by David Lyons *


Here’s a story you might enjoy about tea. A young man creating mischief, and being just a little over confident may have uncannily been the instigator of the earliest written reference to tea as we know of today. The document refers to the purchasing of tea leaf as a commodity and its brewing in boiling water.

The document, a contract written in 59 BC, is referred to by many different names: “Slaves Contract”, “A Contract with a Servant”, “A Contract with a Youth”, and of course, its Chinese name, Tong yue. The contract was written up between Wang Bao and Lady Yang Hui when he purchased a servant, Bianlio, from Lady Hui.

Now, Bianliao worked as a servant in the household of Lady Yang Hui of Anzhi village in Chengdu. The lady was the widow of Bianliao’s master, who had contracted the boy as a servant, after his father could find no one to take him. Following his master’s death, young Bianliao refused to attend to any other jobs apart from brushing his master’s ancestral graves. Bianliao was adamant that this single duty was what his master had contracted him to do and no other. This situation created great frustration for Lady Hui.

Elsewhere, Wang Bao a native of Shu or as it is known today Sichuan, was a budding poet, panegyrist, and songwriter. Bao had composed a performance including a musical rendition of a panegyric in praise of the Han rulers. The Emperor, charmed and delighted by the songs summoned Bao and commissioned more work. And Wang Bao became very popular at court, even managing an honorary appointment. He was a favourite of the Emperor’s son who suffered from periods of depression. At those times, Bao would recite his works and rhapsodies, to the pleasure of the young prince.

In 59 BC Wang Bao had been attending to some business in the Jian (Jianhe) river region when he visited the widow Yang Hui at her home. While there, he requested Bianliao to purchase some wine. Bianliao climbed the grave of his master and refused, explaining the contract he had with his dead master. A stunned Bao asked the widow why she did not sell this difficult servant and be rid of him. When she complained that no one would take him, Bao could see humor in this situation and offered to buy the servant.

With the purchase agreed, Bianliao said “Enter in the contract everything you wish to order me to do. I, Bianliao, will not do anything not in the contract”.

With a cruel humour in his mind Wang Bao set about writing up the contract between himself and the Lady Yang Hui for the purchase of Bianliao. When eventually the contract was read out and the recalcitrant servant listened to what he was expected to do, he beat his head wildly on the ground and cried. Wang Bao had, with humourous license, written in every conceivable duty in incredible detail, from starting his day at sun rise, to duties he must complete before sleeping. The depth of this contract even included duties that Bianliao would be able to struggle through in his later years, when the servant would no longer be capable of the work described. Obviously not seeing the funny side of Wang Bao’s contract, the servant said “If it is to be exactly as master Wang says, I would rather return soon along the yellow-soil road, with the grave worms boring through my head. Had I known before, I would have bought the wine for master Wang. I would not have dared to do that wrong.”

As tea drinkers, we are especially interested in the duties that Wang Bao’s contract refers to, which include – the boiling of tea and the filling of utensils for guests. That, the servant shall walk to Wuyang, a market town near Chengdu and purchase tea is also interesting. The duties clearly identify the making of tea by using boiling water, the use of tea wares, the storage of tea, and the purchasing of tea as a commodity.

Tea scholars will continue to question, and rightly so, the authenticity of ancient documents and their translations, artifact and biological evidence of man’s early ventures into tea. But this story, of a brash young man and early Chinese humor by a poet is considered the earliest written reference to tea.

Source Tea Box


David Lyons has a passion for tea history and strong connection to India teas.He has worked in tea whole sale and retail, including a stint a s regional manager for Australia-based The Tea Centre. David now runs 18 Thirty Four, a counselling, promotional, and educational company for the the tea trade with emphasis on India Tea, but foundations firmly in all things tea.

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