Some of the myths and legends we hear about tea are shrouded in the mysteries of the past. Others are quaint little stories we tell ourselves to make the origins of some of the teas sound more interesting, even though we are well aware that the stories aren’t real. However, when it comes to the legend of “monkey-picked” tea, it was a tale that was deliberately invented and perpetuated by Chinese merchants in order to boost tea sales in a time where tea was relatively unknown and novel to the Western World.
When Western traders first traveled over to China during the early 16th century, tea was unusual and exotic, and Westerners had no real conception of how it was made. This meant tea merchants could embellish and invent stories to raise the prestige of their product. At the tail end of the 1700s, an Englishman named Aeneas Anderson visited China to research and record the customs and manners of the Chinese people. Although he’d never seen any monkey at any of the tea plantations during his stay, he retold the stories he heard about tea-picking monkeys in his book upon return to England.
The monkey-picked tea legend was subsequently re-told in a number of ways. The first is that the best tea plants in all of China grew high up on mountain cliffs in the Fujian province, and so the legend says that local farmers trained monkeys to climb up the otherwise unreachable cliffs to pick the precious leaves. Another version is that monks who were looking for the best quality oolong tea purposefully angered monkeys that lived on mountain peaks so that the primates would throw down branches of tea leaves in a fit of rage. Obviously, once the realization was made that Monkeys could not be trained to pick the delicate flowers of a tea plant, the jig was up.
Even so, the name “monkey-picked” still functions as an interesting marketing tool to this day. So what is monkey-picked tea really, other than an interesting name for a variety of tea? In today’s world monkey-picked tea describes one of the highest quality oolong teas that has a fresh and earthy aroma. While the disappointment of monkeys not being involved still lingers, the leaves are hand-picked and carefully treated, so well worth a try!