According to Chinese mythology, in 2737 BC the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, scholar and
herbalist, was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. A leaf from
the tree dropped into the water and Shen Nung decided to try the brew. The tree was a wild
tea tree. There are many authentic and supposed references to tea in the centuries before
Christ, according to the Chinese dictionary dated circa 350 AD. The Chinese t'u was
often used to describe shrubs other than tea, hence the confusion when Confucius allegedly
referred to tea or t'u when writing about the "sow thistle" plant in the
Book of Odes.
From the earliest times tea was renowned for its properties as a healthy, refreshing
drink. By the third century AD many stories were being told and some written about tea and
the benefits of tea drinking, but it was not until the Tang Dynasty (618 AD - 906 AD) that
tea became China's national drink and the word ch'a was used to describe tea.
The spread of cultivation throughout China and Japan is largely accredited to the
movement of Buddhist priests throughout the region.
The first book on tea "Ch'a Ching", circa 780 AD, was written by the
Chinese author Lu Yu. It comprises three volumes and covers tea from its growth through to
its making and drinking, as well as covering a historical summary and famous early tea
plantation. There are many illustrations of tea making utensils and some say that the book
inspired the Buddhist priests to create the Japanese tea ceremony.
The modern term "tea" derives from early Chinese dialect words - such as
Tchai, Cha and Tay - used both to describe the beverage and the leaf. Known as Camellia
sinensis, tea is an evergreen plant of the Camellia family. It has smooth, shiny pointed
leaves which look similar to the privet hedge leaf found in British gardens.
The Indian and Japanese legends both attribute it to Bodhidharma the devout Buddhist
priest who founded Zen Buddhism. The Indian legend tells how in the fifth year of a seven
year sleepless contemplation of Buddha he began to feel drowsy. He immediately plucked a
few leaves from a nearby bush and chewed them which dispelled his tiredness. The bush was
a wild tea tree.
Camellia sinensis is indigenous to China and parts of India. The wild tea plant can
develop into a tree 30 metres high, so that monkeys were trained to pick the leaves and
throw them down for collection below. Today, under cultivation, Camellia Sinensis is kept
to a height of approximately one metre for easy plucking purposes. There are more than
1,500 teas to choose from more than 29 different listed countries around the world but the
main producers are India and Sri Lanka, Kenya, Malawi, Indonesia and China. It is
cultivated as a plantation crop, likes acidic soil and a warm climate with at least 50
inches of rain per annum.
Other factors affecting flavour characteristics are the methods of processing and, of
course, the blending together of teas from different areas and regions OR the additions of
flowers, fruit, oils, herbs or spices from other plants.
The first mention of tea outside China and Japan is said to be by the Arabs in 850 AD
and it was they who were reputed to have brought it to Europe via the Venetians circa
1559. However, it is the Portuguese and Dutch who claim the credit of bringing tea and tea
drinking to Europe. The Portuguese opened up the sea routes to China, some say as early as
1515. Jesuit priests travelling on the ships are reputed to have brought the tea drinking
habit back to Portugal, while the Dutch sailors manning the ships were said to have
encouraged the Dutch merchants to enter the trade, and had set up a regular shipment of
tea to ports in France, Holland and the Baltic coast in 1610. England entered the trade
via the East India Company, or the John Company as it was known, in the mid to late 17th
source:The Tea Council