Wuyi is legendary. Any great Chinese art collection will be full of inkbrush paintings of the misty mountain peaks that make up Wuyi. Visiting Wuyi evokes the feeling of finally meeting someone that you have read about for years.
The rocks of Wuyi aren’t just famous for the inspiration they gave to great Song dynasty painters. The true legends involve magic, and of course, Wuyi tea.
Rafting down the famous Nine Bend River, we look up at the massive rock faces, cut over millions of years by the gentle stream that carries us along, each with their own name and collection of legends.. The rock face tells its own story. Clearly, thousands of years ago, the lazy stream was once a strong and boisterous river, not only carving out a valley, but also caves along the cliffs. Even today, these caves are used by hermits and monks.
It seems that every tea growing region we visit has caves for Taoist immortals.
Immediately we think of the story of Shui Xian, a mysterious tea that could refer to the Narcissus flower, or to water spirits (or both). Perhaps Shui Xian got its name from a hermit who once meditated in the caves we pass by.
Li Xiangxi grows tea on these mountain slopes. She tells us the story of how the native people living in Wuyi before the Han Chinese came used to bury important leaders, priests and heroes in the caves above as a great honor. Between the Taoist immortals, the legendary water spirits, and the ghosts of heroes past, it is clear that these rocks are holy rocks.
Indeed, the most prized tea in Wuyi are the wild tea bushes that grow right out of a split in the rock. The flavor of tea growing from the rock and tea growing from the soil is vastly different. While all of Li Xiangxi’s teas have a sweet and nuanced mineral flavor that evokes the peaks she tends to, her wild picked old tree tea has a deep and haunting mineral flavor that proclaims the legendary origins of the tea.
The very name Big Red Robe, the ancestor of all Wuyi teas, comes from the rocks. Legend has it that the empress was deathly ill and no doctor could cure her. The emperor sent a dispatch across the land promising great reward to any that could help the empress. The people of Wuyi grieved for the empress. They knew that their beloved empress didn’t come from the imperial city and the cultivated refinement of the court. She was a great beauty born in Wuyi and swept away as a child to serve the court. Her beauty brought her to the top of the world, but she never forgot her home.
One night, a particularly pious and devoted farmer prayed for a cure. Some stories say he prayed to Guanyin, others to the Taoist immortals. Perhaps he prayed to the native spirits of days past whose remains were hidden deep in the mountain caves. That night he dreamt of five bushes growing straight out of the rock, perched on a high cliffs.
In the morning, he climbed the mountains to seek the tea and, sure enough, five bushes that had never been seen before were growing miraculously straight out of the rocks. He picked a handful of leaves and wrapped them in cloth to take to the imperials city. Legend has it that the bruising from being wrapped and the heat of the sun finished these leaves in a way close to the process of making modern oolong.
The imperial doctors made a tea from the leaves and gave it to the empress. The first smell brough her out of her coma. The first sip restored her strength. Farmers in Wuyi even today say that the empress was actually suffering from homesickness, and the smell and taste of home brought her back. Tasting the tea today, you can smell and taste the land of Wuyi and imagine how the empress must have felt.
The emperor was overjoyed and promised all the wealth in the treasury to the farmer, but he declined. The bushes themselves had sprung up, the work of the spirits, to save the empress. The emperor ordered red robes of nobility draped over the bushes to honor the spirits, and perhaps bring them pride and fortune in the spirit world.
After floating downstream, we stepped off the bamboo rafts with Li Xiangxi to go deeper in the mountains to her home tucked away in the hidden valley above Longchuan Gorge. Fifty foot bamboo trees swayed in the wind against the backdrop of the rocky peaks. It felt as if we had stepped into a Kung Fu movie, enjoying a moment of peace before the final showdown in the mountains. We hiked past Li Xiangxi’s house up the valley where her family grows vegetables and picks citrus fruits. We quickly found ourselves thick in wild tea trees and bushes, and enveloped in the smell of blooming camellia flowers.
Along the way, Li Xiangxi showed us an ingenious bamboo aqueduct that carried natural spring water from the top of the peak down into the valley to feed the tea plants. She explained to us that the high elevation valleys like this one make better tea than plants growing on the peak because of the way the mist settles and protect the plants.
Something about the smell, the sounds and beautiful landscape reminded us of Homer”s Island of the Lotus Eaters. Indeed, we all found oursleves drawn in and dreaming about how we could move our offices from Minnesota to Wuyi and stay forever. Luckily, Li Xiangxi stepped in and invited us back down to the town to see her latest project.
We made our way down from the mountain, winding along a stream into Xingcun, and finally into Wuyi itself. Li Xiangxi has used the proceeds from her family’s successful work cultivating and wild picking tea to start a school of traditional Wuyi tea ceremony, Growing up her whole life picking tea, she has become determined to give people the tools to appreciate what her family does on a deeper level.
As she performed the ceremony, there were striking similarities to traditional gongfu tea across China. Yet, the spirit of her ceremony was profoundly casual. The important and inspiring piece we learned from Li Xiangxi is that tea must feel like an everyday event, a natural part of life, even when ritualized and performed for meditation. A ritual that does not feel natural and honest is meaningless. Flair, convolution or a false sense of holiness is blasphemous to the humble roots of the tea. For Li Xiangxi, ceremony shouldn’t stand in the way of the natural act of a host welcoming in guests, or a group of friends excitedly sharing a taste experience. Instead, the ritual of ceremony reinforces our respect for the tea and our willingness to embrace the full taste experience without distraction.
Everything the Li family showed us was evidence of their honesty, humility, and their idea that they work for the tea, rather than with it. Their technique in picking gives the plants more time to rest and absorb nutrients, more time to grow and improve in flavor for future generations. Their roasting technique is as light as it comes, leaving the natural flavor of the rock as the star rather than masking it with caramel notes. Even though they know they are picking some of the finest tea in the world, they prepare every tea with the deep respect of an old friend, not the reverence of a disciple.
The entire experience was inspiring beyond belief. The pristine beauty of Wuyi, the biodiversity of the valleys, the sweetness of the water, the deep devotion of the farmers like Li Xiangxi and her family – for us, tea has always been about connecting with places, people, and history, but Wuyi is a life affirming confirmation of everything there is to love about the humble camellia sinensis plant.
Ultimately, there is only so much that can be conveyed in text. The best way to understand is to taste the tea, and do so with the photos, videos and sounds of the place in mind.