The discovery of tea is lost among the folktales. Chinese storytellers recite the legend of Emperor Shen Nung, the father of agriculture and herbal medicine, who lived almost three thousand years before Christ and taught his people the value of cultivating land and the wisdom of boiling water to make it safe for drinking. One day, while working in his own garden, Shen Nung noticed the leaf of a camellia-like bush floating in his steaming bowl of water. Sipping the concoction, he discovered a drink that was refreshing and exhilarating.
For the Japanese, tea had its origin in an act of atonement rather than discovery. Their central character is the missionary monk, Daruma (Prince Bodhidharma), who brought Buddhism from India to China and Japan. In A.O. 520, Daruma began a nine-year meditation in a cave-temple near Canton, but, growing weary after many months of staring at a stone wall, he fell asleep. Awakening, Daruma was so displeased with himself that he cut off his lazy eyelids and threw them to the ground. It was there, according to legend, that the first tea plant grew, providing Daruma with an elixir that kept him alert during the remaining years of his reverie. The legend neatly echoes an almost identical and earlier Indian legend.
By the eighth century, tea was being eulogized in literature and legislation. The Chinese poet and scholar (and one-time acrobat) Lu Yu wrote the definitive commentary on tea. Ch'a Ching, known as The Classic of Tea, is still read today.
With each succeeding dynasty, tea evolved to reflect society. During Lu Yus era, the Tang dynasty (AD. 618-906), tea enjoyed its golden age. The world's largest empire was a mecca for traders, and tea was a flavorful commodity. During this period, tea often was brought to Japan by monks returning from pilgrimages to China. Pounded and shaped into molds, tea bricks were easy to transport, and the beverage was made simply by breaking off a chunk into boiling water.
During the Sung dynasty (AD. 960-1280), the refinements of tea culture blossomed in both China and Japan. Powdered tea and delicate porcelain came into vogue, and the first teahouses appeared. Many of the rituals used in the Japanese tea ceremony, Chanoyu, date to this elegant period.
Prized as a tonic and panacea, tea's shiny leaves were considered food by early Asian nomads. Some of the world's first energy bars were concocted by mixing tea leaves with salt, garlic, and dried fish. The reeking but portable result made a handy form of exchange. After the social, political, and cultural upheaval of Kublai Khan and his Mongol relatives, the Ming dynasty (AD. 1368-1644) attempted to revive many lost rituals. The black, green, and oolong teas we are familiar with today were developed during this dynasty, and the teapot became an indispensable vessel for brewing.