I’ve had the privilege of tweeting and G+‘ing with Derek Chew. Derek is the founder of Peony Tea S., is extremely knowledgeable about Chinese teas; shares some fabulous pictures of his tea and runs a retail tea company based in Singapore. I felt extremely flattered that he asked to write a guest post and here is his post on the origins of the name oolong. So, pop the kettle on, make a cup of tea, oolong is optional and enjoy this fabulous ar-TEAcle. Thanks for your con-TEA-bution Derek.
What’s in a name: the origins and hidden agenda of the name ‘Oolong’?
The name Oolong or wulong if spelled in hanyu pinyin is literally translated as ‘black dragon’. With a name like that you can count on there being a story behind the tale. In fact there are quite a number but let us look at 2 of the more popular ones and the hidden agenda behind them.
The Farmer Who Chased After the Rabbit
This tale has a number of versions but the gist goes like this:
There was a farmer who was had picked some tea leaves and placed it in the basket slung across his bag. He was on his way home when he saw a rabbit in his path. Spotting dinner, he gave chase.
Past the trees, crossing bushes in a single leap and overcoming numerous obstacles before the farmer finally captured his prey. All these acrobatics accomplished with his trusty basket in tow.
That night, as he sat down to enjoy the spoils of his hunts, he brought out his tea leaves to wash down a sumptuous meal when he discovered the aroma from the brewed leaves were simply divine.
He returned the next day to the bush where he picked those leaves and gathered a few again but the fragrance was considerably lessened. After some time, he surmised that it must have been related to the shaking and vibration in the basket while he was pursuing the rabbit.
The farmer experimented with shaking and tumbling the leaves until he finally came up with a finished product that captivated the people around him and the rest was history.
The farmer’s name was Hu Liang which sounded like Oh Leong or Black Dragon in the local Anxi dialect and eventually that name stuck.
The Dragon Tribute Tea
Another tale is more rooted in history than mythology. In the Tang and Song dynasties, the tribute teas of the day were produced in compressed ‘cake’ forms- not unlike the Pu-er bing of today- known as Long Feng Tuan or Dragon and Phoenix Bundle.
Wuyi Mountain was one of the foremost producers of Long Feng Tuan and the farmers thrived for generations. In 1391, their worlds came crashing to an end. The founder of the Ming Dynasty Emperor Hong Wu (or Zhu Yuan Zhang) came from a peasant background and empathized with the labor of the farmers. He abolished the Long Feng Tuan as he felt it was purely ornamental and was unnecessary work for the farmers. The producers of Wuyi Mountain were unable to cope with these changes and fell off the map.
Fast forward a couple of centuries, the Wuyi farmers experimented with the Songlo high-fired baking methods and eventually came up with a new type of tea. In remembrance of their earlier incarnation and the appearance of the new tea leaves, it was named Black Dragon or Oolong Tea.
The Hidden Agenda
Besides the element of mystique and drama, there was a hidden agenda- to establish either Wuyi Mountain or Minnan as the original birth place of oolong tea.
In China, there is an emphasis on being the originator as evidenced by a slogan that remains common today- “正宗原味” or “true ancestry, original taste”. If you go to Taiwan or China, these 4 words appear in numerous eateries as it is a common belief that the originator is the best.
These tales had an element unique to their place of origin and having a story not only created human interest but lent credence to the argument of them being the birthplace of oolong tea since it fit in with the history and culture of the place.
So when you hear a fancy story about some tea, remember there may be a hidden agenda behind it.
Derek Chew has never met a well-made oolong tea he didn’t adore.