The Legends of Tea: The Emperor’s Accidental Brew,The Fabled Origins of the World’s Favorite Drink Part II


There are many legends surrounding the origin of tea.


After the more mystical Eyelids of Bodhidharma, an emperor stars in the next one, and unlike the drowsy monk who slipped into slumber and afterwards tore off his eyelids in rage, how tea emerged in this next legend is a bit more believable, but still very, very unlikely that it could only happen in a legend.

The Emperor’s Accidental Brew

The reigning ruler of the Chinese empire during the 3rd millennium BC was the legendary Emperor Shen Nung (also Shen Nong; Shen Nong Shi), also a notable herbalist of his time. 

In 2737 BC, Emperor Shen Nung went on a trip to a distant region together with this army. Weary from the journey, his army stopped to rest and Shen Nung took a moment of respite and settled down in the shade of a wild tea bush and requested for water.


A curiosity with Shen Nung is that he wanted his water to be boiled to protect him from diseases, which from a modern perspective is a forward-looking perspective towards health and hygiene considering the practices of the time. 

When the servant was boiling water for Emperor She Nung to drink, a dead leaf from the wild tea bush fell into the water. It was effectively brewed in the water, turning it into brown, which surprisingly went unnoticed by the servant and presented to the emperor anyway.


She Nung was surprised but still drank it and found it very refreshing, and thus cha (tea) was born.

In another version, the servant who didn’t notice the leaf from the wild tea bush fall into the boiling water did not happen, and the water boiling episode happened without a hitch.


It was when Shen Nung received the steaming water in a bowl and while he was sipping the drink, some breeze must have blown because a leaf from the wild tea bush he was resting under landed right into his bowl. Still in this version Shen Nung was unfazed and ended up loving it. 


Thus, the Emperor became aware of the exquisite flavor of the drink, and he was enthralled by the taste and the refreshing qualities of the infusion. There is where the story takes a sinister turn. The servant whose job it was to make sure that no leaves would fall into the Emperor’s drink was beheaded.


According to popular mythology, his head was wrapped in tea leaves and buried next to the tea bush.

Yet another version exists. It’s still unclear how it ties to the leaf falling into Emperor Shen Nung’s bowl, but it is said that the tea he drank was supposedly brought to him by explorers who had to the mountainous area of Yunnan,  which is close to the Chinese border with Assam. 


Whether Shen Nung was presented with the leaves in court or the emperor himself brought the leaf-blown tea experience back with him, regardless it found favor with the nobles in court. The fragrance, taste and refreshing experience became their favorite, which eventually spread to the rest of China. 


One sect adopted it more than others:  the Buddhist monks, who were prohibited from drinking  found it a worthy substitute because it contained caffeine and tannin for its comfortably stimulating awakening effect, loved it, and the rest is history