There are many different versions of the origin of tea, all equally interesting. Given my perspective as an herbalist, what follows is the version that I like best.
Legend has it that the discovery of tea is attributed to the Emperor Shen Nung (Holy Farmer/Yan Di) during the 27th century BCE. Shen Nung is attributed with developing agricultural production practices and equipment like the plough and therefore considered the God of Farming. It is also said that the Holy Farmer was the God of Medicine (the ultimate herbalist) because in an effort to help the people with their ills and pains, he took it upon himself to try many different wild plants to test the effects on his own body. On one day in particular, he poisoned himself 72 times while trying different plants. The legend goes on to state that he came upon one herb that when steeped in hot water and consumed, helped him detoxify his body of all of the poisons from the other plants. This herb was the tea plant; Camellia sinensis. As a result, tea had itâ€™s beginnings as a medicinal herb that was used by peasants and nobility alike, all of whom considered it a precious medicine with magical properties. It only later became a most sought after commodity by the privileged after it began being consumed and written about as a drink with special properties by the literati of the time, about 100 years B.C.E. As the quantity of tea consumed by the privileged classes increased, so did the price further pushing it out of the reach of the masses.