A Brief History of Tea

The history of tea like many ancient traditions is surrounded by myth. There are several popular legends that have survived and one of my favorites comes from Chan Buddhism.

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According to this legend, the monk Bodhidharma traveled from India to share his message about the Buddha. Upon arriving at the Shaolin Temple however they refused him entry. Finding a cave nearby he entered and set down facing the wall to meditate. After several years of meditation, he finally fell asleep and was so upset with himself he tore his eyelids off and tossed them away. Upon hitting the ground, they became the first tea plants and the Shaolin monks soon discovered it helped to keep them stay alert. Later they granted Bodhidharma entry into the monastery and together they developed Shaolin Kung Fu.

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Shen Nong is most commonly attributed as the source tea. One of his legends tells us he was sitting under a tree tea one day boiling water when leaves fell in and changed the color of the water. Upon drinking the brew, he noticed its uplifting qualities and tea was born. Known for eating all kinds of plants to see their effect on the human body, it is said he also used tea as an antidote.

Regardless of its source, modern archeology confirms that tea has been consumed for thousands of years dating all the way back to the 2nd century BC and the Han Dynasty Emperors. By the 6th century tea is firmly rooted in the religious class in Japan, probably spread by Buddhist monks from China.

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Korean records from 661 show it was being offered to King Kuro. Marco Polo mentions a tea tax in records dating to 1285. The Dutch East India Company is credited for first bringing it to Europe in the 17th century and it was soon found in Portugal, France, Italy, and Russia. It wasn’t until the British got a hold of tea that it became a true worldwide beverage, spreading its cultivation, consumption, and fame across the globe.

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