The origins of tea are lost in a mythic past. Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Chen Nung, called "the Divine Healer" (2737 BCE), discovered the practical and hygienic virtues of boiling water before drinking it, and instituted the habit among his people. One day, as he sat in the shade of a tree to boil water, a few leaves fell into his pot. In tasting the infusion that resulted, the Emperor discovered tea.
It is said that Confucius (550 BCE) spoke of tea, but the first reliable reference is found in a book of Chinese medicine dating back to 350 BCE. In it, tea is considered a remedy to be used in the form of infusion, paste, or ointment. It invigorates, soothes headaches, and aids digestion. The Chinese took to it quickly, and were soon drinking tea at all hours of the day. Tea leaves being scarce and expensive, the habit spread among the nobility at first, but the other classes, in city and town, were not far behind.
Ch'a su, the Chinese art of tea, blossomed under the T'ang dynasty (618-907), in part thanks to improved networks of naval and land communications and to trade. The people were also influenced by the great attraction this drink held for the buddhist monks. They saw in it a means of remaining alert during long nights of meditation, and also a good substitute for saké, or rice wine.
The Chinese passion for tea, nicknamed "liquid jade", is also attributed to the poet Lu Yu, about the year 780, in one of the most popular works of the time, the Chaking (the classic of tea). Even today this text continues to be re-issued, and is considered the "Bible of tea".
Many Chinese poems have been devoted to tea since the T'ang era, including this one, by Lo-tung:
The first cup moistens my lips and throat,
the second dispels my solitude,
the third penetrates my innermost organs, there to bestir a thousand strange ideograms,
the fourth brings on a light perspiration, and my pores exhale all my impurities,
with the fifth cup I am cleansed,
the sixth transports me to the realm of the immortals,
the seventh! ah! the seventh ... but I can drink no more! I feel only the breath of the icy wind filling my sleeves"
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: La Bible du thé