The Divine Farmer
Two thousand years ago it was drunk in a handful of religious communities. By a thousand years ago, it was drunk by millions of Chinese. Five hundred years ago over half the world’s population was drinking tea as their main alternative to water. During the next five hundred years,tea drinking spread to cover the world…tea is now more ubiquitous than any type of food or any drink apart from water. Thousands of millions of cups of tea are drunk everyday…It’s world consumption easily equals all the other manufactured drinks in the world put together: that is coffee, chocolate, cocoa, soda, and all alcoholic drinks.”
The Empire of Tea by Alan MacFarlane and Iris MacFarlane
The history of tea is literally steeped in legend. No one really knows if all of what you’re about to read is really true, but the story is definitely entertaining — so read on.
Perhaps the most widely acclaimed legend is about a Chinese emperor who is believed to have lived about 5,000 years ago (there is actually some controversy over whether he was actually an emperor at all, but we won’t get into that). His name was Shen Nung or Shennong (literally, the “divine farmer”) and he was famous for identifying the properties of hundreds of herbs (including poisonous ones) by personally tasting them. Some say his fascination with herbs turned his skin green and eventually killed him!
Legend has it that Shen Nung was boiling his drinking water — a common practice in China, even today — one day when a light breeze blew the dried leaves of a nearby shrub into his cauldron. When the liquid turned brown, the emperor’s curiosity was piqued. Of course, he couldn’t resist the urge to taste-test the interesting concoction. He claimed it was rather refreshing and urged others to try it. As it turned out, the mysterious leaf happened to come from what we now know as good old Camellia sinensis – the tea bush. The rest, as they say, is history.