Myths & Legends of Tea, Volume 1

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Storytelling at its best. … This is a must read for those who have already heard the myths and know the legends. Gary creates a whole new take on what we already know and adds sophisticated wit and humor along the way.”
— Jo Johnson, Scandalous Tea

Gary Robson is both a tea expert and a storyteller. He is as much in love with the stories of different tea styles as he is with the tea itself. He was frequently found standing in his tea shop telling the tales as they were originally told to him — or as he found them in the course of reading about tea. Many of these wondrous stories are far too short. The poor farmer who cleaned up a temple and was given Tieguanyin oolong as his reward by the goddess. The mandarin who added bergamot oil to an English earl’s tea to compensate for the calcium in the water and created one of the western world’s most popular teas. The tea master who performed one last tea ceremony after he was ordered by his daimyo to commit seppuku.

He has taken each of these tales and retold it in his own style. Some of the stories are entirely legend, their origins lost in the mists of time. Some are based heavily on fact. Some will be familiar to any tea aficionado. Some are purely the product of his own imagination. In all of them, he focuses on building a sense of the time, the setting, and the characters — bringing the stories of tea to life.

This first volume in the series features seven stories (see below), each accompanied by a profile of the tea featured in the story. The stories span six countries (China, Japan, England, U.S., Taiwan, and Australia) and over 4,700 years.

Gary has a gift for making history come to life, and this book has become a fast favorite of mine. His tales span centuries and continents, and you’ll find it hard to come up for air once you dive in. I’m relieved to see that this book is noted as Volume 1, because I can’t wait to see what he’ll write about next.
Jen Piccotti, An International Tea Moment


 

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Origin of Tea

China, 2737 BC

One of the most-recited myths in the tea world is that of Shennong, the legendary Chinese emperor who introduced agriculture to China, worked extensively with herbs to create the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, and invented acupuncture. In working with herbs, Shennong discovered that boiling water somehow made even “bad” water healthy to drink. One day, Shennong settles under a tree to relax with a cup of hot water. As he rests and waits for the water to cool, leaves from the tree blow unnoticed into his cup. After a while, he notices a heavenly aroma. He raises the cup to his lips and becomes the first man to enjoy what is now the world’s most popular drink.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Tea, Serenity & Death

Japan, 1591 

It is never wise to offend a daimyo, as Tea Master Sen no Rikyū discovers when his patron Toyotomi Hideyoshi commands Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Rikyū, who developed the Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today, asks Hideyoshi for permission to conduct one last ceremony. Rikyū shares his philosophy, his poetry, and the beauty and serenity of the tea ceremony with four of his disciples. Each is given a gift and all but one of his disciples, Zen priest Nanpō Sōkei, leave the tearoom. Rikyū hands him a sword. It is time.

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761

During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, a poor farmer by the name of Wei is walking to market. He notices a crumbling abandoned temple of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Every time he passes the temple, Wei stops for a while to fix it up. He works on the pathway, the gates, the temple building, and the statue of the goddess. When he finishes, the goddess appears to him in a dream and gives him a reward: the tea plant that becomes the heart of one of the greatest oolong teas.

Earl Grey: This Water Sucks!

England, 1806 

Lord Charles, soon to become the second Earl Grey, is content at his home in Howick Hall, save one unhappy thing: the water is terrible, and it produces quite an inferior cup of tea. He and Lady Grey have experimented to no avail, and they finally turn to a tea expert for help. Chen shows up at Howick with a huge chest of tea and a virtual mobile laboratory of bottles and vials containing everything from essential oils to ground herbs. We know the rest. Even though Charles goes on to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his own fame will be eclipsed by the tea that bears his name.

Teatime in Georgia: The Birth of Southern Sweet Tea

United States, 1870 

One oft-repeated story is that iced tea was invented in 1904 by a vendor named Richard Blechynden at the St. Louis World’s Fair. He was having little luck selling hot tea, says the story, and dropped ice cubes in the tea, creating the first iced tea. Nice story, but it doesn’t account for the 1879 cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, which includes a recipe for iced Southern sweet tea. Where did iced tea really come from? Our version of the legend is set in Georgia, where a lady named Harriet Suggett is struggling to come up with an alternative to the popular alcoholic tea punches of the day for an event that includes members of the rapidly-growing temperance societies.

Oriental Beauty: The Braggart’s Tea

Taiwan, 1931 

Huang is very good at keeping his head down. He comes from a prominent family that has been farming in Beipu for many generations, but since his father and brother were killed in the uprising almost 25 years ago, Huang has tried not to draw too much attention to himself. When his tea crop is destroyed by leafhopper insects, he is near despair. That field of tea is all that he and his mother, Lin, have to live on. The leaves are chewed, the tips have gone white, and his neighbors have already given up. But Huang doesn’t give up so easily!

Post-apocalyptic Earl Grey

Australia, 20 years from now

The zombie apocalypse has spread mercilessly across the country. Only small pockets of the uninfected remain. Sam’s band of survivors is a small one, and they have resigned themselves to a long and difficult road ahead. It will be a much easier road, though, if they can only lay their hands on some tea. Earl Grey, perhaps. Little do they know how much that tea will change their lives…

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