Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside: candles at four o’clock, warm hearth rugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.
-Thomas De Quincey,
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
Tea is a treasure of the world. As a consciousness-altering agent it is mankind’s kindliest ally in the vegetable kingdom. “If you are cold tea will warm you; if you are heated it will cool you; if you are depressed it will cheer you; if you are excited it will calm you” as an Englishman famously claimed, echoing sentiments long held in Asia. There, tea drinking is as old as the pyramids of Egypt, if we are to trust the Chinese legend that atÂtributes its discovery to the Emperor Shen Nong circa 2700 BCE. Historically speaking, tea from Yunnan is mentioned as a comÂmodity sent as tribute to the Emperor in the year 1066 BCE. Yunnan is thought to be the original home of the species Camellia sinensis, which probably spread from there to neighboring Assam, Burma, Laos and south China. How else explain the fact that 260 of the world’s 380 varieties of tea may be found there or the nuÂmerous wild tea trees? One wild tree there is now over seventeen hundred years old, while the oldest cultivated tea tree-actually, the oldest cultivated plant!-is over eight hundred. Yunnan has many ethnic groups who practice many different ways of preparÂing and using tea, but they all seem to honor an ancient hero named Zhuge Liang as the pioneer tea lover.
Tea was first known as tu, for instance, in a book which deÂscribes how the Zhou dynasty (794-221 BCE) used tea in religious rituals for communion with divinities. The distinctive ideogram cha-exactly like the character tu but for the omission of a single stroke-first appears in the Chinese written language in AD 725. The name tu survived in the coastal dialect from which EuropeÂans were later to derive the word “tea,” however. Regardless of how it was written, tea was well-known and widely available in China long before the time of Christ. By the last days of the Roman Empire, even barbarians from beyond China’s Great Wall craved tea enough to barter horses for it. And in the late 700s during Europe’s Dark Ages, China, in the high noon of her culÂture and might, had just recognized a man named Lu YÃ¼ as paÂtron saint of tea.