He Became She and then Came Tea


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