Chinese Legends about Tea


Folklore is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Existing for many centuries, it has become a specific treasure trove of national ideas about almost all the realities of life and various forms of beliefs. One of the most popular genres of folklore is a legend. Many things that people now use in everyday life have one or several legends. Of course, this also applies to tea. Tea is one of the most popular and oldest drinks in the world, thus as any antiquity it has its own history, culture, psychology, philosophy and, of course, legends. Tea has long become a national drink of China.1 The paper will attempt to characterize and describe legends about tea within the framework of Chinese culture. 

Origin of the Tea Bush

Legends about tea can be roughly divided into three groups. The first group includes the texts about the origin of the tea bush and preparation of the drink. Legends tell about the country where the tea emerged: most often it is China, but Japan is also mentioned. The most common story is about the character, which is usually directly related to China and Japan and their local religions. In the texts, he is called Bodhidharma (Sanskrit), Puti Damo or Tamo (Chinese) or Daruma (Japanese), etc.2 The legend begins with the story about the character and his role in the history. 

According to the legend, 3, 4 the character (it is always a man) arrived in China with a religious mission suggesting that he should not sleep for seven years and should pray for the glory of the Great Buddha. However, the character had fallen asleep in the fifth year of prayer.  Then, the character of a legend about tea cuts off his own eyelids. A negative emotion, under the influence of which Bodhidharma commits the act of self-mutilation, manifests itself suddenly after waking up. This emotion is directed against the character himself: “When he awoke, he was so devastated by his lack of mind over the matter that he cut off his offending eyelids and threw them to the ground”.3 The character may have been not only angry or annoyed by his actions, but he also may have experienced desperation. At the same time, motif of the eyelids cut-off remains unchanged: “…he cut off his eyelids not to let it happen again”.4 

Almost all the legends say that the character throws his cut eyelids or eyelashes on the ground, “where a wondrous bush sprang forth”.3 As a rule, he does not do anything more with them. The cut parts of his face give life to a tea bush. In other texts, some parts are used for an additional emphasis of the uniqueness of the plant that appeared and the speed of its growth: “…the first two tea plants sprouted instantaneously from where they landed”.4

In these legends, the answers to the questions of how exactly the beneficial properties of tea were discovered and why the character decided to brew the leaves from the plant, which was born out of his cut off eyelids and eyelashes, remain beyond the narrative.  Some legends report that Bodhidharma was the first who brewed the leaves of the tea bush and who tried the drink.  The legends say about the special properties of the tea: it expels a dream and gives energy and vitality for long hours. Other legends focus on the unique features of the drink: it is very important for meditation and should be used “as a sacred balm”. It is called a “symbol of awareness”. Sometimes, legends said even about the special attitude to the drink, i.e. monks and laymen consider tea drinking not just a thirst quencher or filling of a pause between the cases, but a meditation.5

There are other legends about the origin of tea. One more popular legend includes Yao Bai, who was believed to be the divine creator of Heaven and Earth. She once said that she was going to divide the Earth into different parts for different people, but some tribes decided that they did not want to participate in this division. The people’s failure to do as she said evoked anger and frustration in her, so she decided to leave in spite of their decision. While climbing a mountain in pursuit of leaving earth, Yao Bai realized that without her, people would not survive, so she took tea seeds and planted them.67 In this legend, tea seeds have already been created, however, the answer to the question “By whom and when?” remains outside the narrative.

Another legend also reports about the already existing tea seeds, but it says nothing about the mythological nature of its characters. On the contrary, information presented there is provided as historically accurate. It says about tea seeds, which appeared in China owing the Chinese preacher Gan Lu, who brought tea seeds from Assam. Legends sometimes use a quite popular technique of connecting the past and present, and it is used in this legend as well. The Gan Lu legend says that in Sichuan province, in those days, there were first tea plantations and small gardens with tea bushes, which are being harvested and processed partly by hand to the present day.8 Designated technique works for creating an idea in the reader’s mind that the cultivation has a tradition, and therefore creates an impression of a high quality of Chinese tea.

The third legend also tells about the growth of tea trees out of the seeds, but they are transferred naturally, not because of mythological characters or a man that had once lived in China. The legend reports about the existence of a special tree, referred to as “the master of all tea trees”. This plant differed from others by a special smell: “People could smell the aroma of fresh green leaves that appeared in spring for miles around. People inhaled this heady aroma with pleasure and delight. Many birds were flying and singing and many farmers came to enjoy this beauty. Even phoenixes flew to the lord of the trees. Birds ate the fruits of the tree and carried its grains to every corner of the Liang Shan Mountain”.9

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Discovery of the Drink and its Special Properties

 The second group of legends about the tea includes texts on the discovery of the special properties of the leaves and the invention of the most popular drink. In general, legends either tell about the accidental discovery of tea or this moment is not included into the storyline. 

