China, Japan, and Korea are all three big tea-consuming countries and, as such, each has its own legends concerning how tea originated. Take a look.
It is said in China that the first person to discover tea was Shen Nong (2700 BC), the father of agriculture and herbal medicine. In an ancient Chinese medical book, called The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic, written during the Han Dynasty, it is said that Shen Nong tasted 100 plants in one day, consuming 72 different types of poison in the process; tea leaves were used to remove the toxins from his body. Two other interesting versions of this story have also been documented.
In ancient times, people knew little about plants. To determine which plants were edible, poisonous, or medicinal, Shen Nong tasted various kinds of plants every day. Fortunately, Shen Nong had a transparent belly, making it possible for him to observe the reactions in his stomach caused by the plants he had eaten. When he tasted tea leaves, he found that the tea leaves passed through his stomach and intestines, checking for poisons in the stomach and cleaning the intestines. Shen Nong referred to these leaves as Cha, which has the same pronunciation as “checking the poisons” and became the plant’s current name (tea).
Another story, slightly different from the transparent belly story, is more reasonable. It is said that Shen Nong took a rest under a tree after a long walk and lit a fire to boil water. Some tree leaves fell into the boiling water. Shen Nong drank the water and became energetic and refreshed. After tasting 100 plants the previous day, Shen Nong believed that he had found a medicine that “tastes bitter. Drinking it, one can think quicker, sleep less, move lighter, and see clearer.”
The tales about Shen Nong discovering tea usually mention the medical functions of the plant. To understand these legends, in my opinion, Shen Nong should not be regarded as one person. Rather, Shen Nong should represent all people from time immemorial whose knowledge of nature was limited and who fought with nature for their survival. For this post, I did some studies and found that my opinion was supported by recent research, proving that Shen Nong was not one person, but a tribe leader position. However, I also think that the character of Shen Nong was not only a group of leaders but all tribespeople.
Japanese academics have admitted that Japanese tea came from China, but in Japan, the popular tale claims that the Bodhidharma discovered tea. It is said that the Bodhidharma was sitting in meditation for seven years before he became too tired to stay awake. He then sliced off his eyelids to prevent sleep and threw them on the ground, where they became tea trees. After picking some of the tea leaves and chewing them, he felt energetic, and he concluded that the tea helped him to stay awake. This is the Japanese story of the origin of tea.
The Chinese love it because the story is interesting, and it seems to take place in the Shaolin temple, the place where the Bodhidharma practiced sitting in meditation for seven years. The Japanese love it too, and say the Bodhidharma died in Japan. Indians love it because the origin of tea seems to be related to India. Everybody loves this tale because it is fantastic and makes the connection between tea and meditation.
Korea has also admitted that tea originated in China. In the Korean tea ceremony, the five elements signify a sacrificial rite in the memory of the saint of tea, Yandi Shen Nong. This is different from China, where the saint of tea is Luyu from the Tang Dynasty. From this sacrificial rite, we can see that Koreans also view Shen Nong as the discoverer of tea.
Typically, the origin of tea in Korea is attributed to monks who studied in China or came from China. However, a certain legend is popular in Korea. It is said that King Suro was one of six princes born from eggs that descended from the sky. King Suro married Heo Hwang-ok, a princess from the Indian country of Ayuta. When they married, she brought a boat full of her dowry, which included tea seeds.
From my perspective, this legend can be seen as an indication that early Koreans considered kings to be descended from heaven, and all of their virtues attributed to the king or the royalty. This is a characteristic of Confucianism – to be loyal to royalty.
What Can We Learn From These Tea Legends?
China’s legend about Shen Nong discovering tea is based on practical thought. Actually, it makes sense from a scientific point of view. People living in ancient times searched for food to survive and for medicine when they were sick; thus, it makes sense for people to invoke tea’s detoxifying and healthful functions. In fact, tea was first used as an herbal medicine and then as a worship sacrifice. It was later eaten like a soup and finally became a complete drink during the Wei Dynasty (220-264), according to records. However, this legend lacks imagination compared to that of the Japanese legend.
Japan’s legend about the Bodhidharma slicing off his eyelids, which then grow into tea trees, is fantastic and thought-provoking. I believe that the intensity of the Bodhidharma’s search for the truth, exemplified by his willingness to slice off his own eyelids, would impress anyone. This legend is indicative of Japanese determination and ambition in searching for the truth.
Although Korea’s legend of Princess Ho Hwang-ok bringing tea to Korea from India also lacks imagination, it demonstrates a loyalty for royalty beyond that for common folk.
These three tea legends represent three national characteristics. The Chinese tend to be pragmatic and practical. The Japanese admire spirit and resolution. The Koreans seem to be impacted by the ethics of a type of Confucianism different from the pure Confucianism from Kongzi, but the Song and Ming Dynasty’s Confucian idealist philosophy combined with its own culture.
While tea legends provide a way to trace different national characteristics, these characteristics have played important roles in the development of tea and determine its current status.
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This article was originally published in March 2012.