The Name Game

Winnie Yu

[A]ccording to Taoism, the forces of nature must be respected. In a classic Chinese landscape painting, man is depicted as the smallest object, and the looming mountains and clouds are the most prominent. Compare this to a Western painting from the Renaissance for example, where the human subject is large and looming, and the natural environment occupies the margins of the painting. For the Chinese understand that without nature, man is inherently insignificant. It is therefore understandable that of all of the thousands of teas in China, none were specifically named after a person, not even after any of the many emperors who were often responsible for naming them. (There was no audacious Chinese person the equivalent of Earl Grey!)

Chifu Yu

Chifu Yu

Most individual teas are named after their places of origin, the most common being the mountains where many are found. Huang Shan Mao Feng, and Lu Shan Yun Wu are examples of homages to their mountains. Lu Shan in particular, is full of poetry and mythology, a most revered mountain in its own right, named after the cauldron of Lao Tzu. Poets and historians travelled far and wide to pay respects, and the poet Su Dong Po once lamented, “Regretfully, I was never able to see the real face of Lu Shan,” because while he lived on the mountain for three months, there was not a single clear day. Lu Shan is known to be blindingly foggy, for something like 260 days of the year, and the teas that grow there have tiny little curls of leaves that fight hard for sunlight. The resulting tea is very rich and dark green, and the locals named it Lu Shan Yun Wu, yun meaning cloud, and wu meaning fog or mist, the tea a definite product of clouds and mist. In the case of Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), considered the most breathtakingly picturesque mountain in China, the tea was named Mao Feng or “Hair Peak,” each immature leaf bud pointy like the peaks of the sheer rocks that jut out of the mountain top. These names do not merely serve to identify, they evoke the majesty of the singular mountains they spring from.

Mythology also plays a big part in the naming of teas. Almost every notable tea has a myth attached to it, and whether invented after the names were given, or named along with their myths, varies from tea to tea. Many myths were similar, involving a supernatural Taoist or Buddhist deity who pointed the way.

Once upon a time, an upright government official fled from his post with his elderly mother because corruption was rampant in the government and he resigned in disgust. On their journey, they came upon a lush green mountain, with a fragrance that floated gently out to greet them. They asked an old man by the road with snow white hair and long white eyebrows, where that fragrance came from. He pointed to a cluster of eighteen white peony flowers growing along the lotus pond, and said the fragrance came from there. Thoroughly enchanted, they settled in a dilapidated temple there, and tended the flowers and renovated.

One day the elderly woman fell gravely ill, and the official didn’t know where to find medicine. Falling asleep with exhaustion, he dreamt that he saw that white haired old man again, who told him to “make sure you make medicine out of carp and new tea buds.” He woke up, and was shocked when he learned that his mother had had the same dream. He immediately caught some carp, but where would he find new tea buds in the middle of winter? Suddenly, he heard a crackling sound, and all eighteen bushes of peony flowers had turned into tea bushes. There were silver white buds everywhere, and not only did the bushes continue to resemble peony flowers, the fragrance was quite reminiscent of the flowers as well. His mother was immediately cured. The official carefully propagated these plants and shared them with the locals.

To commemorate these extraordinary bushes, they thereafter called the tea White Peony Longevity Brows because the buds resembled the arched white eyebrows of the immortal who first pointed the bushes out to the official.

As has been said, “the taste of Zen and tea are one,” and so Buddhism and tea are inextricably linked. The most commonly known story is that of Tieguanyin, or “Iron Bodhisattva of Compassion,” an oolong tea from Anxi province in China.

Long ago a poor farmer prayed fervently for help from Guanyin (Japanese: Kannon) to raise enough money to revive the abandoned Buddhist monastery that once served their village. One night the farmer dreamt that she appeared and led him to a steep part of the mountain, and pointed to a tea plant growing there. The next day the farmer sought out the part of the mountain in his dream, and indeed, found the tea plant. After propagating this carefully and making tea with it, he found that it was of extremely high quality and very fragrant. Consequently, he named the tea after his patron Bodhisattva, and noting that the leaves were fleshier and heavier than those of other teas, reminiscent of the weight of metal pellets in his hands, he named the tea “Iron,” or “Tie,” Guanyin. Of course this tea proved to be a wild success, generating enough money to revive the monastery.

But Tieguanyin had another more Confucian legend attached to it, and many suggest that this may be the true story. A scholar named Wang from Anxi was studying hard for his magistrate’s exam in the 1700s when his eyes wandered to a bush with shiny, dark green leaves. Filled with curiosity, he picked some leaves and processed it that night like he would any other tea, for he suspected that these bushes were very similar to other tea bushes nearby. The resulting tea was extremely fragrant and intoxicatingly complex and fruity. Quite impressed, he took some of this tea with him the next day to his exam at the capital. The story varies here, with some accounts suggesting that not having done so well in his exam, Wang presented some of this tea as a bribe to the examiner. The examiner knew that the then Emperor Qian Long loved tea, so he re-routed the gift. Sure enough, the emperor was astonished at its quality and uniqueness, and subsequently named it ‘”Beautiful like the Guanyin herself, the leaves weighty in the hands like metal,” or Tieguanyin. A shrine remains where Wang’s house once was, next to the original tea bushes from the 1700s.

