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First cup of tea in China

For a drink so deeply rooted in Chinese ceremony, culture and celebration, it will come as no surprise that tea has such a mythical and magical origin story.

It is said tea was first ‘discovered’ by Emperor Shennong (also spelt Shen Nung), one of the legendary ancient rulers of China, in 2737 BC, about 200 years before the first pyramids were built in Egypt. Part man, part myth, his name literally translates as ‘Divine Farmer’ or ‘Agriculture God’, and he’s been accredited with many agricultural inventions, including the hoe, the plough, the axe, the farmers’ market, wells, irrigation ditches, and my favourite, preserving stored seeds by using boiled horse urine. He is also widely venerated as the father of Chinese medicine – which brings us back to tea.

The Emperor Shennong firmly believed that one of the keys to a man’s health was to boil water before drinking it. And so it was that, on a rest stop on a long journey across his kingdom, his servants were boiling a cauldron of water using twigs they’d gathered nearby. These twigs were said to be from the Camellia sinensis bush, whose leaves rose up on a column of hot air and accidentally landed in the boiling water. Rather than fishing the small leaves out, Shennong tried the water and enjoyed the world’s first ever cup of green tea.

In his lifetime, Shennong went on to classify 365 species of herbs and medicinal plants, but tea must have held a special place in his heart as it is said to be an antidote to the poisons of some 70 herbs.


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