Several legends mention the approximate origin of tea: “Chinese traditions attribute its origin to the time of the creation of Heaven and Earth” or to the time of matriarchy society. Less often, they mention the exact time of the discovery, which is more than 5000 years or 3rd millennium BCE, about 2737 BCE.Error: Reference source not found In other legends, the invention of tea may not be indicated, but they say that tea is the most ancient drink in the world, but the exact date of its appearance refers to the dark ages. 

The legends mention several names of characters that were first to make a drink and/or discover the wonderful properties of tea leaves. As a rule, the invention of tea (or discovery of its special properties) is attributed to one character: the Yan Emperor, Chinese ruler; Shennong, divine ancestor of the Chinese. It should be noted that “an academic conference held in China in 2004 achieved general consensus that the Yan Emperor and Shennong were the same person”.10

The invention of the drink happened accidentally. The Yan Emperor traveled across his state and stopped to have a rest under a tea tree. Strong gust of wind plucked a few leaves of tea tree. They accidentally dropped into the boiling water, prepared to quench thirst or cooking. Also tea leaves dropped into the boiling water in the legend about Shennong, which was sick “of poison of plants that have been tried in order to find the useful ones”.11 

The Emperor was attracted by special aroma and taste of the drink, both bitter and sweet. The reason for popularizing the drink is the will of the Emperor: he issued a decree on the application of the drink across the country. Other legends focus on the beneficial properties of tea: Shennong realized that he opened a new herb and began to carefully study it for the benefit of people. Tea cured him of all poisons and he discovered tea and its medicinal properties for the Chinese people.12 The legend also mentioned the cultivation of tea that begins with a tree, which dropped a few leaves into the boiling water: “So the lord liked the aroma that the water acquired, and so he commanded to cultivate the tree from which the wind dropped the wonderful leaves”.13

Wonderful properties of tea, as narrated in another part of the legend, were discovered as follows: the character was poisoned with poisonous plants and was lying under a tree. At this time, the sun-warmed dewdrop slid down into his mouth from the tea bush. He swallowed it, and then he felt a surge of strength and vitality and has since used tea as an antidote. Such legends end with a report about medicinal properties of tea, its usefulness as a medicine and antidote.14 

One more legend attributes to the discovery of the special properties of tea to wild animals – monkeys. Character that noticed a change in the behavior of the animals was woodcutter. Monkeys were playing on the mountain slopes and collected leaves from the trees growing on the cliffs. After eating these leaves, monkeys became especially cheerful and frisky. Woodcutter did not brew the leaves, but tried them without heating. He liked the taste and “told others of his discovery and soon, everyone was adding leaves from the tree to their drinks.” 15

Further, the legend summarizes: special leaves began to be used not only for preparation of a drink, but also for other dishes, which was not mentioned in the above legends: “…people learned to prepare soups and broths from these leaves, and later brew the leaves to get a delicious drink that is now known worldwide as tea”.16

Varietal Tea

The third group of legends contains texts devoted to varietal tea. There are several legends explaining why oolong “Da Hong Pao” (“Big Red Robe”) is called so. This tea accidentally appears in the same location where the emperor stopped. In other version, the monks bring tea to cure imperial official’s mother after hearing about her illness. The third legend tells about the monk from the mountain monastery, who cures traveler by the tea infusion. Further, the legends explain the name of the variety: the character (Emperor Ming, imperial official or a traveler) has put a red robe on the tea bushes for healing himself from severe illness.17 18 19

The name of oolong is connected with a red robe not as a gift, but as a sign of identification in another legend. Once, the Wuyishan Mountains had many monasteries, and the monks from each of them collected their particular type of tea. All natural conditions contributed to the fact that tea released a high, mountainous aroma only in one monastery. However, it was very difficult to collect this tea type. The monks learnt to train monkeys to collect tea. Each monkey was dressed in a red robe in order to identify the trained monkeys and prevent hunting them by the locals.20 

The second famous Chinese oolong variety is associated with the name of Guan Yin (demigod, which appears mainly in the female form and saves people from all kinds of disasters). Two of the three legends have roughly similar plots. Some pious peasant (or tea grower) daily arranged the ceremony for Guan Yin: he raised a cup of tea to her image.  Further, Guan Yin told him in a dream to go to the mountains, where her gift was waiting for him. She warned him that he ought to be unselfish in his aspirations and share this unusual gift with people. Waking up early in the morning, he went to the appointed place between the two cliffs and saw a tree that was shining in the sun. He dug it and moved back home.

