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The Discovery of Tea as a Beverage in China

Shennong – “The Divine Farmer” and mythical godfather of the discovery of tea as a beverageShennong – “The Divine Farmer” and mythical godfather of the discovery of tea as a beverage

1. Legend of the discovery of tea as a beverage


I’m quite sure about everyone will already know the famous legend of the Chinese emperor Shennong and how he discovered tea as a beverage 5000 years ago. After all, the version of the discovery of the suitability of the leaves of Camellia Sinensis for the preparation of a healthy and tasty infusion beverage depicted therein is quite omnipresent in the tea blogs of this world and other relevant publications on the topic of tea history.

However, how much this story is indeed missing, if omitted is something that only came to me when I did just that. I started my summary of the history of tea as a beverage in China with the proven historical facts and data instead of that legend, and the result was the permanent presence of an emotionally felt – yes, almost perceived as painful – gap exactly at the beginning of this article. Until I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. Therefore, now also here and once more: the legend of Shennong and the discovery of tea as a beverage.

Shennong depiction as a ploughing farmer (Han dyn.)Shennong depiction as a ploughing farmer (Han dyn.)

The Shennong Legend

The Chinese legend about the discovery of tea as a beverage takes place on a sunny-weather day in the year 2737 BC. Its main character is a Chinese “emperor” called Shennong. According to legend, that Shennong was once sitting in the imperial palace garden, when the wind blew a leaf from a tea tree right into his cup filled with water. The result, when tried, proved to be a tasty beverage that also showed stimulating effects. From then on, Shennong used his imperial position to promote tea as a beverage among his subjects.

Shennong depiction as an herbal explorerShennong depiction as an herbal explorer

2. Facts of the origin and development of tea as a beverage in China

So far the legend… now, legends back and forth, the story at least seems to have a “true core”. There is historical documentation that a person with the name Shennong did indeed exist at that time. That figure is revered as the father of herbal medicine and agriculture far beyond China’s borders. So, for example, also in Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan, with temples dedicated to Shennong to be found in each of these countries.

However, the historical accounts rather point to an herbal healer and agricultural researcher then to an emperor in more modern terms. The name Shennong means as much as “Divine Farmer”. In some sources, he is also referred to as the “Emperor of the 5 Grains”. The contents of an early Chinese publication about healing herbs, the Shennong Beng Cao Jing, though compiled long after his time, is said to be based on Shennong’s oral tradition.

Shennong Beng Cao JingShennong Beng Cao Jing

Ultimately, the exact facts and details around the person of Shennong are disappearing in the fog of time. However, it is clear that the origin of enjoying tea as a beverage – as well as otherwise and whether for medical purposes or as a luxury or semi-luxury foodstuff – definitely are in China.

The discovery of tea as a beverage

2.1. First evidence of the use of tea in China

For a long time, written documentation from the 3rd and 4th century AD were the first evidence of the consumption of tea. However, after a recent discovery of the oldest existing tea in the world, it can be considered as a fact that tea leaves have been used in China at a considerably earlier time already. Furnishings in the grave of the 4th emperor of the Han dynasty, Liu Qi, and his wife among others evidently also include tea leaves. The phenomenal about the find is that the emperor buried there lived between 188 and 141 AD. The oldest tea leaves discover so far had been dating back to the times of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).

Chinese Traditional Herbal Medicine

2.2. Tea as a medicinal herb in traditional Chinese medicine

Still, there is only limited reason to celebrate for tea lovers, who’d be just overfond of knowing their favorite beverage on the palate of connoisseurs already 2100 years ago. This is because there is no evidence of whether Liu Qi and his contemporaries indeed enjoyed their tea as a beverage. Even less proven is, whether they actually did this for purposes of enjoyment. In fact, though much is pointing to tea leaves being used at the times of the Han dynasty (206 v. Chr. – 220 n. Chr.) already, this might have been mainly for medicinal purposes. Also, tea was actually not infused for such purposes at that time, but rather either eaten or added to a brew or tonic as an ingredient. What’s more, after its discovery as a tasty beverage, tea leaves initially were mainly infused in an unprocessed state, i. e. freshly picked.


