Posted on April 03, 2015
Tea in China is strongly infused with social, mythical, and cultural relevance. One of the most heavenly teas of China is the celebrated oolong from Fujian province, Ti Kuan Yin. Named for the Iron Goddess of Mercy, Ti Kuan Yin is a variety of tea plant that produces a slightly astringent cup with delicate floral notes and a sweet lingering finish. (There are many different theories about the meaning of the term “iron” in the title. It could be the dark, twisted leaf looks a little like iron, or could be that Kuan Yin is often portrayed as being the protector of humanity, perhaps through her iron will.) Each year in China, an annual tea competition compares the crop of Ti Kuan Yin from numerous farms, and the winning tea has been known to fetch up to $20,000 a pound!
Clearly, this treasured tea has been sent from heaven, and in their recognition of this, the Chinese have named this tea after one of their most beloved deities, Kuan Yin.
Who is this Chinese Goddess, Kuan Shih Yin? Kuan Yin is the most worshipped deity of the Chinese world. She is the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, She Who Hears the Cries of the World, and Bringer of Children. Kuan Yin is the embodiment of kindness and human compassion. Unique in world mythology, she transcends all religious boundaries. She can be found in Buddhist temples, on sacred Taoist mountains, and in Shinto households. She even has a place in Christian homes. She is worshipped throughout China, Korea, and Japan, (as Kannon) as a deity who speaks directly to the common people. She is the one to be invoked in times of sickness, hardship, or danger, the one to whom to pray for children, or for deliverance from suffering.
Kuan Yin is believed to have “evolved” from the Buddhist Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, described in the Lotus Sutra as Lord who Hears the Cries of the World. When translated into Chinese, the title Avalokitesvara became Kuan Shih Yin. Slowly, over time, this male form of Kuan Yin evolved into a female form, perhaps to address the need of the people to recognize the divine feminine as patriarchal Buddhism gained popularity, overriding the older, more shamanic traditions of China. The gentle, loving nature of this deity touches the hearts of all who meet her, and today her image can be found in most homes in China. Countless legends and stories are told about the mercy of this deity, and her manifestations are many. But one such story tells of the origins of the famed variety of tea, Ti Kuan Yin, today considered one of China’s Ten Most Famous Tea’s.
The Story of Ti Kuan Yin
As retold by Sara Stewart Martinelli
Many many years ago, in the ancient days of China, there lived an old man named Wei. Wei was a devout follower of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion and Mercy, and proved his loyalty by maintaining a dilapidated old temple to the Goddess. The temple was hidden deep in the forest, where few travelers ventured, but despite his loneliness, Wei continued with his devotions. Each day, he swept and cleaned the entire temple, polished the old, chipped statue of Kuan Yin, and burned incense in her honor. Each night he spent time in meditation with Kuan Yin, and when he could, he left an offering of rice and fresh spring water to her at the altar.
Wei was old, and very very poor. Even in his extreme poverty, he managed to save a little to offer Kuan Yin, but he often went hungry and in those times, he would leave only a little flower blossom. On one such night, with his empty stomach and only a wilting blossom in hand, he stood in the flickering candlelight in front of the statue and prayed to Kuan Yin to alleviate his hunger and poverty. He told her of the illness and starvation that had befallen him and his neighbors.
That night, in a dream, Kuan Yin appeared to Wei. He dreamt he was floating on the sea in a small boat, with no oars or sails. Overhead, the night sky was filled with twinkling diamonds, and no land was in sight. The gentle waves lulled him softly as they lapped against the sides of his boat, and he felt no fear. After some time, he noticed a tiny star right on the horizon line. It slowly grew brighter and brighter, and as it rose into the night sky, it turned into the brightest moon that Wei had ever seen. As he stared at it, it slowly changed into a shining image of his beloved goddess, Kuan Yin. In her melodious voice, she told him that she had heard his cries for help and had come to offer her mercy. He must follow her instructions carefully, and his suffering would be alleviated. She told him that when he woke from his dream, he must climb the nearby mountain to its peak, where he would find a cave. Inside, he would find the means to improve his condition, but he must share this treasure with his neighbors in an act of generosity and compassion, just as Kuan Yin would do.
Wei woke early, before the sun rose above the horizon. He bundled himself in his warmest clothing, and set out upon the path. He began to slowly climb the steep mountain, painstakingly picking his way up the rocky trail toward the summit. As the sun rose in the sky, and the day passed, he stayed on his path, never wavering, but moving very slowly, for he was a very old man.
Finally, late in the afternoon, he reached the entrance to the cave. Upon peering in, all he could see was blackness. His faith for Kuan Yin gave him great courage, and he lit a candle and ventured in to the cavern. The cave seemed to twist and turn, as it went deep into the womb of the mountain. Finally, he came to a larger cavern that seemed to be the end of the cave, lit by a tiny shaft of light from a hole in the ceiling. There, growing on the cave floor, sitting amidst a tiny pool of dim afternoon light, was a tiny tea shoot.
Wei was disappointed that there was no treasure, but again, he trusted in his beloved goddess. He gently rocked the roots of this tea shoot from the rich soil of the cave floor, and wrapped it delicately in his cloak. He then began the long journey home to the temple, which took most of the night, as the darkness slowed him even more.
When he arrived home, the sun was just beginning to rise, and he carefully planted the tea shoot in the garden of the Temple of Kuan Yin. He nurtured the shoot like the gift of Heaven that it was, and it grew into a tea plant that produced a unique leaf. When Wei harvested this leaf and infused it, it gave off a magical aroma. The taste was like the ambrosia of the Gods. Wei knew that he had a tea like no other, and named the tea after his patron goddess, Kuan Yin. Word of this extraordinary tea spread, and eventually Wei was even processing tribute tea for the Emperor. Wei was generous and freely gave the seeds of the plant to his neighbors. Today, the Ti Kuan Yin variety of camellia sinensis grows all over this area of Anxi province and is beloved the world over.