Nestled in the hills of Anxi County in Fujian Province are villages where tea cultivation goes back centuries and where local histories are entwined with the plants rooted there. Legends of long-ago farmers and mystical encounters take botanical form in the stories people tell about their local tea varietals.
Contemporary tea enthusiasts have taken note of the large number of cultivated varieties of tea plant (varietals) that originated in Anxi. Evocative names such as Tie Guanyin, “Iron Goddess,” Huangjin Gui, “Golden Osmanthus,” and Benshan, “Original Mountain,” refer to distinctive plant lineages, with their own growth characteristics and processing qualities, that are harvested principally to produce the well-known oolong teas of the area. Tie Guanyin is recognized for its particular aroma, while Huangjin Gui has an especially distinctive flavor. In practice, tea leaves from different varietals could be blended to produce tea for the commercial market. Like grape vines and apples, these plants are not reproduced by seed, but rather by cuttings, so that each new bush preserves the attributes of the previous generations. Local communities in Anxi County have recognized this history by designating the tea “mother trees” of widely-grown varietals, in principle, bushes that represent the origins of various tea cultivation traditions.
The story of Anxi oolong tea
In Xiping town, local people talk about a distant forbear who discovered the method of making oolong tea. A farmer nicknamed Wu Long was out on a hillside picking tea leaves and caught sight of a deer. Engaging in a hunt, the man chased his prey for a considerable time, only returning home very late in the day. Rather than pan-fired after harvest, the freshly-picked leaves had been shaken in his woven basket all day, and then left overnight. In the morning, Wu Long noticed that they had developed a captivating aroma. After pan-firing and drying the leaves, his fellow villagers credited him with this new type of tea craft. Even today, some people in Xiping believe this history of tea innovation makes people there more adept at producing excellent tea.
Xiping town also claims to be the place of origination of the Tie Guanyin varietal. According to one story, a bush grew near the study of a scholar-official named Wang Shirang. It produced a phenomenal tea, one so distinctive that the emperor himself became enamored with it, and offered the name Tie Guanyin: Tie or “iron,” for its dense leaves, and Guanyin, after the Buddhist deity known in China for beauty and compassion. In recent years, a structure has been erected to commemorate this consequential discovery, protecting within the Tie Guanyin “mother tree.” There is also another legend about Tie Guanyin’s origin, that recalls a pious farmer named Wei Yin, who was called in a dream by the spirit of Guanyin to search a particular mountainside for a tea plant producing leaves with an especially transcendent aroma. He searched for this miraculous bush and transplanted it to an iron pot just outside of his house, and indeed, its leaves yielded an exceptional brew. He named the tea for the iron pot in which he kept it, and for the deity that had spoken to him.