Part 1 - The Legends
"Tea has a long and turbulent history, filled with intrigue, adventure, fortune gained and lost, embargoes, drugs, taxation, smugglers, war, revolution, religious aestheticism, artistic expression, and social change." Mary Lou & Robert J. Heiss (The Story of Tea)
The history of tea is slippery. Its origin stories are street-wise and nimble; nailing down a single tale feels a bit like unravelling knotted necklace chains, coiled together at the bottom of your suitcase. The rich history of tea is multi-storied, but I've sifted out two to get us started.
In the beginning...
The Legend of ShenNong (2737 BC)
Once upon a (prehistoric) time, in a land far far away (unless you are in China) lived the legendary deity, Shennong. Shennong was a mythical sage ruler, and the mastermind behind Chinese agriculture and medicine. One windy day, he was drinking a bowl of boiled water (all the subjects of the land cleansed their water by boiling it first) and a few leaves blew into the cup, changing the colour. The emperor took a sip of the brew, and was pleasantly surprised by its flavour. Some tell a variant of the legend, in which Shennong tested the medicinal properties of teas on himself, and found them to soothe ailments and work as an antidote to poisonous herbs. (For more on this legend and others, check out Lu Yu's famous early work on the subject, The Classic of Tea.)
The Legend of Bodhidarma (Tang Dynasty 618 - 907AD)
*sometimes, another version of the story is told with Gautama Buddha in place of Bodhidharma.
Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery, which led to the creation of Shaolin kungfu. In Japan, he is known as Daruma. The rather gruesome legend dates back to the Tang Dynasty. In the traditional folklore, Bodhidharma accidentally fell asleep after meditating in front of a wall for nine years. He woke up in such disgust at his weakness, that he cut off his own eyelids. They fell to the ground and took root, growing into tea bushes. This myth expresses the sentiment that tea is the drink of woke-folks: open eyes as a metaphor for staying present, engaged, and aware in the world.
So there you have it, the first two pieces of a tea leaf puzzle. Origin stories shape our collective consciousness, and function as a container for growing. Share below if you know another version of the tale!
Much love and tea-stained fingertips,