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Oolong tea: the history behind the name of the tea

For tea connoisseurs and specialty tea lovers, oolong tea is usually on their radar, as part of their tea appreciation journey. Oolong differentiates itself among the world of tea by the complex processing it involves to produce tastes not only complex but sustainable after several steepings.  Because it is so complex that the simplest way to make it understandable to the masses usually ends up in three words: a semi-oxidized tea.

But other than knowing oolong tea from a technical perspective, have you ever wondered what the name “oolong tea” means, and if there’s a history associated with its coming into being? Many people may be surprised to learn that the name oolong was not created on a whim for marketing purpose nor based on any geographic location where the tea was originated, but rather it stemmed from a 280-plus year legend in China. Or a legend with two variations.

Impact of Sun Withering

The first version of the legend went like this. In the early eighteenth century during Chinese Emperor Yongzheng’s reign (1722 – 1735 AD), a tea farmer from a village in the south-eastern Chinese province, Fujian, went to the mountains to pluck fresh leaves from wild tea trees (note: at that time all tea trees grew in the wild, and there were no manmade tea plantations) as the ingredient for green tea, the only type of tea produced at that time. On his way home in the woods, he encountered a black snake. He immediately dropped his basket and ran for his life.

He waited for a while for the black snake to be gone before returning back to the mountains to fetch his tea basket. To his alarm, the edge of fresh green leaves had turned red (a sign of oxidization). Just when he was frustrated at the sight of oxidized leaves, he smelled in the air very pleasant aroma coming out from the withered leaves. He later processed the leaves into tea. To remember how this tea came into being because of his accidental encounter with the black snake, he named it oolong tea.

 Withering causes oxidation in tea leaves

Oolong Tea = Black Snake Tea

 In Chinese language, oolong is written in two Chinese characters: oo (烏) + long (龍).

The word black in Fujian dialect (not in Chinese) pronounced as “oo”, and the word dragon in both Chinese language and Fujian dialect pronounced as “long.” There were two explanations on why a dragon was used to replace a snake in the naming of the tea: first, a snake was a symbol of a dragon, which was a fictional transformation of a Chinese emperor and thus a symbol of royal; second, most people disliked black snakes and preferred dragons instead. So, in this version of the legend, oolong tea literally means black snake tea.

Dry leaves of Wenshan Pochong Oolong

Do the above dry leaves of Pouchong Oolong look like black snakes to you?

Discovery of Oolong Cultivar

The second version of the legend went like this. In the eighteenth century of Qing Dynasty, all tea trees in the Fujian province grew in the wild and there were various tea cultivars among them. But a black snake liked to wrap its body around a particular tea tree. The black snake was friendly to humans and did not bite even when tea farmers extended their hand to pluck leaves from the tea tree. The farmers later noticed that the tea produced from these leaves of this particular cultivar carried great flavors and tastes. They initially named it “black snake tea,” but most people considered the name “black snake tea” vulgar and renamed it to “oolong tea,” based on the two same explanations in the first version.

Although the two versions of the legend may seem similar in terms of the evolvement of the name from black snake tea to oolong tea, my take on the first version is that it shed light on the accidental discovery of the positive impact of sun withering on the tastes. On the second version, it was more about the impact of a right choice of cultivars that would be able to produce perfect tastes.

 

Articles you may also be interested from Wen's TaiwanTea:

What is the tea-making process of Taiwan green, Oolong, and black tea?

How to categorize Taiwan teas by oxidization?

 


Cecilia Fino-Chen
Cecilia Fino-Chen

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