Shui Xian the Taoist Immortal
Shui Xian is often translated as water sprite, or as narcissus flower. The interesting character to look at is “xian,” or 仙。 This character depicts a person on a mountain. More sensationalist translations will read it as fairy. Realistically though, the character suggests an otherworldly quality, or immortality, not a magical fluttering creature. The person on a mountain is a reference to the legendary Taoist immortals who renounced the grind of the everyday and went to live a carefree life in the mountains as hermits. They rarely interacted with others, but when they did their words were cryptic. Some say that they never aged, but decided at some point that they were light enough to cross over to the Tao, or to paradise with their bodies.
Was Shui Xian first written incorrectly?
Since then, there has been a tradition among Buddhists and Taoists in China to find a cave in the mountains for meditation isolated from the world. The character ‘xian’ evokes this lightness, illuminated understanding, and aloof immortality. The character ‘shui’ (水) means water. There is some speculation that the word ‘shui’ was transcribed incorrectly. Local dialect in Fujian suggests that ‘shui’ might have been the name of a cave, or that it might have been an approximation to the Min language word for prayer. In either case, we can form a translation that either evokes praying and devotion to the Taoist immortals, or perhaps the name of a cave where an immortal performed meditation.
The standard structure of Chinese tea origin myths generally involve a farmer stumbling upon a tea through divine intervention. Both Tieguanyin and Big Red Robe follow this story. One could make a pretty confident assertion that Shui Xian was named in honor of a Taoist immortal who perhaps discovered or cultivated a tea bush for use in meditation, and then passed it on to a farmer or local who stumbled upon his cave, asking that it be shared and propagated.
The Secret Mythology of Shui Xian
With this in mind, here is the creation myth of Shui Xian in the spirit of the proposed translation, and of tea mythology in general:
Many many years ago there was a farmer near the foothills of the Wuyi mountains. He started farming as a young boy and found deep contentment in his life. Every so often, villagers would set out to visit the big cities, to travel the country. He would always shake his head at the offer to go along. “I am happy. When I want to see the world, I can watch the clouds go by, or wonder where the water flowing down stream started its journey.”
Most farmers used mules to plough the fields, but our hero had only a shovel. His rows were not straight, but bent to the natural give in the soil, twisting this way and that. He used the same shovel for 60 years without making repairs because he could feel what dirt was clear and what dirt hid rocks and clay. He tossed his seeds every which way- Taro over here and yams over there, and harvested enough to live.
Our Hero Departs
One day a county magistrate came and said that the farmer’s land was being seized by the local administrator for a waterworks project, tossing him a bag of coin as settlement. “Keep it,” the farmer said. I have no need. The villagers thought he was crazy, but he walked off, deciding to follow the stream to its source and see where the clouds came from.
For days he walked, picking roots to eat along the way, sleeping by the water, and singing to himself. Deep in the mountains, where the mist was clinging to the rocky peaks, he heard another voice- the first in weeks. “Come sit friend. I could hear your happy wandering approach for days. What brings you here?”
The farmer saw a wild-looking man with a long beard and knotted hair. “My farm was taken, so I thought I would walk until I found the source of the clouds and the stream.”
The wild-man raised a bushy eyebrow. “What have you eaten?”
“I have my shovel to dig up roots.”
“Let me see your shovel.” The farmer handed over his only possession to the wild-man. “There is not a scratch on it. I don’t even see marks from being refinished. Is it new?”
“No, I have always used that shovel, and never once repaired it.”
“You are an interesting find indeed. Most men that come here are seeking immortality, treasures, wisdom. You seek only to find the place where water and clouds come from… I like you, my friend.” The wild-man got up. “Follow me.”
Where the Water Begins
The farmer and the wild-man hiked for days up to the highest peaks of Wuyi, until they were above the mist and clouds. “Look, my friend. The clouds start here, they rain down the mountains, become the streams, flow out to sea and again rise up to the sky.”
“So there is no beginning?”
“How should I know- I am just a wild man. Come, look at this plant. It grows out of the cliffs, reaching for the purest mist, hidden from view. Pick some. Take it with you, and return to the cliffs whenever you need more. It is more valuable than your farm, for it will remind you of this place.” The wild-man disappeared, leaving the farmer alone with the tea plants jutting out of the rocky mountain face.
The farmer picked the tea, and hiked back down the mountain. He steeped the leaves in the water of the stream he had followed. As he sipped it, his mind again floated upwards to the cave of the wild-man and the misty mountain peaks. He returned to his village, sharing the tea, and asking everyone to “shui xian” or give thanks to the immortal, before drinking. In later years, the legends of the immortal spread, and people began to think of him as a spirit of the mountain. One villager even claimed to see him meditating while floating over water, calling him a shui xian, or water sprite. The cliffs, and the immortal himself remain shrouded in mist. Only the tea remains as a relic of his interaction with a humble, but brilliant farmer that made him smile.
What does it all mean?
The tea mythology of China is vast and complex. Every farmer has their own story of how each tea got its name. We can try to ascertain the “correct” origins, but ultimately this folklore is still an oral tradition, passed down and embellished over time. The important thing is to examine why a name is continually passed down, and what does it say about the folk perception of tea culture.
In the case of Shui Xian, the reference to Taoist immortals makes perfect sense given the very Taoist nature of tea folklore in general. This reading supports the popular perception that tea was found, or passed on to humans, not cultivated to perfection. It was a gift of pure happenstance made possible by the receptive and flexible temperaments of the characters in each story. The name might mean water fairy to one farmer and “thanks to the immortals” to another, but the essence of what the name carries is still the same. For us tea drinkers, the goal should be to enjoy the beauty of the mythology as a compliment, or preface to the beauty of the tea itself.