The Mostly True Story of Shen Nung
“They think I’m an idiot.”
“No, they do not, my lord. It simply isn’t possible.”
“Don’t tell me that! I know when I’m being ridiculed!”
“It’s a simple misunderstanding, my lord. I’ll see that it’s cleared up at once.”
“See that you do! If I hear that ridiculous tale one more time, somebody is going to be sleeping with the fishes tonight. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, my lord.”
After bowing to his enraged master, the terrified servant backed up and dashed away.
Despite having sipped his fifth cup of tea that morning, Shen Nung was feeling irritable. It had been ten years since he had discovered the amazing tea plant. A lifelong student of botany, the emperor had sampled hundreds of herbs before the day he came across a tea plant, examined its leaves, observed the plants growing around it, and realized it was probably safe to infuse some leaves in boiling water. He had sipped the resulting brew and taken note of how his body responded, how calm and yet alert he felt upon sipping the beverage.
But to his dismay, after ten fine years of sharing the glories of tea with others, his careful discovery of tea was most assuredly not the story that was getting around.
Shen Nung seemed destined to be remembered as that foolhardy emperor who was idling away the hours in the woods one day when some tea leaves landed in a nearby pot of boiling water and magically steeped themselves. How, he wondered, could anyone think a pot of boiling water just happened to appear out in the woods?
He had brought agriculture to China, and he was so well versed in herbs that he ultimately tasted some three hundred and sixty-five of them. Did his subjects think it was purely by accident that he had sampled an herb for every day of the year? For that matter, did they even know about the extent of his work with herbs?
No. Instead, the story spreading faster than wildfire was that Shen Nung, like a simpleton, was sitting outdoors one day near a cauldron of boiling water—such an unlikely scenario in and of itself—when some tea leaves just happened to drift by, just happened to land in the pot, and he just happened to observe them and decided to taste the resulting brew. It was enough to drive an emperor mad.
“What if that had been a poisonous plant?” he had asked his poor servant the first time he heard the so-called legend being repeated about him.
“Then, my lord, I don’t suppose you would be here having this conversation,” the servant had cautiously replied.
“Indeed not!” the emperor said.
His library was full of notations about the plants he had studied. He had nearly lost his eyesight because of his exacting studies of the tea plant and the minute details he had captured in both word and art.
One of the emperor’s favorite servants had tried to assure him that history would recall him with fondness.
“My lord, even if the tale gets told for thousands of years, they will always remember that you were the one who discovered tea. Imagine the pleasure this beverage will give to men down through the ages, and how fitting it will be that such an astute man as yourself will be remembered always for this fine gift.”
The emperor had considered his servant’s wise words. The man was right, of course. Tea drinking was already a popular pastime in his kingdom, and Shen Nung wondered if perhaps one day it would spread to other areas of the country as well.
The emperor grew accustomed to hearing the “legend” of how he had discovered tea, and he had devised the perfect plan for correcting the record, although he realized that his plan unfortunately would not reach fruition until his death.
Many years later, as he lay dying, Shen Nung wrote the true account of how he studied the tea plant and introduced it to the world. In his careful handwriting, he outlined precisely how he had discovered the tea plant and how it was by no means a purely accidental discovery. Because that record would be so crucial in establishing the truth, he took time to make sure each word he inked could be read clearly and completely.
One night, however, he woke with a fever, one his family believed was the result of a toxic plant he had chewed on earlier that week, a choice that would prove fatal.
While Shen Nung had recorded for posterity that he had deliberately tried those tea leaves, his attempt at altering his own history was waylaid when an ache in his side made him pounce from the bed and search for a place to empty the contents of his lurching stomach. He leaped from his bed so quickly that he spilled the cup of tea on his bedside table, and the liquid quickly soaked the papers he had been writing, smearing and destroying his tea testimonial for the ages.
Hearing the hubbub in the room, a young servant new to the emperor’s service came running and asked, “My lord, what is wrong? How may I help?”
“Tea …” Shen Nung said. “Tell them about the tea …” Gasping, Shen Nung pointed at the soggy pile of papers and breathed his last.
His servant, who knew not the true story of tea’s discovery, was greatly grieved over his master’s death.
“His last words,” claimed the dutiful servant, “were for me to make sure the world knows about tea, and I’ve heard that our great emperor accidentally discovered tea when he was out meditating in the woods one day. I shall devote the rest of my life to making sure the entire world forever associates tea with the name of Shen Nung.”
And he did just that.