Excerpts From “The Little Tea Book” – Origins of Tea

Edited excerpts from, “The Little Tea Book”, first published in 1903.

A glance through this book will show that the spirit of the tea beverage is one of peace, comfort, and refinement. As these qualities are all associated with the ways of women, (woe be unto the married man who disputes this!), it is to them, therefore–the real rulers of the world–that tea owes its prestige and vogue.

A Legendary Origin of Tea

Darma, third son of Koyuwo, King of India, a religions high priest from Siaka, came to China, to teach the way of happiness, and lived a most austere life, passing his days in continual mortification, and retiring by night to solitudes, in which he fed only upon the leaves of trees and other vegetable productions. After several years passed in this manner, in fasting and watching, it happened that, contrary to his vows, the pious Darma fell asleep! When he awoke, he was so much enraged at himself, that, to prevent the offence to his vows for the future, he got rid of his eyelids and placed them on the ground. On the following day, returning to his accustomed devotions, he beheld, with amazement, springing up from his eyelids, two small shrubs of an unusual appearance, such as he had never before seen, and of whose qualities he was, of course, entirely ignorant. The saint, however, not being wholly devoid of curiosity–or, perhaps, being unusually hungry–was prompted to eat of the leaves, and immediately felt within him a wonderful elevation of mind, and a vehement desire of divine contemplation, with which he acquainted his disciples, who were eager to follow the example of their instructor, and they readily received into common use the fragrant plant which has been the theme of so many poetical and literary pens in succeeding ages.

The Historical Origin of Tea

Certain it is that China, first in many things, knew tea as soon as any nation of the world. The early Chinese were not only more progressive than other peoples, but linked with their progress were important researches, and invaluable discoveries, which the civilized world has long ago recognized. Then, why not add tea to the list?

A celebrated Buddhist, St. Dengyo Daishai, is credited with having introduced tea into Japan from China as early as the fourth century. It is likely that he was the first to teach the Japanese the use of the herb, for it had long been a favorite beverage in the mountains of the Celestial Kingdom. The plant, however, is found in so many parts of Japan that there can be little doubt but what it is indigenous there as well.

The word TEA is of Chinese origin, being derived from the Amoy and Swatow reading, “Tay,” of the same character, which expresses both the ancient name of tea, “T’su,” and the more modern one, “Cha.” Japanese tea, “Chiya”–pronounced Châ.

Tea was not known in China before the Tang dynasty, 618-906 A.D. An infusion of some kind of leaf, however, was used as early as the Chow dynasty, 1122-255 B.C., as we learn from the Urh-ya, a glossary of terms used in ancient history and poetry. This work, which is classified by subjects, has been assigned as the beginning of the Chow dynasty, but belongs more properly to the era of Confucius, K’ung Kai, 551-479 B.C.

Although known in Japan for more than a thousand years, tea only gradually became the national beverage as late as the fourteenth century.

In the first half of the eighth century, 729 A.D., there was a record made of a religious festival, at which the forty-fifth Mikado—“Sublime Gate”–Shommei Tenno, entertained the Buddhist priests with tea, a hitherto unknown beverage from Corea, which country was for many years the high-road of Chinese culture to Japan.

After the ninth century, 823 A.D., and for four centuries thereafter, tea fell into disuse, and almost oblivion, among the Japanese. The nobility, and Buddhist priests, however, continued to drink it as a luxury.

During the reign of the eighty-third Emperor, 1199-1210 A.D., the cultivation of tea was permanently established in Japan. In 1200, the bonze, Yei-Sei, brought tea seeds from China, which he planted on the mountains in one of the most northern provinces. Yei-Sei is also credited with introducing the Chinese custom of ceremonious tea-drinking. At any rate, he presented tea seeds to Mei-ki, the abbot of the monastery of To-gano (to whom the use of tea had been recommended for its stimulating properties), and instructed him in the mystery of its cultivation, treatment, and preparation. Mei-ki, who laid out plantations near Uzi, was successful as a pupil, and even now the tea-growers of that neighborhood pay tribute to his memory by annually offering at his shrine the first gathered tea-leaves.

After that period, the use of tea became more and more in fashion, the monks and their kindred having discovered its property of keeping them awake during long vigils and nocturnal prayers.

From this time on the development and progress of the plant are interwoven with the histories and customs of these countries.

The complete unedited text of “The Little Tea Book” can be viewed at gutenberg.org: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19392 .