Is the Same Tea Really the ‘Same’ Tea?

With the rush of new spring 2017 tea just a few short weeks away it’s a good time to discuss something which I think speaks to many tea enthusiasts – how to get the best tea for your money from a a crowded marketplace of variously priced teas that appear to be the ‘same’ thing.

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Tea producers have an equally daunting task of pricing each and every production run of tea, and in the case of Chinese green tea, for instance, an excess of warm weather can increase the speed with which tea leaf grows in the first few weeks of the harvest. When the weather fails to cooperate, the amount of time for plucking tender bud-only teas may quickly vanish, even before enough of these teas are made.

When this happens tea producers will switch to plucking the next leaf configuration known as a mao feng ( two leaves and a bud) and make tea with it. So the tea in the baskets at the end of the day in the tea factory may be a different pluck from what they had in mind at the beginning of the day. For all tea, the quantity produced as well as the quality of each batch will factor into the price of those batches of tea. So the price of the bud-only tea will reflect a shortage of that tea for the year.

yel-mengmt_sb2-03bea932And so it goes – adjustments to the plucking style are made each and every day as the leaf grows larger. This gives tea producers many choice teas with both small and large grades of differences to sell. Each small batch will most likely have a different price, too.

Tea merchants, on the other hand, have the equally daunting task of finding the right grades of tea to satisfy their customers. The retail cost of any tea is directly related to what the tea merchant paid for the tea, plus a small amount added in to cover freight costs. Tea merchants purchase their teas from a variety of trusted sources – some purchase directly from origin, others from tea importers of varying sizes (in the US) and others from wholesalers (in the US) who purchase teas from larger tea importers. This range of sourcing options can present tea merchants with a dizzying choice of tea in many grades and prices.

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So what savvy tea enthusiasts need to realize is this: all tea is not created equally, even when it has the ‘same’ name. Nor is all tea sold equally fresh and sound or from the same plucking season or year.While this may be quite obvious to some, we know from experience that there are plenty of tea drinkers out there who don’t see the correlation between grade and price, and erroneously believe that all tea with the same name is the ‘same’ tea.

Some tea merchants sell consistently high quality tea and others do not – it all depends on their attitude about tea and the teas they select. If you only frequent shops that sell low-priced tea and shun those you fear are over-priced, you may be cheating yourself out of drinking really good tea. Low priced tea will never be good value in the long run.

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There is frequent complaining in the tea-o-sphere about the price of tea. Of course, those who are complaining about price usually believe that all prices are too high and that every tea vendor is an evil devil who is out to flinch their tea customers. Honestly, while there is some pretty bad tea being bandied about the internet (and that is something to complain about at any price) and a few merchants who mark their tea up to atmospheric levels, the market is self-policing.

So those serious about staying in business know that today’s transparency on the internet will cast them in a poor light. So, overall, I think the problem is not as great as it is made out to be. I sometimes think that posts like the aforementioned are designed simply to attract readership and cause a tempest in the teapot. It’s a known fact that sensational reviews and posts that rant and rave attract more attention than less flammable opinion does. Grousing is in – in fact, it has now become a sport for some!

So rather than have customers fixate on price, we believe that tea enthusiasts should think more about how to get the best tea that their money can buy. Which is not the same as searching for the lowest price. As shoppers, we need to think more like investors, and expect for ROI – return on investment on our purchases.

Thin-Client-Return-on-InvestmentWhat is ROI on tea? Imagine that you purchased 4 packages of Keemun Congou tea from 4 different tea vendors. You steep each tea fairly and uniformly with the same steeping parameters, and rate the teas on the following points. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction that you received from each tea in relationship to the price is the ROI value. The level of enjoyment and satisfaction is a measure of:

  • satisfaction with the taste/flavor/aromatics in the cup
  • freshness of taste/flavor/aroma
  • degree of seasonal flavor characteristics
  • sound condition and good appearance of the leaf
  • tasty-ness in relation to price

Ideally, you want to find tasty tea at a price you can afford – the teas that give you, well, the best bang for the buck. You might end up deciding you prefer the most expensive tea, or if the most expensive tea is 2 x the cost of another selection but only a little bit better tasting, then the less costly tea may be the best ROI for you.