The other legend has no motive of sleep: the character goes to the mountains and finds “between two cliffs an unusual tea tree, sparkling in the sun” and decides that it is a gift from Guan Yin. Character names tea in honor of the goddess, whose name is translated as “Iron Goddess of Mercy”. The association with iron also occurs in the perception of this type of tea: “Tea has turned out to be surprisingly heavy, like iron, with an unusual flavor and aroma. Tea grower remembered that it was a gift of the goddess, and called the tea in her honor - Tie Guan Yin.”21

“Silver Needle from the Mountains of the Immortals” is the translation of the name of another type of Chinese tea, whose actual name is Jun Shan Yin Zhen. According to the legend, this type of tea has been known since the 16th century. A monk came and settled on the Jun Shan Mountain after reaching immortality, perfect harmony with his own self and the world. Jun Shan Mountains are considered the abode of immortals or people who have achieved perfection. It was that monk who brought and planted eight seeds of tea bushes on the mountain.22 

In another legend, the name of this tea type is attributed to a servant. The legend says that the Emperor Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty of China, was drinking tea, brewed leaves of which moved vertically in the cup. The servant said, “The lifting leaves salute to Your Majesty and falling leaves subordinate themselves to the power of Your Majesty”. For this reason, “Silver Needle from the Mountains of the Immortals” has become an imperial type of tea.23

Another type of tea is associated with the image of the popular character in Chinese mythology – dragon. It is called “Long Jing” or “Dragon Well”. The occurrence of variety refers to 250 CE. There was a severe drought and tea trees could die out. So the monk went to the mountains to pray to the dragon, which lived at the springs. Dragon was generous, so he satisfied the request of the monk with an abundant rain, and since then springs never get dry. 

Another version of “Long Jing” origin is associated with the old woman. The poor old woman had no family and lived in the village named “Dragon Well”. The only things she had were a few tea bushes. This woman had to go through a lot of grief in her life. Despite all the adversity, she remained kindhearted and tried to brighten up life around as best she could. Every day she took a few leaves, brewed tea and put it at the door of her hut for the fellow villagers to quench their thirst after work.24 

According to the legend, the “Taiping Hou Kui” tea type (The Peaceful Monkey Leader) sprouted out of the monkey’s grave. Old monkey male fell sick and died at the mountain area after losing his son. His body was buried by the old tea picker. In gratitude, the dead monkey rewarded the old man in accordance with his favorite activity. In the morning, the old man saw a lot of bushes with long delicate leaves at the foot of the mountain, where the grave was.25 

The legend of “White Peony” tea (Bai Mudan) begins with a moving of an official and his mother out of the capital. Along the way, they saw a wonderful lake, which exuded a pleasant aroma. It was the smell of eighteen peony bushes that grew on the island in the middle of the lake. This island has become the new home of the official and his mother. One day, the mother got seriously ill, and her son searched in vain for different medicinal plants and medicines. After walking for many days, he got tired and fell asleep under a tree. Then, an old man appeared to him in a dream, and told the son that he needed to catch and cook carp in order to heal his mother, but it was necessary to serve carp with a fresh tea. The young man went home and told his mother about his unusual dream and she became very surprised: it turned out that she has seen the same dream. The fish was caught, but the official did not know where to get tea. At this time, a strong clap of thunder was heard and 18 peons turned into 18 tea bushes. After healing, the official’s mother ascended to heaven and became the patroness of the “White Peony” tea type.26 

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Chinese legends about tea are very diverse. Some of them are beautifully designed, others contain not much information. Part of the legends is characterized with high-level literary processing, and the other part is devoid of such properties. However, these legends are united by the fact that the discovery of this drink is attributed to the specific characters; it occurs under certain circumstances; the drink has unique qualities. It is curious that sprouting of tea or discovery of the drink is connected with an image of a man in almost all legends (except one), whether it is mythological character or a person that supposedly lived on Earth. The analyzed legends are the carriers of the certain cultural component and occupy an important place in the history of China.

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