The Way of Tea Part 1: A Brief History
Updated: Apr 12
The first cup refreshes your lips and throat.
The second cup elates you from your lonely mood.
With the third cup you rack your brains, realizing you have only committed
five-thousand volumes of literature to memory.
The fourth cup makes you perspire lightly; and through your skin the pent-up grievances in your life evaporate.
The fifth cup causes you to feel your muscles relax, and your bones lose weight.
The sixth cup leads you down the path of divine enlightenment.
Now! The seventh cup! The only feeling left is the air flowing beneath you.
-Lu Tong; Tang Dynasty
In this meeting of host and guest, and with a cup of tea in hand, let us meander through tea’s myth, learn of its medicinal potency, and perhaps glimpse the alchemical bridge it may illuminate between Heaven, Human, and Earth.
For much of the human world, tea is known as cha. Mandarin for tea, cha generally signifies the evergreen species Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamica.
The consumption of tea by humans is ancient. It owes its evolutionary origin to the lush jungle region of Yunnan in Southwestern China, bordered by Laos, Myanmar, Tibet, and Vietnam. Penetrated by the Tropic of Capricorn, this region radiates with rich soil, much moisture, rugged terrain, and intense biodiversity. The ethnic groups here were the progenitors of the cultural practice of imbibing cha (tea), primarily as medicine.
Shennong, the Divine Farmer, holds the position as canonical discoverer of tea; the myth unfolds within the context of his extensive research on medicinals (eventually leading to the compendium Shennong Bencao Jing, the ancestral Chinese Materia Medica, written roughly five-thousand years ago (1). One spring morning, Shennong sits beneath a green tree of medium height, within the dense forest of Yunnan province. The air vibrates with birdsong, insects buzz and chirp. Nearby, the gurgling of a mountain spring bubbles. With kettle over the fire, the water roiling to a boil, Shennong intently grasps the kettle handle and pours into his bowl, steam rising in helical spirals ten feet overhead. With this ascending sublimatory movement, he begins to descend internally from fatigue while sitting cross-legged, entering into a deep meditation—he had been testing various plants with his own body, noticing their effect upon the Qi. Some toxic, some tonic, still others cleansing, his system rebalances… Waking from this respite, he notices three leaves had been blown by wind into the bowl filled with hot water and they come from the tree he is resting under. This arboreal being is yet to be analyzed...Handling the bowl with both hands, he drains its contents. Bitter, astringent, viscous, silken, sweet, he swallows with delight, a minty freshness returning throughout his mouth and nose. With springtime force, vital movement manifests within his system. He feels it rise from the Lower Dantian to manifest in the Triple Burner, radiating from here throughout the entire body as an intelligent scanning presence, detoxifying as it washes through. Shennong calls this plant t’u, later to become ch’a, ‘bitter herb’. (2). It is through the attribution of Shennong as discoverer that humanity drinks this plant, for he is a cultural pivot by which tea, and numerous other herbs and practices, emerge from the primordial darkness of nature.
The diffusion of cha as medicine and drink radiated primarily from Sichuan province–Yunnan’s northern neighbor. Here the harvesting, processing, and drinking of this plant during the late Zhou dynasty (1122-256 BC) focused the leaf into an invigorating beverage without the use of added herbs and spices (3). During the Qin dynasty (221-210 BC), Emperor Qin Shihuangdi executed immense projects of infrastructure as China became unified. The aggregation of human workers from around China led to the osmosis of ancestral practices between them. The practice of drinking cha, held close to the hearts of those from the border regions, found a fertile landing within the greater culture of China. Cha then spread with intensity throughout the empire. (4). Tea wasn’t cultivated in any widespread sense, so it was much sought after as a commodity. With the advent of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), increased unification of China brought the border regions into an accessible state. These trade networks allowed for easier access to the plant, solidifying tea’s place within the hearts of the empire, commoner and royal alike.
Gradually, the drinking of the leaf became more refined, and especially so during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). It was during this period that the social role of tea master was generated. Someone to uphold the virtues necessary to properly honor the tea with precise brewing and tasteful equipment was of much import, as the cultivation and processing of cha required utmost effort and skill, fetching sometimes enormous sums for minute quantities of the plant. On no formal occasion could the tea person’s presence and skill be absent (5). It was during the Tang dynasty that tea acquired the ambience of imparting tranquility, and this period also heralded the tea lord Lu Yü. Lu Yü authored The Classic of Tea (Cha Jing), a source book on all things cha, still highly esteemed, and for his mastery on the subject of tea, he is considered its Patron Saint. Lu Yü was influenced by Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist principles, and his expression of what is essential to the practice of tea exemplifies this fundamental root. Additionally, he takes his name directly from the Book of Changes, whose hexagrams accented the brass boiler used in the preparation of his most honored drink (6).
Whereas tea from antiquity was drunk via cake and boiled in a cauldron, during the Song, pulverization of tea into a fine powder gained ground. This pulverized tea was whipped with a whisk into a frothy jade liquor. During this period Buddhist monks from Japan are exposed to tea. What they bring to their home country is this whipped form, which constitutes the form drunk within the Japanese style of cha-no-yu (tea and hot water).