How to find teas with the best ROI? Our suggestion is to invest a little money in your future tea drinking this spring (when the fresh teas start arriving) and order the ‘same’ tea from several tea vendors. Do this with 3-4 teas and order the ‘same’ teas from at least 4-5 tea merchants. This will cost you a bit of money, but what you discover will be well worth it.

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After you conduct your steeping/tasting experiment, you will most likely find that there is a pattern to the quality of tea each tea merchant sells. Tea vendors position themselves quality-wise, so you will find that some tea will be great, and some, just so-so. Reliable tea shops maintain a discernible level of quality because they know what they want in their teas and stay true to these principles.

And this is what tea enthusiasts should look for – a tea shop or online tea vendor that has a well-thought out selection of good, sound tea that turns over seasonally and stays fresh because it sells. Because in truth, great teas do not pop up in unlikely places. Most know that Walmart is not the place to go to purchase handcrafted goods, nor is Whole Foods the right place to purchase distressed food.

The same holds true for tea. The shop that sold you some 2-year old green tea, and some saw-dusty black tea will not be the place to find a mind-blowing Fenghuang dan cong.Choose Two-Way Road Sign - Isolated

OK, so what factors do tea sellers consider (and you should think of these, too) when purchasing tea to sell? The factors that affect grade/price:

  • season of the year and time frame within the season for teas made in the same year
  • age and condition of the tea (if it is an aged tea)
  • the leaf pluck of the tea (bud most expensive; bud and leaf next most costly; bud and two leaves next most costly)
  • amount of hand-work involved in shaping and firing the leaf
  • condition of the leaf
  • quantity of that tea produced
  • the taste/flavor and aroma of the tea

Let’s again use Keemun Congou, a popular Chinese black tea, as an example. Most producers of Keemun sell their tea in 3 categories with 3 price points in each category for a total of 9 different grades of quality.

So, at the retail level the grade of Keemun will account for big differences in the price of the tea. The cost may double, triple or quadruple per kilo from common grades to the highest grade of premium Keemun.  Keemun  Congou has 9 grades for teas – this does not include other Keemun-related tea such as Keemum Mao Feng or Keemun Hong Xiang Luo, which have their own set of grades and price points. And tea workers like to show off their tea making skills by finessing more and more differences from those tiny tea leaves. So it is not uncommon for small batches of special production Keemun to be outside of the normal grading standards.

Tea producers usually assign letters or numbers to their grades such as Grade A or #1 Grade, but sometimes also use terms such as premium grade, superfine grade, Emperor grade, superior grade, etc. While these can be legitimate grades, these terms may also become diluted when they are used indiscriminately by some tea vendors. On the retail level many Keemun Congous are not sold with a known grade. If the specific details about different Keemun Congous are unknown, you should assume that these are most likely very different teas that merit the taste test to ferret out the best ones.

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Chinese spring green teas are manufactured in even more grades and price points, adding a greater level of complexity and confusion for consumers. But there are some clues given at will be of some help in evaluating the quality of spring teas, and these are:

  • season of the pluck (when plucked)
  • where the tea is from (place)
  • configuration of the pluck ( bud, mao jian, mao feng, etc)

Each spring, tea from the new harvest year is sold by tea producers in one of 4 categories based on seasonal divisions/pluck time. Sometimes these markers of pluck time are given for certain teas:

  • Pre-Qing Ming or Ming Qian tea (plucked before April 5th)
  • Before the Rains or Yun Qian tea (plucked before April 20th)
  • Spring tea or Gu Yu tea (plucked before May 6th)
  • Late Spring or Li Xia tea (plucked before May 21st)

Each seasonal division has several grades of quality, too. The earliest plucked tea within the division and the most perfect leaf will be the most costly. For XiHu Longjing, a very famous and popular tea worldwide, there are four designated places where authentic Longjing (based on tea bush varietal) is grown: Shi Feng, Meijiawu Village, Weng-jia Shan and West Lake Village. Last year, the 8 grades of XiHu Longjing were listed, as well as the occasional special batch and competition-grade teas.