Development of tea as a beverage in China

2.3. The beginnings of tea as a beverage in China

Nevertheless, the grave discovery, along with later written mentionings of tea in the times of the Han dynasty, at least suggests that tea might have been known as beverage consumed for enjoyment at that time already. This, however, seems to have been reserved for the nobility caste and the imperial court, hence as a luxury food rather than a semi-luxury food.

Starting from about from the 2nd and 3rd century AD, whether now for medicinal or for enjoyment purposes, tea was also cultivated in China. During the 4th and 5th century, the popularity of tea as a beverage in China quickly rose. Tea drinking as a habit now prevailed in ever greater circles of China’s “high society”. At that time, it was common to add ingredients such as rice, salt, spices and orange peel when preparing tea.

The “Golden Era of Tea”: the Tang dynasty – contemporary mural paintingThe “Golden Era of Tea”: the Tang dynasty – contemporary mural painting

2.4. The “Golden Era of Tea”

The time of the Tang dynasty (618-907) is often referred to as the Golden Era of Tea. Tea established as a valuable gift or means of exchange in the highest circles not only at the imperial court and within the Chinese nobility, but also in international diplomatic or trade relations. It was consumed no longer mainly for medicinal purposes now, but increasingly for the mere sake of enjoyment.

Pu Erh tea brick, optimally suitable for the transport on the tea horse roadTypical tea brick (here: “Pu Erh tea”)

The processing standard of that time was the pressing and roasting of green tea leaves. The tea processed in such way, if you want so the most ancient type of Pu Erh Tea, was then milled to powder and infused with salted or otherwise spiced or flavored boiling water. Notably, the first two of the tea processing variations as we know them today also developed during that time, namely that of yellow tea and that of white tea. Also, a ritualization of the tea preparation as a ceremony or art form is appearing here for the first time. However, the enjoyment of tea as a beverage and the cultural blessings coming with that, remained reserved for the highest circles of society and the imperial court.

Lu Yu - Chinese "tea sage" / "tea saint", authour of the "Cha Ching" ("The Classic of Tea")Lu Yu – author of the world’s first book about tea: “Cha Ching – The Classic of Tea”

2.5. Lu Yu and the Cha Ching

A product of that time’s tea culture preserved until today is the literary work “Cha Ching”. Author of the book published in 760 is the Chinese tea sage or “tea saint” Lu Yu (728-804). Lu Yu had been adopted and raised by the imperial court as an intellectually gifted orphan child. After a relevant apprenticeship, he later dedicated his life and work to the research and exploration of tea in all of its aspects. “Cha Ching”, a historical milestone of the emergence of tea as a beverage, literally translates to “The Classic of Tea”. In ten short chapter, the author covers for all important aspects of that time’s tea production and culture. Accordingly reads the table of contents of his work:

1. Chapter I: The origins of tea

2. Chapter II: Instruments for picking and processing tea leaves

3. Chapter III: Processing of the tea leaves

4. Chapter IV: Instruments for preparing the tea

5. Chapter V: Infusing the tea leaves

6. Chapter VI: How to drink tea

7. Chapter VII: Tea in the old texts

8. Chapter VIII: The best tea cultivation regions

9. Chapter IX: Miscellaneous

10. Chapter X: Overview to this work

Excerpt of Lu Yu's "Cha Ching - The Classic of Tea"Excerpt of Lu Yu’s “Cha Ching – the Classic of Tea”

Isn’t it an amazing irony that a book about tea from the year 760 AD contains a chapter with the title “Tea in the old times”? Now, I guess there’s an “old time” from every “modern time’s” perspective…

Routes and branches of the ancient tea road from Yunnan and Sichuan to Lhasa in TibetTrade routes of the ancient Tea-Horse Road (ca. 800 AD – 20th century)

2.6. The Tea-Horse Road from Yunnan to Lhasa

Before the above-mentioned discovery of tea leaf remains from the year 141 AD in the grave of a Han emperor, the idea generally prevailed that the tea-horse road, a system of trade routes connecting China with Tibet, was established only around the turn of the millennium. Based on the said tea find, however, it is evident that this trade route – with tea as a trade ware – must have been taken into operation at least 200 years before that time. On the tea-horse road, mainly tea from southern China (e.g. Pu Erh and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan) was brought to Tibet. There, the tea was traded against horses, which were much appreciated in China both for military and other purposes.

