Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung is responsible for taking the first sip of tea in 2737 B.C. During Shen Nung's time, it was common to have spring water boiling outdoors, in a vessel, over a fire. The story goes that Shen Nung was outside taking a nap while some water was boiling nearby. A breeze blew a few leaves from a tree into the hot water. The Emperor smelled the brew that was created and tasted the liquid. As he drank, he decided that he wanted to gather additional leaves so that he could brew more tea. The tree from which the leaves came was what is now known as the Camellia sinensis (the tea plant).
The above story is thought to be a legend because the Camellia sinensis was discovered much later (206-220 A.D.). It is possible, however, that Shen Nung experimented with tea leaves given that he worked with medicinal plants, was knowledgeable about agriculture and agricultural tools, and helped educate others on the subject.
Lu Yu lived from the mid 8th to the early 9th Century A.D. It is said that this very influential Chinese figure in the history of tea was abandoned by his parents and raised by monks. One of the monks taught Lu Yu how to grow, pick and prepare tea. Lu Yu became a literary scholar and eventually wrote Cha Jing (The Classic of Tea), which became the first book about tea.
There are several versions of the story of Siddhartha and the cultivation of tea. This one is among the most colorful. In the 6th Century A.D., Siddhartha, a prince from India who became a monk, embarked upon a journey from India to China to spread Buddhism. Meditation was an integral part of Siddhartha's journey. Although Siddhartha promised never to fall asleep during his years of self-imposed meditation, legend has it that he couldn't stay awake. Upon falling asleep he is said to have dreamt about all the women he ever loved. Furious at himself for sleeping, he tore his eyelids off and buried them deep into the ground, next to the tree where he was resting. He left again to preach Buddhism. Upon his return to the tree months later, Siddhartha found that his eyelids had rooted and generated a bush. He discovered that the leaves of this bush kept him aware and awake. He told his followers about the plant. They gathered seeds and cultivated the tree in other locations nearby. As it turned out, the tree was the tea plant.
Esai, a Japanese monk who went to China in 1187 to study Chan Buddhism (known as Zen Buddhism in Japan), is said to have returned to Japan with tea seeds to plant in Uji. Esai is credited with writing the first book about tea in Japan. A book about cultivating and using tea for medicinal purposes, Kitcha Yojoki (also known as Maintaining Health by Drinking Tea and The Book of Tea Sanitation) was published in 1211.
Many important figures came before Sen-no Rikyu in Japan. They paved the way for him to develop what is now called Chanoyu or The Way of Tea. This tea master formalized the tea ceremony and created standards and traditions that are still followed today during the Japanese tea ceremony.
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