  • AAA Jing Pin: 100% bud and 1 leaf
  • AA Te Ji: 70% bud and 1 leaf; 30% 1 bud and 2 leaves
  • 1 st Grade: 70 % 1 bud and 2 leaves; 30% 1 bud and 1 leaf
  • 2nd Grade
  • 3rd Grade
  • 4th Grade
  • 5th Grade
  • 6th Grade

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Lastly, for an even more complex listing of grading/pricing, consider a very well-known
yan cha or rock oolong tea – Da Hong Pao. Prices for this tea can range wildly, as can its authenticity, proving a thorny issue for tea merchants. This is an example of last year’s production grades and not counting special small batches; traditional charcoal roasting or not; amount of roasting; new or aged tea; blends of Zheng Yan and Ban Yan, etc.:

Zheng Yan – core production zones

  • Grade AAA
  • Grade AA
  • Grade A
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3

Ban Yan – close to original production zones

  • Grade AAA
  • Grade AA
  • Grade A
  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5

When purchasing yan cha (or dan cong) remember this: the best ones can cost $1,000 a lb or more in China so are never cheap. The highest grades never leave China. The older these teas are or the rarer the tea bush varietal from which they are made the more expensive they will be. And if these teas have been given a traditional charcoal-roast this will add to the cost as well. Much of the ‘Da Hong Pao’ that is sold in the West is actually Shui Xian – know your vendor!

OK, so before you throw up your hands and say ” What’s a tea drinker to do? ” remember, that the best way to find your way to a clearer path of discernment among tea is to do a little homework and taste a lot of teas to develop your palate.

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Keep notes in a book or on your smart phone and educate yourself about the teas you are drinking. Because purchasing tea is not as cut and dry as searching for a specific bottle of a favorite wine by a known producer or finding the brand of chocolate that you like, tea enthusiasts have more work to do to find the right tea vendor for their taste preference and pocketbook. However, once you do, the rewards are tremendous and are well worth the effort required to educate your palate for fine tea.

So, with a new tea season coming, it is time to revel in the fresh new teas that will soon be here. Use a little caution and look for ROI in your tea and you will feel that you have spent your money well for tea that is fresh, tasty and makes you feel good when you drink it. That is the best ROI that we can think of!

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Hand-carried Tea from Tea Farms in Taiwan

How much tea can two suitcases hold ? Not as much as what you see Mary Lou surrounded by in this picture, but enough to return home with two new winter oolongs that were made just two weeks ago and announce their arrival. Now that is service and that is FRESH!

Yes….Mary Lou has just returned from a tea buying trip to Taiwan to select our 2013 winter oolongs. She visited several tea producing regions and went high into the mountains to visit each of the tea farms that make our oolong teas. She carried back our high mountain ( gao shan) Shan Lin Xi and Tung Ting oolong – more tea is on the way but it is being shipped.

Winter teas are our favorite oolongs – they are rich, creamy, and seductively aromatic. Spring tea brings the gaiety of youth and the flush of a new season to its flavor while winter tea is confident and more assured. After their summer resting period, these tea bushes, coddled by constant daily moisture from the weather phenomenon known as clouds and mist that develops in the afternoon, produce large, juicy, leaves that experienced hands turn into the deepest and fullest tasting teas of the year. The tea bushes will soon be ready to enter their winter dormant period, but for now they still have vigor and good energy for this last seasonal production.

Winter oolongs are plucked and processed from late October to mid-November. The winter harvest and the spring harvest are the two most important harvests of the year – the summer and fall harvests do not yield premium oolong tea, although the summer is the time for a small quantity of excellent black teas to be made.

