or Iron Goddess of Mercy,
is one of the most evocative richly-historied tea names
Long before we were working with farmers to export tea, we were working as academic researchers in the field, and tea origin myths are some of the richest ground to explore. The oral tradition of tea folklore has passed down for hundreds of generations. Names and myths are not written in stone. They change, fade or resonate over time for the cultural and historical weight they carry with them.
Almost all tea mythology falls either into Taoist or Buddhist patterns.
The Taoist stories tend to revolve around eccentric immortals, happy accidents, and disguise. These stories reinforce the human role in nature. They credit tea to chance and to those who can open themselves up to even the most improbable opportunities. Regions holy to Taoism like Laoshan and Wuyishan are full of these kind of stories.
Tieguanyin falls into the Buddhist tea origin camp. Buddhist stories center around raising tea up and celebrating its historic role as an early medicine and as a tool or a step on the path of enlightenment. Tea in Buddhist stories is always a gift from above, a reward for dedication even in the face of suffering, and a chance to improve the lot of the community.
For Master Zhang, our farmer-partner in Daping Village in Anxi county, Tieguanyin is decidedly Buddhist in origin. He loves to take us out to his terraced mountain fields and show us how the springs water the tea, the birds take care of the insects, and the soil is perfectly balanced for water retention and nutrients. The hills of Daping are decidedly a gift from above, a boon of which he has the honor to steward in the modern age.
The story of Tieguanyin we are sharing below is pieced together from discussions with Master Zhang – Daping native and tea farmer, the Liu Family – tea farmers in Longjuan, Anxi, and our partner and co-founder Wang Huimin – devout Buddhist, and Fujian native who grew up with countless tea stories.
The Story of Tieguanyin
In a time of great strife, when warlords enforced arbitrary laws and armies trampled the fields of farmers, ritual and propriety were easily thrown aside to make room for the barest essentials of survival.
Temples were abandoned or seized by passing armies to house their soldiers. Farmers were turning over the majority of their yearly yield as exorbitant taxes to fund the luxuries of the nobility and fuel their wars.
There was a farmer in Anxi county, working the rocky mountain soil and struggling to make ends meet for his family. Farmers did not own the land they worked, and so he was forced to turn over most of his meager crop of cabbage and other vegetables to the local lord.
After a full day in the field, this farmer would scavenge the mountain forests for wild root vegetables, mushrooms and edible flowers. Only the natural bounty of Anxi’s beautiful slopes kept the family going. At night, he would thank Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of compassion and mercy, for her watchful kindness and her gifts – the means to survive off the land.
One evening around dusk, the devout farmer was out foraging further from home than he’d usually venture. He crossed over several mountain peaks to find an unknown area to dig bamboo shoots.
Deep in a bamboo grove, he spotted a fallen structure. When he approached the structure, almost entirely overgrown in vines, he jumped when he saw Guanyin’s unmistakable eyes gazing out at him. Her brows were bent in compassion, and her eyes were outlined in gold.
He bowed to the ground in reverence, thinking he’d been given a vision by the goddess herself. When he stood, the eyes were still there.
He approached the structure and cleared away some of the vines. He revealed a large statue of Guanyin, tipped over and leaning against fallen timbers. This iron casting was beginning to rust from neglect, but fine gold detail work and deep blue and pink enamel was still clear through the folds of Guanyin’s robes.
He felt as though Guanyin
were staring straight into his heart.
Right there, he knelt before the fallen statue and vowed to restore her forgotten shrine. He journeyed home that night with a pack full of fresh bamboo shoots and the haunting, lingering beauty of Guanyin’s gaze burning in his mind.
He shared his sacred vow with his family. His wife and children resolved to go forage in the hills every evening so that he could hike out to the shrine and fulfill his promise.
Every day after a dozen hours in the field, he went to the shrine. The first week, he came back full of thorns and scratches from clearing brush and vines. The second week, he used twisted ropes to pull the statue upright again. For another month, he polished the rust from the statue until the gold gilding and enamel work shone in the sun.
By high summer, when the days were longest and heat was most intense, neighbors began to gossip about the idle farmer off in the woods all evening who left his family to fend for themselves. Still, the farmer kept to his vow. This was a test from Guanyin herself. He felt he must prove his family’s devotion. If only they could continue forward together and restore her glory, they might restore her benevolence to their community.
