The history of tea begins in ancient China
Shen Nong (Shen Nung, or Shennong) is given the credit for discovering the health benefits of tea from the tea plant Camellia sinensis in the year 2737 B. C. Camellia sinensis is the same tea plant we use today for daily green tea, black tea, white tea, and oolong tea for five billion people.
Shen Nong was one of the Three August Ones or Sovereigns of ancient China, along with Fu Hsi and Huang Ti from south of the Yellow River.
He was called the Divine Cultivator, Farmer, and Healer, giving agriculture, medicinal herbs, and tea to all mankind.
He wrote the medical text called Pen ts'ao, the first book in the history of tea.
The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, was native throughout ancient China and southeast Asia. ShenNong described wild tea growing on the hills of Ichow and how to harvest and dry it on the third day of the third month. As he tested hundreds of plants for therapeutic value, he would use tea to antidote any poisonous side effects.
According to ShenNong, the medicinal benefits of tea included curing abscesses around the head, helping bladder and lung infections, quenching thirst, lessening the desire for sleep, and cheering the heart.
Is Shen Nong historical fact or myth?
What evidence exists to decide if the story of Shen Nong’s discovery of the health benefits of green tea leaves is history or myth?
Archeological excavations show that human civilization in China in 2737 B. C. was widespread but still neolithic.
People built houses, rather than living in caves. They fished, farmed, and used quarried stone to grind flour. They made pottery, spun fabric, and made music. They had learned how to grow millet during the Jiahu culture around 7000 B. C., and how to make wine. They traveled widely and carried possessions in carts.
They recorded life in pictograms. They had a pictographic system of writing in use since 6000-5000 B. C. as seen in the cliff carvings at Damaidi in Ningxia where 8453 separate individual characters have been identified in 3172 carvings. Though controversial, these pictographs are similar to early written Chinese. So far, there is no confirmation of tea in their writings.
At the time of the August One ShenNong and the beginning of the history of tea, there were many neolithic cultures throughout China. The Banshan, Henan-Longshan, Shandong-Longshan, Liangzhu, Qujialing, Baodun centers, and others are recorded at this time.
One of the most famous neolithic cultures of ancient China was the Longshan Culture (2900-2100 B. C.). Known for mass production of an extraordinarily thin black pottery (Black Pottery Culture), their artifacts are found near the Yellow River and throughout Shandong, Henan, Shaanxi, and Shanxi Provinces. Pottery pieces included burial urns, bowls, basins, and a wide variety of cooking vessels, which meant they could boil meat, vegetables, leaves, and potentially make tea from local wild tea plants.
Ancient uses of tea leaves as food include steamed tea leaves rolled into balls with salt, oil, and dried fish as an energy snack. The antioxidant catechins from the tea leaves helped protect against food poisoning. (Native American pemmican accomplished a similar preserved food value using berries for polyphenol antioxidants instead of tea leaves).
But it was the introduction of pottery in neolithic cultures that made boiling water easier, providing the technical capacity to make tea.
Ancient Chinese histories give us the name of Shen Nong
Several great histories of ancient China have survived and help contribute to the history of tea. Two of the oldest are the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian in the 2nd century BC, and the Bamboo Annals.
Sima Qian continued the historical work of his father Sima Tan. Both served in the government of the Han Dynasty as historians and librarians. At that time, divination and astrology were part of the job.
After his father’s death, Sima Qian continued the task of collecting a complete history of China. His 130 chapter history, called the Shi Ji (Shiji) or Record of the Grand Historian, was completed between the years 109 B. C. and 91 B. C.
The Shi Ji is praised both for the quantity and quality of recorded historical information. The prose is readable, the information is more objective than most histories written for rulers, and references include entire excerpts of previous works.
It covered the entire record of China starting with the Yellow Emperor, the ruler immediately after Shen Nong.
Sima Qian believed there was not enough evidence to include rulers who preceded the Yellow Emperor in his Record of the Grand Historian and he chose to leave Shen Nong and the history of tea in the realm of revered but unsubstantiated oral tradition.
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The Bamboo Annals were discovered by tomb robbers in 281 A. D.
Written on bamboo strips, they were interred in the burial chamber of King Xiang of Wei in 296 B. C. The Bamboo Annals were overlooked during the great burning of books of Emperor Shi Huangdi, but the tomb robbers used some of them as torches during the robbery. The Annals describe Shen Nong as one of the first three August Ones or Sovereigns of China, but their authenticity and accuracy are a source of chronic dispute among scholars.
Another surviving text, the Erh Ya, is the first Chinese dictionary. Its authorship is attributed to the Duke of Chou of the 18th century B. C., as well as to Confucius scholars over 1200 years later. But scholars do agree that it was updated in 350 A. D. by Kuo P’o, who added a definition of tea as a beverage made from steeping tea leaves in boiled water.
In the history of tea, this updated 1660 year old dictionary is the earliest surviving written mention of tea as we know it today.
And the discovery of tea by Shen Nong remains unproven.
Preserved documents increase with the tea trade
With more sophisticated civilization during the bronze age, tea becomes a highly desired trade product, and we start to see the history of tea recorded in trade documents.
Sources include U.K. Tea Council, Wikipedia, silk-road.com, and multiple references on Longshan, Sima Qian, and Bamboo Annals
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This page was last updated by Sharon Jones.
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