well-being and mindfulness.