Tea for Longevity: The Secrets of China’s Tie Guanyin

A cherished drink from the cradle of China's tea culture. | By Gabriel Fraga Del Cal

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Rolling and knitting Tie Guanyin into iron-hard balls is one of the toughest tasks of tea preparation and is usually performed by women. Photo: Gabriel Fraga Del Cal

Tea-picking is an art form and Tie Guanyin, the highest grade of Chinese oolong tea, has an interesting legend attached to its harvesting. Centuries ago, according to local folklore, Buddhist monks trained monkeys to climb trees and cliffs in order to pluck the purest leaves from places unreachable to humans. And although there’s no historical record of real tea-picking apes, Tie Guanyin is still called monkey-picked oolong tea.

Oolong teas are essentially semi-fermented traditional teas made by drying and oxidising long tea leaves in the sun. While there are many types of oolong in China, Tie Guanyin is considered the finest, and premium Tie Guanyins rate among the world’s most expensive teas.

Fuijan China

Tie Guanyin trade supports many families in Fujian. The best tea leaves are separated immediately and reserved for the highest bidders, often government officials and wealthy businessmen. Photo: Gabriel Fraga Del Cal

This delicate tea was first discovered in the 18th century in southern Fujian, a province in southeast China. Tea devotees have for long come to this region, particularly to Anxi and the Wuyi mountains. Fujian is considered the cradle of Chinese tea culture and the Fujianese are compulsive tea drinkers. They believe Tie Guanyin keeps them youthful and relaxed. Not only are they immensely proud of Tie Guanyin, they consider it a longevity potion that helps control weight, motivates brain activity, and counteracts cancer.

Tea China

Chinese tea drinkers prefer to use tea cups instead of mugs, so that you drink in small doses and the tea never gets cold. Photo: Gabriel Fraga Del Cal

Tie Guanyin has a distinctive, roasted flowery flavour, with hints of nectar and orchids. It is a delicate tea, drunk without sugar or milk. Black tea or chai drinkers may consider it bland in the beginning. Locals down several small cups during the day, but it is not supposed to be had on an empty stomach as it can cause extreme hunger. And while it contains a fair amount of caffeine, it does not make drinkers jittery the way black coffee can.

It is a common sight to see locals twisting thousands of leaves a day into balls as they sit by the streets of Fujian’s villages. This rolling, known as baorou, is still done by hand after the tea is processed and before it is dried. The technique gives Tie Guanyin and most Chinese oolong teas their distinctive ball-shaped appearance. The dried tea becomes quite hard and the leaves only open up when steeped in boiling water.

Unlike Indian tea, that is used just once, Tie Guanyin leaves are used for four to five infusions until it turns bitter. It is believed that new flavours arise with each infusion, even as the tea changes colour from yellow-green to brown.

Since the tea enhances cerebral function, it can trigger insomnia if had in large quantities. This is why it is brewed in the gongfu style, steeping the leaves for short periods to keep the tea light and reduce the effects of its caffeine.

Today the tea is grown in several places around China and Taiwan but the best place to taste it is still in the Fujian province, a fact that travelling tea connoisseurs know well. Locals here believe that both the tea and the deity it is named after—Guanyin is the Buddhist goddess of compassion—represent two characteristics considered invaluable in Chinese culture: elegance and power.

Taimushan National Geopark China

Foreign tourists are few in Fujian province, though it has many breathtaking and easy-to-access sights like the Taimushan National Geopark. Photo: Gabriel Fraga Del Cal

Foreign tourists are not so common in this mountainous area, but modern fast trains have unveiled a region that was so far only reserved for China’s most intrepid tea lovers and troops of mythical monkeys.

Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “Tea for Longevity”.

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