Tea has existed for thousands of years. Legend has it that Emperor Shen Nong (神农), one of the mythological deities of the Chinese Five Cereals’ Gods (五毂神) and the Chinese Father of Agriculture, discovered tea as he boiled water under a Camellia tree one day, and leaves drifted off the branches and fell into his cup.
This drink, the second most consumed in the world after water, is a simple concoction of boiled water poured over leaves from the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis. Though all tea leaves come from the same plant species, differences in climate and cultivation have given consumers numerous tea options. We can categorize tea into six broad categories: pu’er, made from fermented leaves; black, made from fully oxidized leaves; oolong, made from semi-oxidized leaves; green, made from unoxidized leaves; and white, made from minimally processed leaves.
Tea culture began in China, where it fell in with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar as one of the seven necessities to begin a day. The Chinese originally used the drink in religious sacrifices, as well as in medicine for such purposes as relieving indigestion and expelling evil. The Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) saw a shift in the cultural significance of tea as people took more to developing methods of preparing tea for plain drinking, and by the Tang Dynasty (618-907) all social classes enjoyed it.
From China, tea diffused to the rest of Asia, with Japan acquiring a taste for it in the 6th century and Korea learning of it through visits from Buddhist monks who much promoted the social and spiritual benefits of tea. As a result, these countries have each developed their own tea cultures.
The term “tea culture” refers to all aspects related to the production, use, or consumption of tea, including preparation, history, and social meaning. Of the many countries in East Asia, tea is most prominent in China and Japan, an accompaniment to most meals.
Tea ceremonies, such as gongfucha (功夫茶) in China and chanoyu (茶の湯) in Japan, especially capture the intimacy of tea. These ceremonies require a precision, skill, and a specific setting. More experience than procedure, gongfucha and chanoyu demonstrate respect for tea preparation and emphasizes the relationships among the participants of the tea drinking. Through the focus on the ceremony alone – drinking the right type of tea, using the right dishes, boiling the water to the right temperature, and brewing the leaves the right length of time – one may depart from the mundanity and stress of life for awhile.
Ultimately this association of tea with tranquility in and kinship with others and the natural world most explains the reason for tea’s significance in East Asia.