The beginnings of tea drinking
2500 B.C.E. (?) until the 6th century
When exactly the Chinese discovered the tea plant and its benefits can only be guessed today. Since the first use of the tea plant probably goes back to the 2nd or even 3rd millennium BC, there are hardly any written records of its use. Two legends are circulating in China about the discovery of the healing power of tea leaves. In both legends the king Shen Nong (The Divine Farmer) was the discoverer:
Shen Nong at the herb tasting (porcelain) Shen Nong tested hundreds of herbs for their healing properties. Because of the many poisonous plants he became very sick. When he was looking for a detoxifying agent, he discovered the leaves of a tree. By chewing the leaves he was cured.
Legend 2Shen Nong boiled water under a tree whose leaves fell into the water by accident. Impressed by the pleasant taste, he included these leaves in his list of medicinal plants.
In Chinese mythology, Shen Nong was not only the discoverer of tea, he was also the inventor of rice cultivation and the irrigation system. Historically, however, the person of Shen Nong is not documented at all. It is assumed that he was the chief of an ethnic group that lived in China about 4000 years ago. The name "Shen Nong" could just as well have been the name of this ethnic group. Everything that has to do with this ethnic group was then reduced to a single person. What is considered certain is that the use of the tea plant began in the southwest of today's China, the original area of distribution of the tea plant. It is very likely that the leaves were initially used as a remedy. Fresh tea leaves also found their way into Chinese cuisine as vegetables.
Tea as a drink was first mentioned in writing in 59 B.C.E. At that time tea was already offered on the market as a commodity. There were also already special utensils for making and drinking tea.
The first written mention of tea processing dates back to the 3rd century, after which fresh leaves were pressed into a tea cake and dried in the sun or in an oven. To prepare the tea, a piece of tea cake was ground and boiled with water in a pot. The tea was seasoned with leek, ginger and mandarins.
Although the tea plant's growing area expanded eastwards along the Yangtze River, the centre of tea production and trade remained in southwest China.