Shrouded in the mists before history, humans discovered wild tea trees growing in the rugged mountainous jungles on the southern edge of China’s Yunnan Province. Thus begins the story of tea…
Today’s resurgent interest in tea, the “ancient beverage,” echoes the eloquently-titled 1960s song, “Everything Old is New Again,” by Australian songwriter Peter Allen. The current desire to know more about tea leads naturally to the old tale of one of China’s Three Divine Sovereigns, Shên Nong. His accidental and fortuitous discovery of tea is often told as if it were an historical event. However, the tale is deeply rooted in pre-historic Chinese mythology and predates the Chinese Emperors.
As the story goes, Shên Nong the mythical sovereign, who is also known as the “Divine Farmer” and the “Divine Husbandman” was napping one day in 2737 B.C., when a slight breeze blew a leaf from a nearby bush into his kettle of boiling water. Upon awakening, he tasted the liquid and was impressed with how alert, yet calm he felt. As he was constantly looking for beneficial plants, he recognized that the brew from this leaf could help human beings. In its simplest form that is the story–yet the myth is not history. Still the story clearly illustrates what a superhuman and god-like job it was for early humans to learn to distinguish teas’ healthful properties from plants that could do harm.
According to Lihui Yang in her Handbook of Chinese Mythology, the legend begins in China’s prehistoric period between 2838 and 2698 B.C., with Shên Nong’s miraculous birth. His mother, a Chinese goddess named Andeng, conceived her son when she was touched by a heavenly dragon, a much beloved and helpful water-god. The myth says Shên Nong was born with the head and horns of an ox and on the day of his birth nine interconnected water wells mysteriously appeared in the village. Within three days of his extraordinary birth the baby could talk and two days later he walked. By the twelfth day his teeth were fully formed and at three years of age he understood the entirety of sowing and reaping crops. It was this knowledge that would earn him the title of “Divine Farmer.” It is said he taught people to sow and cultivate the five grains—an achievement that changed the entire world. With the cultivation of rice, beans, two kinds of millet and wheat, humans learned to assess the quality of the land and were able to leave off the unhealthy practice of eating only the raw flesh and blood of reptiles, wasps, worms, and other creatures.
Shên Nong tasted hundreds of plants and grasses daily, looking for those that would benefit humans and not be poisonous to them. Because of this extensive experimentation, he is also credited with creating Chinese medicine and writing one of China’s earliest medical books, the classic Shennong’s Materia Medica, although many sources say the book was probably written around the third century B.C. by an anonymous author. The Shên Nong myth is still popular in present-day China, with countless versions describing the dangerous nature of his experiments. These accounts say that Shên Nong grew to be eight feet tall and was blessed with a clear crystal over his stomach and intestines, so that he could observe his digestive processes. As he went about the countryside, he carried two bags with him, the left one holding plants he deemed suitable for food and the right one holding plants he found medicinal.
The story goes that the first plant he chewed was a green leaf and he watched it as it moved up and down in his digestive tract, soothing and cleaning everything from his stomach and internal organs. He named it Cha and put the tea leaf in his left bag as a healthful food. While continuing to sample plants, he ate a small green bitter-tasting flower that irritated his stomach and caused his knees to become painfully swollen. He hurriedly ate some of the tea leaf and it detoxified his body. In this manner, Shên Nong tasted hundreds of plants and was poisoned almost daily–one account relating how he consumed seventy poisonous plants in one twenty-four hour period. Despite constantly courting death he found that his system was always detoxified by eating tea leaves. Eventually, it is said, there were over forty-seven thousand flowers, herbs, roots and leaves in his foodstuffs bag, while there were over three-hundred ninety-eight thousand plants in the medicine bag, which he used to treat numerous human illnesses. One day, Shên Nong ingested an unfamiliar, fatal yellow flower and watched in horror as his intestines broke into pieces before he could eat some of the tea leaf to counteract the plant’s poison. Because Shên Nong died in the service of human beings he is commemorated for his one-hundred forty year reign as the “Medicine King” with numerous temples, mausoleums and festivals throughout China named in his honor.
Often portrayed wearing green leaves, Shên Nong is considered a primitive mythical figure who existed before clothes were invented. Living very simply, Shên Nong is unusual for a god-figure, in that he and his wife who is said to have grown mulberry trees, are often depicted doing manual work in the forest and fields. During the lengthy development of his myth, Shên Nong is also credited with starting markets where people could trade grains and other foods. Some of the ancient writings from China’s Spring and Autumn Period of the seventh-century B.C. portray Shên Nong as a brilliant king, ruler of an ideal dynasty that was a peaceful and self-sufficient era where war and strife were unknown. In this agrarian utopia no one thought of harming another and Shên Nong is credited as the divine originator of not only farming and medicine, but also the lunar calendar which continues to greatly influence agricultural activities. Shên Nong is also famed for inventing the pestle and mortar to grind grains. The development of bowls, pans and the rice steamer, all items that benefit mankind even today, are also attributed to him.
Although there is no archaeological evidence to prove who first discovered that tea leaves can be steeped to produce a healthful infusion, the old story of Shên Nong’s sojourn in the Yunnan province of China persists to this day. Handed down as oral tradition, the story continues to intrigue us as we journey into a period of renewed fascination with tea’s delightful taste and healthful properties. The epic of Shên Nong, the Divine Sovereign, reverberates with heroism—the story of a beneficent, mythic figure whose discoveries have greatly aided humankind. Although Shên Nong’s saga is mythological, much can be said for the story’s role in providing a significant and charming backdrop as we explore and rediscover tea, the “ancient beverage.” Undeniably, the Shên Nong myth amply illustrates what Peter Allen’s song and thousands of years of tea history have confirmed–that indeed, “Everything Old is New Again.”