Tibetian village at the ancient Tea Horse Road in SichuanTibetan village at the ancient tea-horse road

2.7. The invention of “Matcha” Tea

The Song dynasty (960-1279) brought a new variant of preparing tea. While so far, finely grinded tea powder had been infused with boiling hot water, it was now frothed up in it. In principle, what we are looking at there is the birth of the Matcha tea. From a nowadays perspective, it might look like Matcha tea being a Japanese invention. The modern Matcha market is dominated by Japanese products, and Matcha is being introduced to us as THE traditional popular beverage No. 1 in Japan. In fact, not only had finely powdered green tea been frothed up with a bamboo whisk in China already at the times of the Tang dynasty, but also this powder had been produced from tea leaves freed from stems and veining back then already, just as we know this from Japan today.

Japanese Matcha PowderMatcha tea – powdered “Tencha” or green tea leaves

However, the processing of Tencha leaves to fine powder (chin.: “Mocha”) and the frothing up of the same in hot water in China soon went out of fashion again. Even pulverized green tea is still – or rather: again – being produced in China today, it doesn’t play an important role there anymore latest since the emergence and victory march of the method of infusing whole tea leaves (see 2.6. below).

The Chinese 6-Categories Tea Classification System

2.8. Tea as we know it

The 13th and 14th century saw the exploration of oxidation processes and their effects on tea leaves and the resulting tea’s taste. Logical consequence was the development of the processing methods for black tea and Oolong tea. With these introductions, the Chinese 6-categories tea classification system as we know it today was complete. At the same time, the new processing options led to another, potentially virtually limitless diversification of the Chinese tea portfolio.

Classical Chinese teapot – a milestone in the development of tea as a beverageClassical Chinese teapot – a milestone in the development of tea as a beverage

At the times of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) then, the method of tea preparation as we know it today, namely the infusion of whole tea leaves, came up and quickly prevailed. The practical requirements of the new preparation method also brought the development of a new “instrument”, the tea pot, with them. A noteworthy date in this context is the production of the first Yixing teapot in the year 1492.

Individual Chinese tea ceremony ("Gong Fu Cha") setupIndividual Chinese tea ceremony (“Gong Fu Cha”) setup

2.9. The Chinese tea ceremony

In parallel to the development of tea preparation in the form of infusing whole leaves – and in parallel to the emergence of Oolong tea – the Chinese tea ceremony developed. Today, this is considered as the strongest symbol of Chinese tea culture. As such, it is anchored across all social classes and walks of life. It consists in the art of focused and to a certain degree ritualized preparation of Oolong tea across several infusions. The goal at this is nothing lesser than preparing the best – in terms of tastiest – possible Oolong tea. However, the Chinese concept of the tea ceremony is less that of a fixed ritual, but rather that of a flexible and individual process. Hence, both the steps typically performed and the instruments used can vary from region to region as well as on an individual basis.

 Classic Chinese tea house, built on a pondClassic Chinese tea house, built on a pond

2.10. Tea houses and tea rooms

The rising popularity of tea as a beverage was accompanied by the progressive emergence of tea houses and tea rooms in China. There, people did not only meet to drink tea, but also to debate all kinds of problems and matters, whether of personal, social or political nature. The tea houses played an important role in the diffusion of the tea drinking habit in the broader Chinese population. The emergence of publicly accessible tea houses and tea rooms marks the change of the status of tea from a “luxury” foodstuff to a “semi-luxury” foodstuff.

Chin. tea houses – important role in the diffusion of the tea drinking habit in the broader societyChin. tea houses – important role in the diffusion of the tea drinking habit in the broader society

By the way, China doesn’t really need the rest of world – such as us – to drink all the tea produced in their country. Of the roughly 2 Mio. Tons of domestically produced tea in the year 2014 – almost half of the total world production – China exported only about 200,000 tons. As for the rest, the Chinese drink it all by themselves. And on top of that import even more tea for their own consumption from Taiwan and some countries more.

Chin. tea houses – important role in the diffusion of the tea drinking habit in the broader societyThe ritual of the Gong Fu Cha is flexible and offers room for individual creativity

Also read the sequels, parts 2 and 3 of the article trilogy “Development of Tea as a Beverage – Tea Cultures of the World” at the following links:

The Spead of Tea Culture in Asia


Ancient Land and Sea Trade Routes of Tea from China to Europe, Russia and the Middle East


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