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Monkeys, Tea Leaves and Lies

July 25, 2008

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Osura Kosun, Monkey Reaching for the MoonAs I sat at my desk the other day, drinking a cup of Monkey-Picked Oolong, I speculated on the naming history of this tea and then hunted down some details to add to what I already knew. I expect that none of you will be too shocked to hear that Monkey-Picked Oolong is not, and never has been, picked by monkeys. In fact, traditionally it has been harvested by very little children dressed in monkey suits, which resulted in a legend about monkeys.

No, actually this is equally false and incredible. Legends, pernicious rumors, and marketing scams aside, high quality tea leaves must be plucked from tea bushes by adult human hands. Monkeys and children have neither the attention span nor the manual dexterity that a high-quality yield from the tea plants requires.

The spread of the monkey-picked tea legend to the West began after Englishman Aeneaus Anderson’s visit to China in 1793. The Chinese kept much information from him that they did not wish to divulge, and told Anderson that the Ti Kuan Yin oolong in Anxi County was picked by monkeys. He accepted this without empirical proof and then perpetrated the story in his writings about the expedition.

There are two primary legends surrounding the supposedly monkey-picked tea. One says that monks in Anxi tormented the monkeys who were hanging out in the upper levels of the camelia sinensis bushes, and that these annoyed monkeys tossed down the leaves at the monks in retribution. The other commonly heard story says that since the camelia sinensis bushes were tall and could not support much weight and, moreover, grew inconveniently on cliffs, monkeys devoted to their human overlords willingly went up and retrieved the leaves and handed them over. A more generally known, but no less fanciful, story is that monks very patiently have trained the monkeys to pick the tea leaves.

This belief that monkeys are involved in the production of some of the most expensive and highly-rated teas persists even today, of course. One of the best examples I found is at edible.com, whose product description goes as far as to present the latin name of the Rhesus Monkey as the source of tea-picking labor. While macaca mulatta does live in southern China, an area that encompasses Fujian province (and specifically Anxi County), individuals of the species are actually running about performing the same undisciplined tasks that monkeys worldwide perform – not picking delicate tea leaves. Many of the other retailers of Monkey-Picked Oolongs choose a more vague tactic, citing the colorful legends and suggesting that they might be true but are unverified rather than asserting that they are incontrovertible fact.

Kasora.com’s World of Tea has an excellent article debunking the belief in monkey tea pickers. It strikes me as ironic that some of the more expensive and highly-prized oolongs are called “monkey-picked” since monkeys are certainly not known for their refinement. However it does lend an element of exoticism to the tea, an all-too-common and very effective marketing strategy for goods like tea when they are sold in Western countries.

The image at the top of this post is from a Connecticut College’s Black’s Print Collection. It is called “Monkey Reaching for the Moon,” and is a lovely example from 1910 of Kacho-e (flower and bird prints) by Ohara Kosun (shosan) (1877-1945). As you can no doubt tell by his lazy and dreamlike grasp towards the reflection of the moon, he has never picked a leaf of tea in his life.

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