The mountains of central Taiwan are tall and steep, and home to an assortment of birds and wildlife, lush forests and several temperature zones. During the winter harvest ( late October to mid November ) the temperature can be warm during the day but bring crisp, cold nights. Tea covers much of the land in certain areas of these mountainous regions. During the day moist blankets of clouds and mist rise up from the valley floor and roll and tumble over the tea gardens bringing a layer of nourishing moisture. Because of this, the leaves on the tea bushes grow thick and juicy, and mature slowly.

The terroir of these mountain tea gardens and the weather create tea that is fragrant and sweet and thickly textured in the cup. Our tea farmers/producers are humble men who are proud of the quality of their tea. These are small family tea businesses – third, fourth and fifth generation tea makers who are intimately involved with the cultivation and manufacture of their tea.

We treasure opportunities to meet the people who make our tea as we believe that it is essential to form and maintain these relationships, and we think that it is important to the tea makers, too. For they know that we will promote their tea to our customers, and that we will share with our customers an appreciation for the hard work that it is required of small tea farmers/producers. In essence, we scratch each others backs – we get the opportunity to select the tea we want for our store from their best batches and they in turn are happy knowing we can deliver increasing sales to enthusiastic tea drinkers.

No matter how often we have watched tea being made, every experience gives us new insights into fully understanding the processes and techniques that are unique to each style of tea making.  The four Taiwanese tea farmer/producers who supply our gao shan and other oolong teas are very hands-on tea makers. They are fully invested in their tea – their pride is evident in their conscientious work and in the taste of their tea.

While they have others working alongside them in the tea factory, it is their hands-on involvement with the crucial oxidation portion of the process that will ensure a successful batch of finished tea. Taiwan semiball-rolled style oolong production is a 2 day process, and the fresh leaf undergoes many processing steps. Each step builds on the previous one to reach a successful end product.

Initially, the fresh leaf undergoes both outdoor and indoor leaf withering ( 6 -10 hours, weather depending ). Then the fresh leaf is put into a bamboo cylinder tumbler/dryer multiple times, and rested in-between each tumbling. As the fresh leaf loses moisture and begins to wilt, the tea farmers spend much time turning and shuffling the leaf by hand and watching its progress. From experience, they are able to tell by feel and smell how well/quickly/slowly the oxidation is proceeding and when it is time to stop it with initial drying.

We truly believe that the tastiest and most well-made teas come from small tea farmers/producers who maintain the health of their tea gardens and care about he end result – the tea. Simply put, there is no substitution for the hands-on supervision of experienced tea makers. In essence these men are the tea, and without their skills something unique would be lost in the world of tea making. So we applaud the craft of these artisan tea makers, and encourage our customers to experience these stunning and delicious oolongs – each is a wonderful expression of the terroir of their mountain locales and the craft of experienced Taiwanese tea making.

In addition to the Tung Ting and the Shan lin Xi, look for the arrival of our Alishan and Jin Xuan in the next few weeks.

Oh, yes….Mary Lou also purchased a few other special and less well known Taiwan teas that we eagerly look forward to introducing to our customers. More on those teas later…..

Cheers!

Bob

Tea Buying in Taiwan: On the Way

I am very excited about my trip to Taiwan for 2013 winter oolong teas. I have my fingers crossed that the weather holds out and that the timing of the harvest will co-operate with the timing of my visit. We will have tea sent even if I cannot bring it back with me, but how much more fun it will be if I can stuff my suitcases full of new high mountain gao shan oolong!

First, and not tea related, I am excited about the fact that I would be touching down in both Hong Kong and then Taiwan in the morning, which gives me hope for some excellent views of Hong Kong harbor and the island of Taiwan.

P1050342-003As it turned out, the weather was partly cloudy but the viewing was the best I have ever had flying into Hong Kong. The threat of yet another typhoon was over ( the typhoon moved away from HK ) so It was mostly clear flying.

