There are many very ancient Chinese legends purporting to describe the origin of tea, but many of them attribute the discovery of tea to the legendary Shen Nung, who was said to have lived around 2800 BC. In Shen Nung's Canon of Herbs, thought to have been compiled from texts written during a period beginning in 206 BC, it is specifically said that Shen Nung tested hundreds of herbs on himself, encountering seventy-two poisons each day, and used tea as his antidote.
It is said that in the course of his intensive field work, Shen Nung once ingested 72 poisonous plants in an single day, after which he collapsed on the ground, teetering on the brink of death from poison. As he lay there in agony, a breeze blew a few leaves from a nearby tree onto the ground beside him. Noticing their distinctive aroma and vibrant green color, curiosity and force of habit prompted him to put a few leaves in his mouth and chew them. He liked the taste, soon felt better, and quickly recovered his strength, so he chewed some more leaves and found that they completely cleansed his system of all toxins. This is what he wrote about tea in his pharmacopeia:Tea's essential flavor is bitter. After drinking tea, the mind thinks more clearly and quickly, the whole body becomes light and agile, and vision improves. 34.
In her book, Tea: Aromas and Flavors Around the World, Lydia Gautier notes that Shen Nung's Canon of Herbs also states: "if one consumes tea for long enough, the body gains in strength and the mind in keenness" (106). She goes on to say:
When one reads ancient Chinese texts, the benefits attributed to tea are extremely varied.
- It stimulates circulation of the blood in all parts of the body.
- It stimulates clear thinking and a lively mind.
- It speeds up the elimination of alcohol in the organs of the body.
- It increases the body's power to resist many illnesses.
- It accelerates the metabolism and oxygenation of the organs of the body.
- It prevents tooth decay.
- It has a purifying and fortifying effect on the skin, helping it to remain younger-looking.
- It prevents or reduces anemia.
- It purifies urine and aids diuresis.
- It improves the eyes and makes them shine.
- It combats the effects of heat in summer (tea is by nature cold, that is, yin).
- It aids digestion.
- It eases pain in the libs and joints.
- It reduces harmful mucus secretions.
- It eases thirst.
- It drives away fatigue and depression, bringing a general sense of well-being.
- Finally, it prolongs life. 106.
Modern studies do indeed show that tea has measurable health benefits. Tea is rich in flavonoids which medical studies have linked to improvements in cardiovascular health as well as to other beneficial effects for maintaining mental and physical health.
Interestingly, the ancient Chinese sources cited above appear to link tea to the rhythm of the cosmos as well. Readers of this blog will no doubt have noted that the number of potentially deadly herbs that the legendary Shen Nung ingested, seventy-two, is one of the most notable precessional numbers. Seventy-two is the approximate number of years it takes for the subtle motion of precession to delay the position of the background of the heavens by a single degree (for a video that explains this phenomenon and some of its tremendous significance in ancient sacred scripture and tradition, see here). The mention of this significant precessional number in the legend regarding the discovery of tea is almost certainly not accidental.
The evidence of an ancient association of the beneficial properties of tea to the celestial motion of precession becomes even more pronounced when we read, in one of the tea-related articles on Daniel Reid's website, that the Chinese calligraphic symbol for tea contains strokes which add up to the number 108, according to Frederick R. Dannaway in the article entitled "Tea as Soma, pt. 1" (towards the bottom of that webpage).
Of course, along with the number 72, the number 108 is also one of the most-commonly recurring precessional numbers in ancient mythology and sacred tradition. In the Agnicayana fire ritual of Vedic and Hindu tradition (believed to be the oldest surviving ritual in the world), the traditional altar is supposed to be constructed of 10,800 bricks (a version of the number 108). Many aspects of the Chinese martial arts incorporate the number 108 as well, including the legendary number of obstacles one had to overcome in the final test for a Shaolin monk, and the number of moves or techniques incorporated into the famous wooden man or wooden dummy.
The fact that tea is associated by the very design of its Chinese calligraphic character with the number 108 is undoubtedly significant, and links this beverage with the subtle motion of the universe -- a phenomenon that was obviously considered to be of profound importance to ancient civilizations. Researchers such as Graham Hancock and Jim Alison have also conclusively demonstrated that the ancient designers of the worldwide grid of megalithic monuments (some of them dating to extremely remote antiquity) incorporated the numbers 72 and 108 into the distances between these sites (measured in degrees of longitude).
It is a clear sign of the importance ascribed to tea that the ancients would take pains to incorporate these two numbers into the legend concerning the origin of tea, and into its written symbol. As Daniel Reid explains in his book on the Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, tea was seen as having alchemical or transformative powers upon the men and women who drink it. On page 87, he writes:
In Chinese, the term for "alchemy" is lien jin shu, literally "the art of forging gold." But the "gold" they're talking about here is not the gold ore mined from the earth and forged by fire into ingots and coins. They're talking about jin dan, the "golden elixir of life," an elusive energetic essence that resides dormant within particular plants and minerals, and which may be extracted and activated by various means and transferred into the human system, where it acts as a potent tonic to protect health, prolong life, and enhance mental performance. This precious essence is the "green gold" in the alchemy of Chinese tea.
And, in the "Art of Chinese Tea" article near the top of the page from his website linked previously (here's the link again), he quotes Master Xhongxian Wu as saying that, "one may become enlightened by drinking tea," and notes that "here are many stories of Buddhist monks or Taoist hermits who suddenly "awakened to the Dao" (wu Dao) while savoring a cup of tea."
Given the health benefits, as well as the ancient connection to the profoundly important precessional numbers, and the serious assertion that "one may become enlightened by drinking tea," who would not want to begin each day or finish each meal with a cup of Chinese tea?
While doing so, perhaps it would not be inappropriate to contemplate the turning of the earth through the lines still marked by the ancient megalithic monuments located along carefully-selected meridians, and the slow and subtle but inexorable motion of precession which delays the march of the constellations through the heavens, all of which are somehow linked to the cup of tea in your hands.