The oldest legends and histories of tea originate more than 5,000 years ago in China, where it is said that Emperor Shennong first discovered tea. His discovery is described in many different ways, but the most popular and commonly accepted legend involves the use of tea as a form of medicine.
Emperor Shennong is said to have ordered his subjects to boil their water before drinking it, and shortly after making this decree, he was sitting with his own freshly boiled bowl of water. Some leaves on the wind happened to blow into his bowl of water, and changed the color of it. Intrigued, he tasted the water, finding it to be pleasant and revitalizing.
While his edict that people drink boiled water may seem strange, he was the father of medicine in China. His experiments were largely carried out on himself. In fact, he is said to have been transparent, able to see the effects of various herbs, and even poisons he ingested. Tea was his cure for these poisons and ailments, although in a twist of irony he is said to have died as a result of failing to drink tea quickly enough after one such experiment.
Following his death, the cultivation of various types of tea flourished in China, eventually spreading to Japan when Buddhist monks brought tea and seeds back with them. This led not only to the cultivation of tea in Japan, but also was the beginning of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
After spreading to Japan, tea was spread to other parts of Asia, but was not cultivated outside of Asia. This changed around the 16th century, when England sought to break the Chinese monopoly on tea. They began cultivating their own tea in India, thus breaking the monopoly, and significantly altering the landscape of tea trade around the world.
Despite the many changes this brought, there were cultural aspects of tea that did not change. They were unique to the people of certain areas, and in areas where there were none, they developed. For example, England developed their modern tea parties, while China maintained their ancient tea culture. Japan, however, had developed something unique, that no other country had.
This development occurred around the time of England’s breaking of the Chinese monopoly on tea. It was the period unique in the world, when Japan closed borders to outsiders beginning in 1633. This lasted for more than 200 years, and marked the first time in history that a culture had completely closed itself to outside influence. As a result, Japanese culture and Japanese tea changed.
This was in part due to the teachings of Sen Rikyū, who had defined the ‘Way of Tea’ into an art, but that art had yet to be refined. The closing of Japan’s borders turned the people’s minds inward, and from there, Japanese tea was refined. It became something unique. Today it remains unlike anything else in the world, and is a historical hallmark of Japanese culture. It serves both ministers and peasants alike, but to those who visit, or even live in Japan, it is entirely Japanese.