Qian Long’s grandfather, the Emperor Kang Xi, was much more practical. Once upon a time, he was visiting Dong Ting, a renowned picturesque lake. He witnessed the way the locals harvested their tea, by very carefully placing the young leaves on their chests under their clothes, so that soon their body heat caused the fragrance of the leaves to float gently up and down the mountain. They presented the emperor with tea made from these tiny little spirals of leaves. Thoroughly pleased, the emperor asked what this excellent tea was called. The locals replied, “Xia Sha Ren Xiang” (or, “So fragrant it stuns a person to death”). The emperor thought that was a coarse and uneducated name, and decided to rename it Bi Luo Chun, bi meaning jade green, luo meaning little snails, and chun meaning spring time. The leaves were bright and green like jade, they were the tiniest spirals that resembled snails, and harvested in the spring only. Bi Luo Chun is one of the most renowned green teas today.

There was once a magistrate whose mother fell ill. Desperate to seek a remedy, he sought for help far and wide. He heard that at Mount Wuyi in Fujian, there were miraculous medicinal plants that could cure many ills. The locals there pointed him to some bushes that grew on the cliffs and rocks atop the mountain. Upon securing some leaves and brewing them, he found that these were called tea. His mother was miraculously cured from this brew. Moved immensely by what a powerful plant this was, the magistrate hiked up to the top of Mount Wuyi, removed his red robe, lit incense and set up an altar for ceremony, and placed his robe at the foot of the tea bush. The red robe was a symbol of the highest position in the government next to the emperor himself, and offering it as a gift was the highest honor, befitting the most important Confucian relationship of all, that of parent and child. Thereafter tea growing on those cliffs was called Da Hong Pao or “Big Red Robe.”

Most names though, even without such profound legends attached, are reflective of the thought processes of the growers. For example, Yellow Gold Osmanthus oolong, (Huang Jin Gui), a notable oolong from Fujian, is so named because at one time this tea was so sought after that demand far exceeded supply, and so customers lamented that the tea was like yellow gold (huang jin), the most expensive kind of gold. Gui refers to its fragrance that resembled osmanthus flowers. In fact, many teas were named for their fragrances. The most representative of this are the Feng Huang Dan Chong teas, single grove teas the size of trees, grown in Phoenix Mountain (Feng Huang) and each bearing a different fragrance. Some were named Honey Fragrance (Mi Xiang), the most common is Orchid Fragrance (Zi Lan Xiang), and more esoteric ones like Ginger Flower Fragrance (Jiang Hua Xiang) are also well known. The most perplexing one is the Eight Immortals (Ba Xian), because most of us do not have a reference for what Taoist immortals smell like. At one politically correct time, one of the oldest, rarest, 400-year-old Dan Chong trees was re-named The East is Red (Dong Fang Hong) when Chairman Mao declared it his favorite of all the Phoenix Mountain oolongs. Shortly after his death, that tree reverted to its original name, the Song Dynasty Offspring (Song Zhong), signifying its age, as the original Song dynasty tree was over 1,000 years old.

Farmers will also name their teas after their natural environments. Bamboo Leaf Green tea, or Zhu Ye Qing, is named after not only the stout, dense, dark green bamboo groves and leaves that cohabitate with the tea bushes grown at E Mei Shan, but the tea tips themselves rather resemble pointy bamboo leaves, and are suggestive of the fragrance of bamboo. You can even watch the leaves drop to the bottom of your cup as they infuse, much like bamboo leaves floating gently to the ground in the wind.

When no poetic imagery could be mustered, farmers would name their teas after other familiar images. Some of the most prized green teas were named Que She or Bird’s Tongue, or sometimes, Sparrow’s Tongue. One can imagine the fine tiny tips of the tea plants the size of only a bird’s tongue, and how much work it takes to harvest them. If you think harvesting tiny tea tips is difficult, how about the Ma Lao Meet, a tea name only found in Cantonese referring to Monkey Picked Tieguanyin. This name all but implies that trained monkeys were sent to harvest teas because the mountains are too high and grades too steep for humans to access (not that they really do of course!). Speaking of monkeys, a tea named White Haired Monkey (Bai Mao Hou) is a green tea completely covered in snowy white down, and found to grow only in the high hills behind Snow Peak Monastery in Fuzhou, and the farmers thought this resembled the white haired macaques who roam those mountains.

When East and West meet, the value systems of each quickly become apparent. Once, the Queen of England was supposedly presented with an expensive tea she enjoyed so much that she named it Taiwan Beauty, as beautiful as the people of Taiwan, she said. The citizens of Taiwan however, do not call their tea that, changing it to Eastern Beauty (Dong Fang Mei Ren), a more inclusive name. There were other variations, such as Bai Hao oolong, which meant White Downy oolong (referring to the white tips often appearing on the leaves), or Wu Cai (prounounced “chai”), Five Color oolong, referring to the red, brown, green, white, and black leaves found altogether in this ensemble of this unusual tea. But some foreign merchants, for commercial purposes, went on to call this particular tea Champagne Oolong, decidedly not in keeping with the traditions of naming teas by the Chinese. As for the growers in Taiwan themselves, they call that Peng Feng Cha, which means exaggeration, or actually, “bullshit,” tea. There you have the perceived value of a tea by foreigners versus the growers who knew better.

Tea has enjoyed thousands of years of culture and good will in the lives of Asians. Tea names are relics that give us glimpses of what mattered; the values and worldviews of the people are inseparable from their teas. But don’t get me started on the contemporary trends in fanciful commercial tea names in the US today…

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Winnie Yu

Author's Bio

Winnie Yu is the founder and chief executive officer at Teance, an innovative tea importer/ distributor / retailer based in Berkeley California. A Hong-Kong born graduate of UC Berkeley, she has been a financial consultant for the past fifteen years.


Chifu Yu is a contemporary artist originally from China whose modern abstract work is based on traditional Chinese ink and brush painting. He has received the Firenze Biennale Lorenzo de Medici Gold Medal.