The origins of tea

From medicine & antidote to a high-quality, luxury item

The birthplace of tea is thought to be China. Originally it was used as a remedy and antidote. The expression “Ocha wo ippuku” or “a dose of tea” comes from those origins.

According to legend, the mythical father of herbal medicine, Shen Nong, is credited for creating the basis for today’s Chinese medicine. It is said that he wandered through fields and mountains in search of beneficial herbs.

As he was trying to discern whether different types of herbs and leaves were good to consume for humans or not, he got poisoned as often as 72 times a day.

But when that happened, he always used tea leaves as an antidote. This story is of great importance for understanding the world of tea.

Shennong trying his herb
Here depicted in a 1503 painting by Guo Xu


From China to Europe

Tea arrived in Europe in the 16th century during the Age of Discovery. It is said that the Portuguese who reached Canton were the first Westerners to taste tea.

In the 17th century, the Dutch established their hegemony over trade in Asia and began to export tea to Great Britain. During the following centuries, tea gradually spread to all corners of the world.

According to statistics, in 2018 worldwide production of tea was approximately 5,890,000t, among which green tea accounted for 1,690,000t and black tea for an estimated 3,930,000t.

Both the production and consumption of green tea have continuously increased in the recent years.


From the emperor to your cup

The oldest reliable record of tea drinking in Japan can be found in the”Nihon Koki” (one of the six classical Japanese history texts). One passage describes how the Buddhist monk Eichuu offered tea to the Saga emperor on April 22, 815. At the time, tea was a very rare delicacy.

It spread during the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE) when Yosai, a Buddhist monk also known for founding the Rinzai Sect, brought back tea to Japan from the Sung dynasty in China.

At that time, tea was very close to today’s Matcha. Sencha was first created during the Edo period and with time, it spread among the common people as well.

A short timeline of History

  • In 2737 BC, during the reign of Emperor Shen Nong – a mythical sage and a popular figure in the mythology of Chinese agriculture and medicine – stories say that during one of his travels, when Shen Nong and his convoy stopped to rest, some tea leaves fell into his cup of hot water from a burning tea twig that lay nearby. The water turned dark in color, but it went unnoticed by the emperor. When he drunk his cup water, he found it to be extremely refreshing and requested the members of his convoy to prepare it for him from then on.
  • B.C. 59: In China, in a publication written by Wang Bao entitled “Tong yue (Contract with a Servant)”, one sentence mentioned that tea was commonly enjoyed by the people at that time.
  • A.D. 760: During the Tang dynasty (around 760), writer Lu Yu wrote “Cha Jing” (The Classic of Tea), an early work on the subject.
  • A.D. 815: Tea drinking was first referred to in Japanese literature in 815 in the Nihon Koki (Later Chronicles of Japan), recording that Eichuu invited Emperor Saga to Bonshakuji temple, where he was served tea. At that time, tea was extremely valuable and only drunk by imperial court nobles and Buddhist monks.
  • A.D. 1191: Another Buddhist monk who had studied in China, Eisai, popularized the idea of drinking tea for good health. Eisai, founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, brought back a new type of tea seeds to Kyoto from the Sung dynasty in China.
  • A.D. 1214:  Eisai’s book Kissa Yojoki played a major role in spreading tea culture in Japan. In the late Kamakura Period, the practice of Tocha (tea competitions), which originated in Southern Song-dynasty in China, became popular among the Samurai class and tea gatherings were common. The tea ceremony rapidly spread, including Chakabuki.
  • A.D. 1522: Birth of Sen no Rikyu (passed away in 1591) (Japan)
  • A.D. 1738: Development of the Nagatani Sencha Method (Japan)
  • A.D. 1835: Gyokuro is invented. (Japan)
  • A.D. 1858: Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the U.S. and the Empire of Japan. Japanese green tea became a major export item. (Japan)
  • 1924 – : Dr. Masataro MIURA found Vitamin C in tea leaves.
  • 1991 – : Green tea beverages became popular. (Japan)

Myōan Eisai/Yōsai
(May 27, 1141 – July 2, 1215)

Lu Yu 
“Cha Jing” (The Classic of Tea)

Sen no Rikyu
(1522 – April 21, 1591)

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