The golden light of Guanyin, the smoldering fires of a tea drying shed, callous invading armies in Fujian; they all share a common thread in Chinese tea folklore: chance. Almost every version of every tea myth can place its catalyst in the realm of pure improbability, not the work or results of man. While many myths worldwide celebrate the determination of a single character, a linear narrative, and a result tied to intent, Chinese tea folklore does not. The origins of every tea are shrouded in totally arbitrary circumstance, as though nobody wants to take credit for discovering or producing a tea first.
Consider these (abbreviated) stories:
The Story of the Emperor and the Breeze
Heroic emperor Shen Nong was sitting in his garden contemplating the world as his cauldron of water cam to a boil. He was the originator of Chinese medicine, and mandated that people boil water before drinking to cleanse the impurities. (Indeed, his discovery saved millions of lives, and allowed the population of China to grow well beyond Europe in early history.)
As the emperor sat and began to doze off, the wind picked up and carried a few wild tea leaves into the garden, wafting them straight into the cauldron. The leaves boiled with the water for a good ten minutes before Shen Nong noticed them floating on the water. Curious, he ladled a cup of the water into a bowl and drank. Though the brew was quite bitter, the bitterness became sweetness in his mouth. He soon began to feel more alert and focused. Repeating the test with more tea, he deduced that the tea leaf was an energizing tonic and shared it with his ministers, immediately popularizing tea in ancient China.
The Story of Black Tea
Not long ago a local nobleman oversaw a very successful tea plantation. He treated the farmers well, and all profited as a result -that is, until rebellious armies swept through the province. The very afternoon that the armies were on the move, the tea harvest had been completed. The farmers were tired but joyful, heaping the tea into large piles to wilt slightly in the sun before drying.
In the midst of celebration at a successful harvest, the estate was ransacked. Soldiers commandeered food, and used the tea piles as beds for the night. The farmers were ready to fight for the local nobleman, but he ordered them to be content, bending to the will of the soldiers for the safety of his people. “What will be, will be,” he said. “This fight is not worth dying for.”
Since the tea was bruised through the night, and left out to fully oxidize, it turned black by morning. The farmers wept at the thought of a wasted harvest. The nobleman said, “finish drying the tea and pack it up. We will find a buyer.” While skeptical, the farmers did as they were asked. Sure enough, a British trader came through that week inquiring on the harvest. The nobleman opened a box of the dark colored tea for the trader to taste. “Spectacular! Wonderful!” The trader was impressed, and bought the entire harvest above market price. He had come upon the first black tea and asked the farm to make another batch. His import was the first tea to shift the European trend from green to black.
The Story of the Burning Shed
In the same crisis that sparked the creation of black tea, a group of soldiers swept through a village, setting fire to the buildings. As they raced on, the tea farmer scurried out from their hiding places horrified to see their tea drying shed on fire. If it burned, the whole harvest would be lost. They worked together to put out the fire, only to find that the tea had been smoked beyond salvaging.
One clever farmer among them said that a tea plantation nearby had passed off a whole harvest of ‘ruined’ tea on the British, so perhaps they could pass off their smoked tea. When a Dutch trader came through and tried the tea, he thought it was incredible, asking for more to be made immediately. The farmers were perplexed but happy and willing. What they discovered was the famous Lapsang Souchong a staple of Chinese exports for years to come.
The Improbability of it all
These are just a few summaries of the local stories told regarding the origins of tea. In the first story, imagine the emperor of China confronted with a dirty cauldron of brown water and leaf sediment. Would he not call a servant and ask for clean water? Yet, in the story, he didn’t ask. He didn’t discover tea, picking and boiling it himself, he merely stumbled upon it. The circumstances were presented to him, and he was sensitive to the opportunity at hand, embracing his “misfortune” and savoring the tea. When he tasted the bitter brew, would he not have spit it out? Yet he didn’t. He tasted carefully noticing the sweetness and the energizing quality. By embracing the natural way that events unfolded, he was able to share tea with the world.
The nobleman whose estate was ransacked had the loyalty of his peasants. He could have driven the soldiers out, but he didn’t. His compassion would not allow him to sacrifice a human life to protect material goods. He bent to the current of the times and was left with damaged tea. Yet, he did not despair. He brewed the tea for an English trader without making excuses or lies, and the trader loved the tea. The trader could have tasted it and spit it out. It certainly wasn’t the green tea his market craved. Yet, he saw something incredible in the happenstance and brought this prototype black tea back to England, and reaped the reward.
The farmers whose village was burned could have sought vengeance, they could have joined the loyalist armies to make a living, but they saved their shed. The tea was truly tainted with smoke, but they were confident that someone would come along who loved the tea. The Dutch trader came and tried a smoke-infused tea without prejudice, recognizing its appeal. He took a risk by bringing it back to Europe and was rewarded.
The Secret Taoist Message
In each case, we have an origin myth that does not credit anyone with purposeful discovery or crafting of tea. The tea came about by improbable circumstance. In each case, those who embraced the natural way that events unfolded was rewarded and content, claiming no credit for the tea’s discovery, but reaping the rewards nonetheless. These tea stories, and many more are structured as Taoist parables illustrating the need for flexibility and the genius of exercising non-action (wuwei).
Chinese culture can be divided into Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist ideals. They do not exist in diametric opposition, but work together in a messy but functional harmony. Some parables celebrate devotion and morality. These are Confucian. Some celebrate detachment and universal compassion. These are Buddhist. Others celebrate improbable events, bending to the will of nature, and knowing when not to act. These are Taoist. The interesting question to ask is why Chinese tea culture is so heavily tilted towards the Taoist ideals.
I certainly don’t have a definitive answer as to why tea culture moved in that direction, but the early development of folklore where tea’s discovery was more magic and random circumstance than anything else has certainly helped to reinforce the Taoist culture of tea. This culture is embodied through the humility of farmers and tea disciples, the concentration on seeing everyday beauty through the ceremony, and the ephemeral and impossible to reproduce nature of every steeping of tea.
Just like the Taoist parable of water bending to every rock in the moment, but shaping continents in the long run, or the reed that bends in a hurricane while the rooted tree is broken, the tea plant, a humble shrub growing wild in Yunnan has come, through “non-action” to command the love and devotion of the entire world.