“The Romance of Tea” by Yan Phou Lee

I can’t quite put my finger on what it is but there’s something about tea that sometimes inspires its fans to flights of literary and poetic fancy. This is something that’s been going on for quite some time now.

Maybe they were enjoying this "A Lasting Impression Thank You" gift basket (Photo source: The English Tea Store)
Maybe they were enjoying this “A Lasting Impression Thank You” gift basket (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

I’ve written about a number of rather epic pieces of English verse about tea dating back as far as the early eighteenth century and I’d wager that Chinese poets were tackling this topic much earlier than that. Here’s one of my most recent articles about tea poetry, which contains links to previous articles.

As I was browsing through back issues of The Yale Literary Magazine from the late nineteenth century the other day (not really, but play along) I happened across one that contained a curious piece called The Romance of Tea. It first appeared in the February 1885 edition of the magazine and was credited to an author named Yan Phou Lee, who also penned a piece for the next month’s edition called The Schoolmaster’s Hobby. Lee was apparently one of a number of Chinese exchange students, of sorts, who came the U.S. in 1880 and who later graduated from Yale.

The Romance of Tea is a fanciful yarn on the origin of tea. The author claimed that it came from a Chinese document “which accidentally fell into his hands.” Said document claimed that seven thousand years earlier, “when men had just emerged from the baboon state,” a beautiful maiden named Oolong lived in China’s Bohea mountains.

The author devotes a fair amount of space describing this woman’s charms and goes on to say that of the many young lads who came around, hoping to court her, was “a certain noble youth named Hyson,” who had been a pal of Oolong’s when they were children. The pair had pledged to be married but then drifted apart. When they reunited, they determined to make good on the pledge until Oolong fell ill.

Fortunately Hyson has a dream around this time, in which he is advised to dip Oolong’s hands in boiling water. Rather than being the terrible piece of advice that it first sounds like, this turns out to work quite well. But since the entire piece suffers a bit from being summarized, I’ll leave to the reader to peruse it and discover the ending for themselves. Check it out here.

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