Thyme for Tea

China and Ruby's Tea Room: A Brief History of Tea


According to Chinese legend, the first cup of tea was brewed about five thousand years ago by Shen Nong, the Divine Cultivator. Also revered as the inventor of agriculture and herbal medicine, he is one of the three mythical early sovereigns of China. One day, he was boiling water outdoors when leaves of the tea plant blew into the water. He tasted the brew and found it delightful.

A Buddhist legend explains the origin of tea much differently. The monk Dharuma who brought Zen Buddhism to China in A.D. 520, was given a cave-temple outside Nanjing, where he practiced meditation. One day, he found his eyelids drooping. So that this would not happen again, he sliced them off and threw them away. A tea plant grew up where they fell, and he realized that its leaves could be used to brew a drink to help him stay awake. Zen monks still honor Dharuma by drinking tea in front of his statue.

Recently, however, historians have found evidence of the much earlier use of tea. Fourteen hundred years ago, King Wen is said to have taxed the tribal leaders in and around present-day Sichuan by requiring them to pay him in tea. Whatever the truth of the matter, until about five thousand years ago, tea was always made with fresh leaves. After that time, people began to dry and process the leaves.

Tea became known in Europe in the 1600s, as British merchant ships made their way to the Orient. Its value as a good-tasting stimulant made it immediately popular and a brisk trade developed. Tea helped to precipitate at least one war (the American Revolution began with the Boston Tea Party), has served as currency, and helped to build the British Empire. Americans have done their fair share too, though. In addition to refusing to pay a tea tax, they invented iced tea (first served at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904) and the tea bag (first used in 1908 in New York City by Thomas Sullivan).