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Mei Zhan, the Plum Blossom

Each of the many tea varietals grown across Fujian Province has its history. Steeped in folklore and rooted in the red-brown soil are tea plants that have been cultivated for generations, and bearing witness to great change in the world around. Think of Tie Guanyin, the “Iron Goddess” and Huangjin Gui, “Golden Osmanthus.” Consider Mei Zhan, a varietal that originated in Lutian Township of Anxi County. Its name can be traced to a line from a poem: “The Plum Blossom is the Queen of All Flowers 梅占百花魁” There are several legends about the origin of this tea, for example:

A folktale recalls that during the late Ming (1368 – 1644) or early Qing (1644 – 1911) era, a hard-working and pious farming couple from Lutian reached their early forties, but remained childless. One evening, as the couple hosted a Buddhist monk seeking alms, the visitor remarked that they seemed successful in life, prosperous, and with a well-appointed home and productive fields. Why, he asked, did they carry sadness in them? They explained their situation, in hope of his sage counsel, but he offered none. He left them that night, and continued on his way. Shortly thereafter, as the couple slept, they each had a vision of Buddha, instructing them to find the two tea trees clinging to Tiger Ridge outside their village, and to make tea from their leaves. In the morning, the couple were astonished that they had experienced the very same dream. Right away, they went to the location revealed to them the previous night, climbing high in the mountain, and found the two trees that had been revealed. They harvested the leaves, made tea, and immediately felt a change inside of themselves; spirits lifted, troubles vanished. The next year, they welcomed a healthy son. One month later, they celebrated the child’s birth in a banquet for the entire village, where the tea was named Mei Zhan. The couple gave the tea to plant all around the village, and shared the story of its marvelous power.  

Mei Zhan is often prepared as an oolong tea, but is remarkably adaptable, and can be made into excellent white, green, and black teas as well.

There are more stories to tell. I will steep another cup.

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Tea “mother trees” of Anxi County

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.

Statue of Wu Long, a Xiping farmer.

Tie Guanyin

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.