But I had a reason to be so keen on clear weather. I knew that the big rubber ducky that has made the news media over the course of this year was no longer in HK harbor, but had moved just a few weeks ago to Taiwan for a nesting period there, and was NOW in the harbor in Taoyuan, Taiwan.

So this was to be my big score – a sighting of the18-meter (59-foot), 2200 lb yellow rubber ducky from the air as the aircraft skimmed the coastline of Taoyuan at a low elevation on the way to the airport. (For those who are not up on the big rubber duck, this adorable yellow fellow with the big eyes has reached icon status in Asia and has pulled in millions of tourist dollars – yes, millions – for the cities who have allowed it to float in some of the biggest and best bathtubs – oh, I mean harbors – in Asia, The duck is the brainchild of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, master of playful installations in cities all over the world who is intent on his work “spreading joy around the world.”)

duck_2552566bBut alas, it was not meant to be. I read this heartbreaking story in the South China Morning Post on my flight, so I had the bad news as soon as I left HK and realized that my hopes for a sighting were dashed. Hopefully I will have better luck with the tea harvest!.

P1050361-001P1050362-001Oh, well, at least I still have the views!

P1050354-002As I waited for my bus at the airport to take me into Taipei city, this bus pulled up and stopped in front of me. Ahhh, just think what I missed – those eyes, that beak!

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Traditional Tea versus Commodity Tea

TRADITIONAL TEA

Our tea is exceptional. We sell traditionally-made teas crafted by experienced tea artisans. Not commodity tea grown by big business. So just what do I mean by traditionally-made tea and commodity tea? Please read on…..

   

Commodity tea is tea grown by large companies in newly-planted tea fields in areas of the world not usually associated with tea growing and that have no prior tea making history. Conversely, traditionally-made tea relies on well-established methodologies and techniques to do what tea workers and mother nature do best together – make distinctive tea. Traditional tea making utilizes the terroir of each place (soil, geography, climate, weather, etc) and local tea bush cultivars to show a tea garden’s best flavor advantage.

The process of traditional tea making utilizes hundreds of years of knowledge and experience in the crafting of fine tea. No two tea producing countries produce tea the exact same way, and for that we are thankful. It is differences both great and small that give tea a national identity – and many regional differences, too.

Our teas come from China, Japan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Taiwan where traditional tea is made by tea workers who are in harmony with the seasons of the year. They craft teas of exceptional beauty and elegant flavor. We select tea from small family tea farms, small village production, and tightly controlled tea co-operatives. In these gardens, the ability to make great tea is a point of pride for the tea makers, and generations of the same family carry on tea making traditions established by previous generations.

Traditional tea farmers/producers must be in tune with nature and understand the vagaries of weather, soil conditions, how to maintain healthy tea bushes, and how the keen senses of a skilled tea master (sight, smell, touch and hearing ) influence from start to finish the outcome of the finished tea. The livelihood of each family or tea village depends on knowledge of nature and the ability to wrangle with problems and situations that arise during the harvest times. For these people, tea is their life and their life is tea. This accounts for the care and respect they accord their tea.

Traditional tea production is sustainable on many levels.Traditional tea uses methods of pest control ( such as encouraging the presence of birds in the tea gardens and environs and the introduction of plants that discourage the presence of certain pests) and organic farming practices ( soil enrichment, worm production and natural fertilizers made from food sources and manure) that work with nature and not against it. A traditional tea garden does not make use of copious amounts of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

A traditional tea garden is almost always small and is often broken up into patches of tea bushes located here and there. The elevation is high, away from the pests that plague low elevation tea gardens. The garden is comprised of mature tea bushes (which produce the best teas) that are well-adapted to their environment. In such tea gardens local varieties of tea bushes or tea trees will have been growing in that place for decades. This means that the roots of these tea bushes will be well dispersed under and throughout the soil, allowing healthy soil to nurture the bushes through the roots. Local tea bush cultivars add complexity and individuality to finished tea and keep the diversity of taste alive and well from region to region.

