The history of tea begins in myth and legends. In China, tea has been consumed for at least five millennia and according to Chinese oral tradition; tea was invented by an emperor named Shen Nung.
According to this tale, Shen Nung was a wise and well-educated ruler and he required all drinking water to be boiled in order to make it safe for humans. One summer, he embarked on a journey to a distant region of China.
One day when he and his party stopped to eat and drink, dried leaves from a tea bush blew into his boiling water and stained it. Instead of throwing away the discoloured water, Shen Nung became curious and tried some of the brew. He liked its properties very much and the Chinese tradition of tea drinking had thereby begun. Some mythologists claim that this legend might actually contain some truth in it. It is a practical story without any supernatural or unbelievable elements, and the Chinese might very well have discovered the refreshing properties of the tea plant by accident.
There exists a variety of religious and magical explanations to the origin of tea as well. One legend tells us how the tea plant originates from the eyelids of a Bodhldharma, the first patriarch of Zen. He drowsed off when meditating, and decided to cut of his eyelids to prevent such failures in the future. The compassionate deity Quan Yin transformed the fallen eyelids into a tea plant, and tea is since then used by monks that need to stay awake and alert during meditation. In Japanese, the same character is used for tea leaf and eyelid.
The first book about tea that we know of was written in 800 A.D. During this area, tea drinking had already spread throughout China and played an important part in the Chinese culture.
The book is named Ch’a Ching and was written by Lu Yu, an orphaned child raised in a monastery by scholarly Buddhist monks. During his childhood, the training he received from the Buddhist monks made him a skilled observer and when he grew old, he retired and wrote this comprehensive book about tea. He recalled from his superb memory all the things that he had learned and observed about tea cultivation and preparation in China.
The Zen Buddhist belief system that Lu Yu learned as a child clearly shows in his texts and the tea services that he describes was later introduced to Japan by Zen Buddhist .
In Japan, a Buddhist priest named Yeisei is known as the “Father of Tea”. He travelled to China and learned to appreciate the refreshing qualities of the brew during long meditiaions. When he returned to Japan, he brought tea seeds with him. In Japan, tea is therefore still closely associated with Zen Buddhism.
The Japanese emperor was fascinated by the new drink, and tea drinking soon spread from court and monasteries to the rest of the Japanese population.
Originally, tea formed the centre of rigorous ceremonies called Cha-no-yo (Japanese Tea Ceremony, literary “The Hot Water for Tea”). Years of training were required before someone could accurately perform a correct tea ceremony.
A special type of architecture developed as the Japanese begun to construct special tea houses. Eventually, the original purity of these ceremonies vanished and tea lost its strong connection to Zen Buddhism.
Tea tournaments were held among the higher classes, and the winner of such as tournament would receive exclusive items like jewellery and silk.
This was of course not appreciated by the Zen priests who tried to restore the strong link between Zen Buddhism and tea drinking. Ikkyu, Murata Shuko and Sen-no Rikkyu are the three most famous names in a process where aristocrats were gradually re-introduced to holy tea ceremonies.
They were Zen priest living during the 14th, 15th and 16th century. Ikkyu encouraged the nobility to turn their back on the mundane tea tournaments, Murata Shuko led them back to the original tea ceremony and Sen-no Rikkyu created the rigid standards that are still in use today.
Eventually, the rigorous tea ceremony became completely integrated into Japanese culture. Tea was exchanged as a supreme gift and warlords would always participate in a tea ceremony before battles.