It took almost a year to finish restoring the shrine. While the timbers had fallen, all the carving was still perfectly intact. He re-fit these pieces to new columns, re-laid the paving stones, and scoured and polished every surface.
The shrine was finally finished.
The farmer and his whole family went to pray to Guanyin on a crisp early spring night. They returned home tired, but with a feeling of true joy and contentment. Despite everything, they had restored a great work to their community.
That night, the farmer dreamt of Guanyin.
He was walking through the bamboo grove with nothing but moonlight to guide his path. Suddenly, a golden glow lit up the mountainside. The goddess Guanyin stood in her shrine. The goddess, not the statue, looked down on him with overwhelming compassion. She touched his hand, and he beheld a vision of happiness that spread like morning light. He opened his hand, and in it was a single leaf, green as jade with the aroma of Guanyin’s own lotus flower.
He woke with a start to find that dawn had just broken. He turned to tell his wife of his vision and found that she too was awake, startled by the same vision.
He hurried to the shrine. For the first time ever, he journeyed to the shrine before even going out to his fields. When he arrived, he saw Guanyin’s statue lit up gold in a ray of morning light. At the foot of the statue grew seedlings he had never seen there before. The fragrant jade leaves were just like those his dream.
He recognized the plant from diagrams and pictures from old healers passing through town. These were tea seedlings – a rarity enough on their own, but these were unlike any other. The medicinal tea of Shen Nong’s Encyclopedia of Medicine was bitter and vegetal. These special leaves smelled like sweet honey and lotus.
The farmer picked a few leaves from the plants growing around the shrine and brought them home to his family. Together, they brewed the fresh leaves in boiled spring water and passed around a bowl to taste Guanyin’s grace. The tea lifted them up and brought them a feeling of hope and renewed vigor. The water was thick and rich like drinking cream, the aroma like all the wildflowers of Anxi spring, and a sweet aftertaste that lingered all day.
They recognized this gift from Guanyin
as a chance to raise up the whole village.
As the tea plants grew throughout spring, they eventually flowered and made seeds. He gathered up all the seeds from the tea plants and cast them across the mountainside. Legend has it that new fully-formed tea plants sprouted from the ground the instant the seeds touched the rocky Anxi soil. This land so challenging for crops was the perfect cradle for a new kind of tea – one sweeter and more aromatic anything anyone had seen before.
Eventually, word of Guanyin’s tea spread across the land.
Soon, villagers in Anxi county were allowed to send a small tea harvest instead of food as their annual tax. Guanyin’s gift truly brought happiness and comfort to Anxi. When officials came to collect the tea, they asked the farmers what to call it.
The people named Guanyin’s gift Tie Guanyin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy, so that forever after people would remember the story of the iron Guanyin in her shrine. Only restoring the Iron Goddess to her rightful place could bring out the grace of the true goddess.
The tea that sprung so miraculously from the shrine
would carry on the name of the goddess –
all the way to the present day.
That story is more straightforward,
but it misses the heart of the myth.
Our partner-farmer and Anxi native Master Zhang confirmed our suspicions when he explained the history of Tieguanyin processing. Even in his childhood, forty or fifty years ago, Tieguanyin was not rolled as tightly as it is today.
Tieguanyin used to be lightly curled, with a rolled end and twisted end to resemble a tadpole or a dragonfly. This style is closer to Wuyi Oolong, and much lighter and fluffier feeling in the hand. This older processing technique would not have inspired the name “Iron” without another point of reference.
The iron statue of the myth is an important piece of lore.
The ruined shrine and humble cast iron statue are part of the collective memory of hard times – of strife and of suffering, with farmers caught between distant political intrigues. The iron statue and the restoration of the local shrine has resonated for centuries because it shows another side to the story. Even in times of hardship, there is beauty and inspiration, spiritual awakening and devotion beyond necessity.
Tieguanyin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy, is our connection back to that time when people first started making this tea. It is an acknowledgement of not only the divine gift – the weather, the mountains, and the springs – but also an acknowledgment of the labor and dedication behind tea.
An earlier version of this article was originally published in March, 2011.