COMMODITY TEA

In comparison, commodity tea ( or industrial tea, agro business tea, etc ) is just that – intensively grown and frequently harvested leaf that is grown for high harvest yields, not for distinctive flavors or unique qualities. This tea is grown for wholesale packagers of commercial grade tea, flavored tea blends and bottled tea drinks. The goal for Industrial tea producers is low production cost and abundant yield, a combination that does not result in premium quality tea.

Commodity tea is grown in large industrial tea gardens in flat, low-lying agricultural areas in non-historic tea producing countries where tea growing is a relatively new industry. The techniques used are standardized and mechanized – typical of agribusiness agriculture.

Tea gardens such as these exist throughout most of Africa and parts of South America. Whereas most English and Irish tea companies once used China, India, and Ceylon ( Sri Lanka ) teas in their blends, these tea sources have been replaced in the last 20 years by teas grown in newly-planted tea gardens in unusual places. Part of this switch is based on simple supply issues ( there is not enough traditional tea in the world for large companies to use even if they wanted to pay higher prices ) and price issues ( these new modern teas can be grown and harvested at far less cost than traditionally-made tea.

Because there is no rich soil for the plants to depend on, large amounts of pesticides and commercial fertilizers are required to maintain such tea bushes. Because of this artificial condition, the roots of these plants mass together in a ball just under the surface of the soil, which means that what is nourishing the plants is the applied chemicals, not the soil.

There is no sustainability in this scheme – without the continued heavy application of fertilizers there is no ability for the soil to sustain the tea plants. And, there  is no diversity among the tea bushes – all the plants are clones of one type and genetically the same. So, there is no effort made to ensure layers of flavor or subtle differences in these teas.

And lastly, commodity tea has no history, culture, inherited knowledge, high-elevation location, cooling clouds and mist, or moisture-laden weather, seasonal differences, or other historical or cultural elements that are part of traditional tea making culture. It is business-grown tea, pure and simple.

Commodity tea is not the type of tea that we want to drink or sell to our customers. But it is the reason that we are committed to selling traditional tea and supporting the efforts of artisan tea makers who produce delicious, awe-inspiring tea.

So, given the choice, which tea do you want in your teacup?

He Became She and then Came Tea

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Our 2012 spring pluck Tieguanyin Clear Fragrant and Tieguanyin Traditional teas are here!
I thought it would be appropriate to announce the arrival of these teas with an updated post that appeared on this blog several years back.

Many tea enthusiasts have discovered the delightful taste of one of China’s most famous oolong teas – Tieguanyin. This semi-ball rolled style tea is made in twenty-seven tea villages located in the vicinity of Anxi in southern Fujian Province. This region is comprised of steep mountains, deeply-cut valleys and terraced tea gardens as far as the eye can see, and it is serious tea country. Many households are engaged in the tea business in one way or another, and when the plucking season is in full swing, the activity in these villages ramps up to match the rhythm of the tea gardens.

Tieguanyin is manufactured in both modern and traditional oxidation styles. Some of these teas are roasted and perfect for drinking now. Roasted tea, including Tieguanyin, can be aged – it will become richer and more flavorsome with the years. Some Tieguanyin is un-roasted, and features intoxicating, floral aromas in the cup.These teas are best for drinking right away.

The fresh leaf from the Tieguanyin tea-bush cultivar differs in several ways from the leaf of other tea bush cultivars grown in the Anxi region, such as Ben Shan, Mai Xie and Huang Jin Gui. The fresh leaf from Tieguanyin tea bushes is both strong and yielding at the same time. It is thick and requires more kneading and twisting in the processing than the fresh leaf from other Anxi area cultivars. The fresh leaf is given a slower oxidation and a long processing time, factors that contribute to the soft, apricots-and-peaches character of Tieguanyin.

