22nd
Jan
2013

Posted in Reference

The lands of north east India, north Burma, south west China and Tibet are typically held to be where tea originated. Tea's cultural origins are much harder to discern, shrouded in myth and legend. One popular legend tells us that around 4,500 years ago, the Chinese Emporer Shennong was the one to make the discovery. Sitting beneath a tree, drinking a bowl of water just off the boil ( as he had decreed that water must be boiled before drinking it), some of the leaves from the tree fell into the bowl. He then tried the water again, and was surprised by its flavour and restorative properties. A variant of the legend tells us that Shennong would try different types of roots, leaves and such, using tea to counteract any poison he consumed.

Whilst these legends may seem far fetched, they are perhaps not entirely implausible, if we stop to examine the few truths underneath. For example, a story about a Chinese intellectual cataloging the various properties of plants, discovering that tea makes a pleasing drink, does not require any great suspension of disbelief. Moving on from apocryphal tales, there is evidence putting tea's consumption at least as far back as the 10th century BCE, resulting in a span of at least 3000 years of use in China.

Despite the long time that tea has been harvested, the traditional act of gathering tea by hand is one that continues to this day. Whilst machines can be used for harvesting, they often damage the leaves, resulting in a lower quality yield. However, it is still an easier way to gather tea leaves than one odd method from antiquity that ought to be taken with a pinch of salt: Chinese villagers chasing monkeys up tea trees and then taunting them, resulting in the enraged monkeys grabbing handfuls of tea leaves and throwing them down at the villagers.

Tea became an important part of Chinese culture and has remained so over the years. It has even been responsible for influencing the development of other countries' cultures regarding tea, including Japan, Korea, even the United Kingdom, which remains devoted to tea, despite the growing popularity of coffee. While most of us have no time to indulge in the same level of ceremony that afternoon tea once demanded, a refreshing cuppa mid afternoon is still a welcome refreshment to get us to the end of the working day. 

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