Embracing Tea Myths, Legends, and Stories

Tea history is full of myths, legends, and stories, enough to keep the Brothers Grimm, were they alive today, busy for years writing them all down. These tales enrich our tea experience as long as we remember they are not necessarily fact. Who among us really expects a cabin in the woods inhabited by three bears who walk upright, wear clothing, talk, sleep in beds, have self-awareness, and eat porridge? Well, actually, that part about the porridge eating sounds pretty plausible.

My journey to find some of these myths, legends, and stories soon made it clear that the term “myth” was being used as a synonym for “misinformation,” which is not the same thing. I finally zeroed in on these items of interest (re-told in my own imitable style, of course):

ShenNongStatueShen Nong (the Divine Farmer) — In the days before the U.S. FDA telling us what is and is not safe to eat, Shen Nong went around trying various plants. Nibble – “yum!” Nibble – “yuck!” And so on. There were no sentient, clothes-wearing bears nor a golden-haired nosey girl to try each plant and say which was “too hot,” “too cold,” or “just right.” While taking a break, he set a little pot on an open fire to boil water. Unseen, some leaves from the tea tree branches above the pot saw the water and thought “Hot tub time!”, so they hopped off the branch and floated down. They fell asleep in the hot water, though, and were soon turned into a brew that delighted Shen Nong so much, he granted them immortality, or something like that. Anyway, he thought the liquid was quite tasty and good for his tummy.

Bodhi-Dharma (of India) — There was a prince in southern India who sought, not a fair maiden to be his queen, but a simple existence of meditation and staring at walls. To aid him in this, he began chewing on some leaves that turned out to be tea leaves. They kept him awake and able to continue thinking and staring. And thinking. And staring. And…

Guanyin Iron Goddess of Mercy BodhisattvaAKuan Yin, the Iron Goddess of Mercy — In the high mountain Shaxian province of Fujian on the southeast coast of China stood a rundown and neglected stone temple with an iron statue inside. It was of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, to whom Buddhists pray for enlightenment. A farmer came daily to sweep out the temple and pray for relief of the drought plaguing them. Like Pygmalion who loved the beautiful ivory statue he’d carved so much that it came to life in his arms, the farmer’s devotion and daily visits brought the iron statue to life. Did she kiss him? Did she say “Thanks for the incense you’ve been burning every day”? No, he was a farmer, so she said, “Tend the withered bush outside the temple door.” It turned out to be a tea bush. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. This tea remains one of the best oolongs around.

The Monkey Legend — Mount Ying-T’ang near Wenchow in Chekiang Province was lonely and haunted by wild beasts yet the monks and farmers tended their crops there. Sometimes hordes of monkeys would descend on them, taking the harvest. Now, these weren’t cute little organ grinder type monkeys. These were more like the Wizard of Oz Wicked Witch of the West monkeys. The monks decided to share their bounty with the monkeys instead of trying to chase them away. One Spring, after a particularly harsh Winter, the monkeys showed up at the monastery toting bags bulging with leaves from tea trees inaccessible to the monks. The tea was of superior quality and has through the ages become known as Monkey Tea.
Dragonwell Village in Zhejiang Province [pic]

Dragonwell — On the high peaks of the Tieh Mu mountains near Hangzhou in the Zhejiang province of China lived a dragon of such beauty and wisdom that as he trod the ground, tea plants (Camellia Sinensis) of such magnificent flavor sprang up from each footprint. Not really, but it sounds good. “Dragon well” is the name of a spring in those peaks that never runs dry. In 250 A.D. there was a severe drought (no, not caused by a dragon breathing fire – Chinese dragons don’t do that). It was ended by rain that supposedly came in answer to the prayers of the monks living there to save their tea trees. Today, this is considered one of the finest green teas.

Dragonwell Village in Zhejiang Province
Dragonwell Village in Zhejiang Province

There you have it — some myths, legends, and stories about tea!

© 2016-2020 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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