« Tea was not only a remedy against drowsiness. It was a way of aiding men to return to their sources, a moment in the rhythm of the day when prince and peasant shared the same thoughts and same happiness while preparing to return to their respective fates. »
Lu Yu (733-804)
LEGENDS OF THE SPIRITUAL BEVERAGE
The subject of several charming legends, tea has the privilege of being the most ancient beverage in the world. It is nearly 5,000 years old, and its true origins remain shrouded in mystery.
According to Chinese legend, Emperor Chen-Nung, known as the ‘Divine Harvester’, was very strict about hygiene and drank only boiled water. One day in the year 2737 bc., as the emperor was sitting at rest under a wild tea tree gently blowing in the breeze, a few leaves tumbled into his cup. On drinking it, the emperor was filled with inexpressible well-being. Tea was born.
Indians, meanwhile, attribute the discovery of tea to Prince Bhodi-Dharma, son of Kosjuwo, king of the Indies. The venerable prince travelled from southern India to China during the reign of Emperor Xuanwudi, preaching Buddhism in the kingdom of North Wei. He advocated meditation, the cultivation of the mind, and the elimination of all illusion as the path to salvation. The prince also made the vow to meditate for seven years without ever falling asleep. At the end of five years, he was overcome with weariness and sleep, but a providential act made him gather and chew a few leaves from an unknown tree. It was of course a tea tree, and the amazing virtues of tea gave the prince the strength to fulfil his vow.
Japanese legend tells a somewhat different version of this same story. After only three years of meditation, Prince Bhodi-Dharma fell asleep and dreamed of the women he had once loved. On waking, furious at his weakness, he tore off his eyelids and buried them. Returning to the same spot some time later, he noticed that the eyelids had sprouted into an unknown bush. On chewing the leaves, he realized that they had the effect of keeping his eyes open. He recounted the story to his friends, who gathered the seeds and thus began planting tea. It is said that the prince fled China for Japan, taking tea with him. Prince Bhodi-Dharma’s journey to China is mentioned in Chinese chronicles dating from the reign of Vu Yu, in 543 ad.
THE TEA ROUTE
Tea travels from China to Japan in the ninth century, introduced by a Buddhist monk named Saicho. As far as the Japanese are concerned, tea is more than just a beverage. The object of the tea ceremony, which has fortunately survived the centuries and now transcends national borders, is to help the mind attain serenity.
Thanks to caravan trade routes, tea spread throughout the Mongol empire, Persia, the Islamic world, and Russia, before Europe learned of its existence. Long cut off from the East, Europe was late in discovering tea.
It was only in 1610 that tea truly began its remarkable expansion into the Western world. The various East India Companies, which engaged in regular trade with the Far East, introduced tea into Holland in 1610, into France in 1636, and into England in 1650.
FRANCE DISCOVERS TEA
One of the first French tea connoisseurs was Louis XIV. It is reported that in 1665 his doctors prescribed tea ‘to aid digestion’. The king, having also been told that neither the Chinese nor Japanese suffered from gout or cardiac disorders, drank tea regularly for his health.
Around 1840, the royal beverage became the preferred drink of gentlemen who frequented court circles and aristocratic salons.
The French now drink 210 grams of tea per person per year, or about 100 cups.