Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Origin of Fenghuang Oolong Tea (i)

Legend has it that the Fenghuang mountains are the birthplace of the She Nationality1, and therefore it is also the origin of oolong tea.  During the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties, wherever the She people were to be found there were oolong tea bushes cultivated.  The fate of the She people is one unseprable from oolong tea.  They live and flourish in the same areas.  During the Sui dynasty, an earthquake caused a volcanic eruption, and all of the tea bushes in the whole area of Gouwangliao in the Fengniaoji mountains2, the native home of the ancestors of the She people, were killed by the fire.  The only places where gardens remained was in Wudong mountain and Daizhao mountain.3  Following the movement of some of the She people to the east, oolong cultivars were brought to Fujian.  Today, most of the residents of Shiguping village in Fenghuang Town4 are She, Shiguping village's mostly produces Shiguping oolong tea which is one of the famous cultivars of Fenghuang oolong.
  During the Song dynasty, the people of Fenghuang town found a "red fungus tea bush5" with red leaves which were sharp like a bird's beak.  When this was processed and imbibed, they thought this was even better than oolong tea, so they began to experiment with cultivating it.  At this point in time, the Song emperor Zhao Bing6 was being chased by Mongolian troops, he fled south into Chaozhou.7 From this time the legend amoung the people about the emperor Zhao Bing started.  "Zhao bing was on the road to Wudong mountain, and was unbearably thirsty. The mountainfolk offered him the liqour of the 'red fungus tea.' After drinking it he praised the tea, saying it was good." Because of this the people called this 'Song Variety' tea.  Because of these stories, Fenghuang teas probably originated during the Song Dynasty.  With the already supernatural name of Fenghuang (phoenix), upon hearing the story of the thirsty emperor Zhao Bing and his praise of the tea, the name 'birds beak tea' became slowly more and more popular amongst the people.
  Another story has it that the mountain people of Fenghuang heard that the Song emperor was fleeing towards Fenghuang mountain, and boiled tea to welcome his illustrious imperial highness... This story shows that Fenghuang tea already existed during the Song Dynasty.  Some say that Fenghuang tea has a history of over 900 years, some say more than 1000.  Professor Yan Xuecheng of the South China Agricultural University8 isolated a sample of cells from a Fenghuang tea leaf.  From his tests and analysis of the sample he found that the cuticle was of a primitive type.  From these results it can be infered that the history of Fenghuang tea is much older than 1000 years.
  From the time of the first people of Fenghuang mountain discovering and exploiting 'red fungus' to the time of the Ming dynasty; from wild to cultivated; from digging up and transplanting young shoots to using seeds and finally to artificial propagation techniques the people of Fenghuang are constantly practicing careful propagation, screening,ever aggregating experience in order for constant optimization of the tea, and constant development of tea production.

2 凤鸟髻山狗王寮
3 乌岽山, 待诏山
4 凤凰镇石古坪村  The term fenghuang means phoenix in Chinese.  It is the name of a township, and the name of a mountain range in the prefecture of Chaozhou.  Since the tea comes from this area, it is also called phoenix tea.  I hope my translation is clear enough so that the reader can tell when the text refers to each one, and that it is not cofusing.
5 红菌茶树
6 赵昺
7 潮州 Chaozhou is a prefecture in the far east of Guangdong province near Fujian.  The dialect in Chaozhou is actually more similar to Fujian dialect than to Guangzhou dialect.
8 Yan Xuecheng 严学成 教授(professor) of 华南农业大学(South China Agricultural University

My Notes
This is the first I have heard of the She people being the first cultivators of oolong varieties of tea, although this does not prove anything.  Much of the legendary parts of this are open for debate, but then again, some legends do have basis in fact.  I am not sure of the usefulness of this bit of text, but it should serve to edify the translator and perhaps a curious reader or two as to some of the legends surrounding the origins of this wonderful tea.  It does suggest further research - vis. the work of professor Yan Xuecheng of South China Agricultural University.  I plan to do three more short translations from this book about the development of Fenghuang Tea and historical varieties.

This exerpt is taken from a book called 凤凰但从 of the publisher's series 中国名茶丛书 from the publisher 中国农业出版社.  ISBN 7109108759.  This exerpt is from pages 5-6.  My previous post on this same blog of a list of names was an effort to organize all of the names of bushes I found throughout this book.

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