Tieguanyin is a great example of how terroir ( soil, climate, weather, tea bush cultivars, history and tradition and more ) contributes unmistakable personality to each tea. The influence of terroir works with the efforts of tea workers in the tea gardens and tea factories to produce distinctive tea that taste like no other tea made in China.

But how many of you know that this tea is named for a Chinese god – Guan Yin – and a god with a very interesting past, to boot ?

A few years back, I had the opportunity to sit in on a class on Buddhist Thought at Smith College led by the Buddhist scholar, Peter Gregory. The topic for the semester was thus: why was the Indian bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara slowly transformed ( ‘domesticated’ ) by Chinese Buddhists from a male deity to a female deity named Guan Yin sometime during the 8th century?

In an attempt to come to an understanding of ‘how’ and ‘why’ this gender re-imagining occured, we studied Buddhist canonical sources and historic imagery to discover how these texts and depictions interacted with Chinese ‘beliefs’ and popular notions of gender, family, filial piety, and cosmic resonance.

I thought that somewhere within the rich mass of thought and ideology that has shaped China’s culture, social order, philosophical and religious views we would find the reason ( the ‘ahaa’ moment ) why this deity who entered China as a young man was re-imagined in several ways ( first as a gender-less guardian of the human race, then depicted as a devote Chinese princess Miaoshan ) before she lastly became a compassionate Mother who provided solace to all who needed her but especially to women.

But, as is often the case with issues of religion, there is no one concrete answer to this question. Many thoughts come together on this topic. Additionally, adding to the mystery and ‘strangeness’ of this gender transformation is the unlikeliness of this occurrence even taking place in the Buddhist religion where males have always held the dominant roles in the hierarchy. It was men who  interpreted Indian Buddhist dogma and practice and applied it to China. Women did not occupy positions of rank or importance in the early days of Buddhism. So why then was a powerful and compassionate female deity created out of a male god?

Perhaps the reason is actually quite simple. Some Buddhist scholars make a believable case for the idea that devout Chinese women needed a powerful god ( not just a lesser god or local, village gods ) that they could appeal to for assistance and compassion in times of need, and that this contributed to the transformation of Guan Yin.

Placing a female god high in the ranks of a ‘bodhisattva’ would have added validity and solace to women in Chinese society at that time, and would also have created an inclusive community that allowed women from all communities to feel connected to a female deity who was, unlike local gods, watching out for the interests of all women across China. While the cult of Guan Yin continues today with both male and female followers, it is mostly middle-aged women who worship Guan Yin and make the annual pilgrimages to pay respect and offer incense for favors sought or favors granted.

So, for those of you looking for a toothsome topic ( and a great exercise to get the little grey cells moving ) to delve into over the fall and winter months, I highly recommend a trip to your local library for some literature on this topic. In class we read three books: Kuan-Yin: the Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteśvara by Chun-Fang Yu;  Personal Salvation and Filial Piety by Wilt L. Idema, and The Legend of Miaoshan by Glen Dudbridge, plus many papers and articles exerpted from scholarly journals.

But, back to Tieguanyin, the tea. Legend has it that the Qing emperor Kangxi
(r. 1661-1722) prayed to the goddess Guan Yin for the return of his health during a bout with smallpox. She answered his prayers and later appeared to him in a dream. In the dream she brought him to a place where the farmers were very poor but where a few tea bushes grew on a mountainside. To repay her kindness, she asked him to help the people of this region cultivate these tea bushes and prosper from it in her name.

Guan Yin then showed the emperor that the leaves of these tea bushes bore a marked impression. He plucked one from the bush, after which the leaf bore the impressions of both of their thumbs. These two tiny marks have always distinguished the leaves of true Tieguanyin bush varietals. Emperor Kangxi proclaimed Tieguanyin famous for all eternity in China, and from that time the Tieguanyin tea industry has thrived. The Qing emperor Qianlong ( r. 1736-1795 ) selected Tieguanyin to be one of his Tribute teas. *

* from The Story of Tea, Ten Speed Press, 2007

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