Origin Myths

May 09, 2013 2 min read


ShennongMost popularly, the discovery of tea is attributed to Shennong, a godking and scholar, patron of Chinese agriculture. Shennong gets credit for the introduction of the hoe and plow, and much of Traditional Chinese Medicine as well; knowledge imparted in the Shennong Bencao Jing —Divine Farmer's Materia Medica which contemporary scholars consider a written version of previously oral knowledge, complied some time around the birth of Christ.

According to legend, Shennong (who was particular about cleanliness) was boiling some water in the forest when a few leaves came drifting down from above, and landed in his pot. They gave off a heavenly aroma, and the practice of steeping tea was born.  

Shennog is said to have tried hundred of herbs in pursuit of medicinal knowledge, and it is written that when he ingested poisonous plants, he used tea as an antidote. This worked until he ate “the yellow flower of a weed that caused his intestines to rupture before he had time to swallow his antidotal tea,” and thus passed from the earth.


In Japan the discovery of tea has also been attributed to Bodhidharma, an itinerant Indian monk who brought Zen Buddhism to China — even though tea was certainly in production when he arrived. Steven D. Owyoung writes that  Bodhidharma was a man “uncouth and unattractive … monosyllabic and miserly with his words … coarse featured, hirsute, and typically brooding or scowling,” nonetheless, a great and devoted monk. The story goes that once, deep in meditation, Bodhidharma allowed his eyes to close. Disgusted with his weakness, he took a knife and slashed off his eyelids to keep it from happening again. His eyelids landed on the ground, and from them sprang a tea plant – a stimulant that kept subsequent generations of monks awake and alert as they meditated.

Tea is introduced as a pleasure in neither of these myths – as a stimulant yes, as a medicinal plant to be certain, but not as something that would inspire poetry.  That would come later.

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