When writing and/or speaking about tea in Burma, or any other country for that matter, it is inevitable to depart on the journey into the realm of tea in China – in south-west China to be precise – for that is as I will explain in the following definitely from where tea is originally coming from.
The discussion on whether or not the history of Burmese tea and the drinking of tea in Burma have originated in China has probably more to do with at least some Bamars’/Burmans’ reluctance to admit that the origin of tea is China and that the drinking of tea was adopted by them later from the Shan, than with tea, tea drinking and tea culture itself. The facts are that tea both as plant and beverage was discovered and had become important part of Chinese and later Shan culture already at a time when no Bamar/Burman had ever set foot into what is nowadays Burma (since 1989 also called Myanmar).
In other words the first kingdom of the Bamar the ‘kingdom of Pagan’ (that was actually founded by the Pyu, and while we are at it, Anawrahta, the 42nd king of Pagan who is by the Bamar/Burman considered the founder of the 1st Burman kingdom was a Pyu, not a Bamar/Burman) did back then not exist what is already the definite answer to the question of the origin of tea, tea drinking and tea culture in Burma; Burma or any predecessor of it simply didn’t exist in or during the era in question, period. But why are there still people (not so many of them, though) who in the face of all facts and logic say that Burmese tea, tea drinking and tea culture are not originated in China? Short answer: Because the area that was in pre-Bamar time inhabited by the Shan is now laying partly within the far north east of Burma. However, that these areas are nowadays located within Burma’s boundaries does not necessarily mean that the exact area in which Camellia sinensis was initially found and from where it then spread to India, through all of south-east Asia and, finally, throughout the world lies within north-east Burma. It is possible but it is also possible that Camellia sinensis – translated from Latin into English the name means ‘Tea flower’ (camellia) ‘from China’ (sinensis) – has at a later point in time extended into the area now covered by the north-eastern part of Burma.
The book of tea is a book with many pages and chapters starting shrouded in the mist of myth and legend some time back in 3000 BC. There is even the concrete date 2725 BC mentioned what is linking the (accidental) discovery and the later drinking of tea to the Chinese emperor Shen Nung about who I will tell you more a bit later. No one really knows when it was that the drinking of tea (what back then was always green tea because it was unfermented also called unoxidised) began to become part of Chinese culture. That is why it cannot be within the scope of this article to (as interesting as this may be) deal with related myths, legends and folklore in order to reveal tea history’s secret of when and where this was and how it happened. The answer to this question will never be found anyway what means that it will for always remain hidden behind the curtain of legend. Therefore we have to find facts in the form of written records and 茶葉 archaeological finds that will give us tea related information we are looking for. And as far as that is concerned we do not have to search for long.
We are given the first reliable information in a Chinese encyclopaedia that was started to be compiled and written during the Han Dynasty sometime around 325 BC and further expanded from then on: its name is Erya also spelled Erh-ya. The author of the Erya is unknown but it is among scholars accepted that this have been disciples of Confucius. Here we find records letting us know that tea was already known and drunken at least at the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty in 1046 BC, probably earlier. However, it is not specified whether it was tea brewed from camellia sinensis leaves and drunken for pleasure or some herbal probably not very delicious tea drunken for medical purposes only.
From later records we know that brewing and drinking tea was already part of the Chinese people’s everyday life at the beginning of the Han Dynasty in 206 B.C. or even earlier. That the drinking of tea has so relatively quick permeated the Chinese culture would certainly not have been possible without Buddhist monks. It was the Buddhist monk orders that have not only spread the drinking of tea among the population but that had also taken over the planting and processing of tea. Soon after tea as beverage had been introduced during the Han Dynasty, Buddhism was associated with tea. The Buddhist monks have very early recognised that tea was a cheap and refreshing beverage with good taste and fragrance that kept them awake.