The History of Tea: Legends from China and India

Updated: Aug 28, 2019


Tea’s origin story is infused with a blend of myth and fact and colored by ancient concepts of spirituality and philosophy. According to Chinese legend, the history of tea began in 2737 B.C.E. when the Emperor Shen Nong, a skilled ruler and scientist, accidentally discovered tea. While boiling water in the garden, a leaf from an overhanging wild tea tree drifted into his pot. The Emperor enjoyed drinking the infused water so much that he was compelled to research the plant further. Legend has it that the Emperor discovered tea's medicinal properties during his research.


Indian history attributes the discovery of tea to Prince Bodhi-Dharma, an Indian saint who founded the Zen school of Buddhism. In the year 520, he left India to preach Buddhism in China. To prove some Zen principles, he vowed to meditate for nine years without sleep. It is said that towards the end of his meditation, he fell asleep. Upon awaking, he was so distraught that he cut off his eyelids, and threw them to the ground. Legend has it that a tea plant sprung up on the spot to sanctify his sacrifice.

Popularization in the Far East

Whatever the legend, tracing tea’s original roots proves difficult. It is probable that the tea plant originated in regions around southwest China, Tibet, and Northern India. Chinese traders may have traveled throughout these regions often and encountered people chewing tea leaves for medicinal purposes.

It was not until the Tang dynasty (618-907), often referred to as the classic age of tea, did consumption become widespread. A government imposed tea tax further evidences the beverage’s growing popularity, and it was at this time that tea was recognized as China’s national drink.

During the Tang dynasty, a Buddhist monk, Lu Yu (733-804) composed the Ch’a Ching or Classic of Tea treatise. He described types of tea, its uses, as well as the preparation and benefits of drinking it. More importantly, he imbued the writings with a spiritual aesthetic that reflected Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian religious thoughts of the time. These teachings were centered around a traditional tea ceremony, which served as