If you’ve been drinking tea awhile and have been exploring beyond the basic black, you’ve come across teas with “monkey” in their name. For example, there’s White Monkey Paw Green Tea and 100 Monkeys White Tea, both from China. This leads to the question: What Do Monkeys Have to Do with Tea?
Several things, actually.
First, legends about monkeys persist. Monkeys have been part of local legends in tea growing countries, especially India and China, and therefore a part of the world of tea. One Chinese legend is about how 1000 Day Flower Green Tea was created. The King of Monkeys was demoted for eating all the Empress’ ripe peaches and, to make up for it, learned from some sympathetic monks to sew tea leaves together in the shape of peaches. These pleased the Empress, who restored him to his regal position.
Also, the idea of monkeys actually picking tea leaves has persisted for quite a few centuries. The veracity of such claims is highly questionable in spite of a company selling a tea actually named “Monkey Picked Tea.” One story says that this idea came about from a “tall tale” that a Chinese tea grower told a visiting British writer in 1793 in reply to him asking how tea was picked. This was when the Chinese were still the only tea growers in the world and wanted to keep their tea secrets to themselves. Another story states that, monkeys being the great imitators of human behavior that they are, they began picking tea leaves as they saw monks and other humans around them doing.
Of course, monkeys and humans have had close relations for a long time. Monkeys are very imitative and can form close attachments with some humans they live near. Including them in the lore about something that humans like very much, such as tea, seems only natural.
In other instances, teas are named after how the processed leaves appear. Gunpowder tea is a well-known example, since the tightly rolled leaves look like tiny gun pellets. White Monkey Paw Green Tea is so named because the processed leaves are said to resemble monkey paws. Not sure I see that, but when you’ve just spent long hours processing tea, your eyes could start playing tricks on you.
Some Monkey Lore
India — The Hindu Monkey god Hanuman is said to be loyal, brave, devoted, strong, and dedicated to justice; he’s also connected to elements in nature (wind, thunder, and sun). As such, monkeys are generally revered for looking like, well, monkeys. Or should I say, like the monkey god?
China — The monkey god Sun-Wukong, also known as the Monkey King, was a trickster god (like the coyote to many American Indian tribes). A classic 16th-century novel, The Journey to the West (Xi You Ji or Hsi Yu Chi), has a monkey as its most popular figure, one that also occurs in opera and comic books in China.
Monkeys in the Chinese Zodiac
For people born in either 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, or 2004: You are intelligent and witty, and well-liked due to your extraordinary nature and magnetic personality. You tend to be opportunistic and distrustful of other people. You often have success in any field you try. (Good news for those of you growing, producing, selling, and enjoying tea.)
So, do monkeys really pick tea?
My research is inconclusive. There are a few tea vendors out there that swear they do. There are others who not only say they do not, but consider the label “monkey picked” demeaning to the hard-working humans who spend their days in the tea fields doing the actual picking. Still others claim that “monkey picked” refers to a top tier tea made from typically wild thicker leaves or rarer more precious leaves and buds.
Never mind. No matter which is true, monkey tea is “more fun than a barrel of…”
Fortunately, you can also buy tea accessories with monkeys on them (mugs, teapots, T-shirts, etc.). There is even a teapot to commemorate 2004, the “Year of the Monkey.”
Be witty. Steep up a potful of monkey tea. Then, sit back and sip the fun!
If you’d like to learn more about the stories behind tea, make sure to check out A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!