How do we know the Chinese drank tea first?

China is the native land of tea. With its unique fragrance and mellow sweet taste, its values to health, and ease of access by the masses, tea has brewed itself into Chinese history for more than 2,000 years. Over the dynasties, tea has been a part of life for people of all classes (More in "Who drinks tea?"). By dint of cultural and economic exchange with other countries and regions, tea was introduced overseas and developed into one of the most popular beverages today. (More in "How tea got to the other parts of the world?")

But how do we know for sure that Chinese was the first to drink tea? Click on the sections above to find out, like a historian.

How do historians do it?

Historians typically rely on documented evidence to study past events. These may include hard, scientific evidence (such as data collected from carbon dating) and documented evidence (such as written accounts, witness accounts, oral history, video footage, and audio recordings). Through studying these materials - and materials from multiple sources - historians are able to understand how, why, and whether things happened, with authority and credibility.

Origins - Where tea first appeared

Tea originally occurred in Southwestern China. According to Lu Yu's Classic of Tea, "tea is a good tree of the south". The native land of tea, China was the first country to use tea leaves and known to the world as the birthplace of tea. As supported by written accounts, our ancestors began cultivating and using tea plants more than 2,000 years ago, and Bashu area, covering Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan in Southwestern China, was the region of origin.

Scientists have also found evidence that support this statement. They have found 3 of the world's oldest tea trees in this region. They are the: Bada ancient tea tree, estimated to be about 1,700 years old (around the time of the Three Kingdoms) and is a wild tea tree; the Bangwei ancient tea tree, over 1,000 years old and considered to be a "transitional stage tea tree"; and the Nannuo tea tree, the "King of Tea Trees", considered to be planted by someone in the Song dynasty, about 800 years old.

Tea has a long history. Before becoming a common beverage, it was used as one of many ingredients for soups and medicines. In the Jin dynasty (265 - 420 A.D.), Sun Chu wrote in The Song that Bashu produced ginger, cinnamon, tea, and old tea leaves. It showed that Bashu (now Sichuan province) was a famous tea growing region more than a thousand years ago.

Earliest accounts - And the monumental importance of Lu Yu

A Contract with A Servant, by rhapsodic poet Wang Bao in the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 9 A.D.) is popularly regarded as the earliest written account of tea. In this documentary of current events, Wang Bao described how his servant prepared tu leaves and utensils for him and went to Wuyang to purchase tu leaves. It is obvious that tea was loved by the literati and it was commercially marketed.

The earliest book on tea - and the one best known by far - is Classic of Tea written by Lu Yu in the Tang dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.).

Lu Yu recorded everything from how teas were grown, how teas were classified, to how tea should be chosen and cooked in the Classic of Tea, which became the first definitive guide to all things tea-related. The book elevated tea to a new level - an art - and made a monumental impact to how tea was perceived and drunk - an impact that lasted for centuries to come.

With his exceptional contribution in the development of Chinese tea, Lu Yu has been honoured as the "Saint of Tea" and "God of Tea" by later generation.

More About Lu Yu

Lu Yu (circ. 733 - 804) was born in the reign of Kaiyuan of the Tang dynasty at Jingling, Fuzhou (present Tianmen County in Hubei province). An orphan abandoned by his parents under a stone bridge, Lu Yu was brought up by a Buddhist monk called Ji Gong in a temple. Little Lu Yu learned how to read, the Buddhist classics and making tea from Ji Gong, and with time, gradually became an expert in tea, poetry and calligraphy.

Lu Yu left the Longgai Temple and became an actor when he was 12 years old. Although Lu Yu was not good in both appearance and speech, his diligence and sense of humour won the recognition of Li Qiwu, the Prefect of Jingling, who helped him to go to the Mount Tianmen to learn from scholar Chou. Besides studying, he always picked wild tea leaves and prepared tea for his teacher. In order to enrich his own knowledge in tea, Lu Yu visited the outback as well as different provinces along the Yangtze River to collect information about famous mountains, tea gardens and water springs. Finally he compiled the Classic of Tea, the first treatise on tea and tea culture in the world.

Earliest legends - And our friend Shen Nong

It is written in Classic of Tea that, "The tea drinking tradition began with Shen Nong and actively developed by the Duke of Zhou." Tea was used in ancient China. It is said that Shen Nong, the God of Medicine who tasted all herbs was poisoned by 72 different plants everyday. He relied on tea to neutralise the toxins. As for how he discovered this plant which can treat all sorts of ailments, there are many different versions.

The first version is that the God of Medicine had a transparent belly and what he ate could be clearly seen. To save the people from the torments of disease, he travelled the wilderness and tasted every herb. One day, he tasted fresh leaves of a certain plant and found that they moved up and down inside his belly as if they were inspecting something. He named it zha (check). As time went on, it became cha (tea).

The second version says the God of Medicine was poisoned by herbs and almost died under a tree. He was revived by fresh dew on the leaves which dropped into his mouth, and he discovered the great medicinal value of tea.

Yet another version says that Shen Nong was boiling water under a tree one day and some leaves fell into the pot. He drank the mixture and all ailments and toxins disappeared. He thus discovered the treatment action of tea leaves.

Why is tea called \

In the early years, tea was not processed and has a bitter taste. For this reason it was known as tu, a general name for bitter vegetables. Over the centuries it had also been called jia, chuan, ming and she. In the mid 7th century, a cross stroke was taken away from the character "tu" and since then the plant has been known as cha (tea).

The word "tea" in different languages is invariable borrowed from the Chinese word cha. China is a country of numerous dialects. Historically, linguistic exchange with overseas were conducted in local dialects. The modern pronunciations of "tea" in different languages are either based on coastal Minnan dialects or the mainland Canton dialects.

In the Minnan dialects of Fujian province, tea is pronounced "té", as represented by the Amoy dialect. Amoy (Xiamen) was an important external port with a long history of shipping and export. The word "tea" in Dutch, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Czech, Hungarian and Latin is based on the pronunciation "té" of Minnan dialects. In Cantonese, tea is pronounced "chá". This gave rise to the word "tea" in Japanese, Russian, Indian, Iraqi, Turkish, Arabian and Portuguese.