We get a lot of questions about the name of this exquisite tea. And, there seems to be a lot of mis-representation of this tea on the Internet. So, let me explain and try to untangle the confusion. Because, everyone who loves tea, especially those of you who are oolong tea fanciers, must experience the intense floral bouquet and lavish flavor of this highly revered tea. Click here to buy
First, let me say that this tea is not plucked by monkeys. What is there about the beguiling nature of monkeys that allows otherwise sane and often skeptical human beings into believing that trained monkeys actually pick some types of Chinese tea ?
Now make no mistake, I enjoy a colorful yarn as much as anyone, and Chinese folk legends are especially fanciful, emblematic and richly-embellished by those who add news twists and turns to the story with each retelling.
But it it time to declare the enchanting tea legend of Money-Picked tea as just that – a legend. Unfortunately, there are several tea websites today that claim that their Monkey Picked tea is…..plucked carefully by hand by trained monkeys. Second and third generation trained monkeys at that. Pleeeeeese…..if I hear this nonsense one more time, I will scream.
Where did this notion come from ? Perhaps it stems from the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, the main character in the book Journey to the West written by Wu Ch’eng-en, a scholar official in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). This book is a renowned classical Chinese story about an allegorical journey, that is complete with Chinese tales, legends, superstititions, popular beliefs, and Buddhist and Daoist ideals.
Monkey King is a bit of a scamp, and his adventures are a thinly veiled political/social satire layered with meaning and innuendo. He is a simple creature who gained powers far greater than those of Superman – he attained the level of a Chinese Immortal – and he gets himself in and out of a peck of trouble.
Or perhaps these ideas harken back to the late 1700’s during the early days of the China Tea Trade with England. Spice and tea traders, explorers and visiting dignitaries underscored everything about this far away place as exotic, colorful and fantastic. The notion of ‘fantastic’ is certainly true in early illustrations, prints and watercolors that present delightful images of small monkeys scampering up and down tea trees in idyllic locales, nimbly tossing fistsfull of tea leaves to humans standing below among tea baskets lined up waiting to be filled.
As engaging as these images are, anyone who has encountered monkeys in the wild know that it is far more likely that these mischevious animals will lob fruit at your head, and that bands of audacious, barking resident monkeys frequently harrass visitors in forested wildlife areas, demanding food for passage. Such experiences debunk any notion that co-operative tea plucking ever occurred between monkeys and humans. It is an outlandish notion, even in a ‘fantastic’ time.
Or perhaps the term just meant something different to the Chinese than to Westerners. The first teas exported to the West came from the Wuyi Mts. in northern Fujian Province, and were most likely early versions of what we know today as oolong and black teas. Later, a differennt style of oolong tea was developed in the south of Fujian – Tieguanyin tea – so named for GuanYin, the Chinese goddess of Mercy. Tieguanyin teas have always been highy prized, and as with all Chinese tea, many grades of quality of this tea exist. When tea producers bestow the term ‘Monkey Picked’ to his tea, it is a designation that means unrivaled quality because one of two reasons:
1. that this particular batch of tea came from a tea garden located at a very high elevation ( the higher the elevation, the finer the leaf and the finer the tea ) 2. that the tea was plucked from tea bushes growing in difficult to reach places; ie. nearly inaccessible places that require the tea pluckers be ‘as agile as a monkey.’
I also think that there is a third, veiled meaning to the term ( don’t all Chinese legends have a veiled meaning? ) During the Song, Ming and Ching dynasties, tribute gifts ( offerings to the emperor ) included rare and costly teas that were cultivated, plucked and prepared exclusively for the enjoyment of the emperor. Perhaps the term began to be used to signify tea that was ‘out of reach’ of the average person. Tea for the emperor and his court would never be available to the average citizen – hence, out of reach in cost and out of reach in availability.
Or perhaps the story was ( and I like this idea as well ) quite simply an easy joke played on the naive European traders by the worldly, tea-savvy Chinese back in the 18th century ! Could they ever have imagined that 300 years later, there would still be those amongst us who ……still believe this story to be true ?