January 2002 Issue
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Ti Kuan Yin: Iron Goddess of Mercy

by Diana Rosen

Ti Kuan Yin Statue

Ti Kuan Yin Tea

Ti Kuan Yin (aka Guanyin,) the famous oolong tea with leaves as black and as rich as iron, is a variation on the name for the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin (Guanyin.) How the two became synonymous with one another began, like many stories, with a fable...

In Fujian's Shaxian province stood a dilapidated stone temple, sadly neglected for many years. Inside the temple was an elegant iron statue, that of Kuan Yin (Guanyin,) the Goddess of Mercy to whom Buddhists pray for enlightenment.

One day, a local farmer came to pray, as he had for months. The area was plagued with drought and poverty and every calamity. The community was becoming poorer by the week. As he did on each visit, the local farmer swept the floor of the temple, ridding it of wayward leaves, dust, and small twigs. He lit some incense he thought would please Guanyin, and asked, as he had every day, for relief from their troubles for the whole village.

This day, however, as the local farmer backed away from lighting the joss stick, the iron goddess appeared to come alive. Shocked, the local farmer fell to his knees, at which point the goddess whispered," The key for your future is just outside this temple. Nourish it with tenderness; it will support you and yours for generations to come."

As quickly as she had come to life, the goddess reverted back to her rigid iron pose, beautiful, elegant, her face etched with kindness and mercy.

The local farmer took a few moments to recover from the shock. Was it a dream he had? Or, had the goddess really spoken to him? Unable to contain his curiosity any longer, he went outside the temple and there he found a withered and forlorn straggly bush. The farmer watered it, brushed away the grass and weeds at its roots, and said to himself. "You are a gift from Guanyin, I shall treasure you."

The next day and every day for weeks afterwards, the farmer cleaned the temple, lit a joss stick and then watered the plant. Soon it was rich and full, its glossy green leaves healthy and thick. The farmer discovered that the leaves, when mixed with hot water, made a refreshing beverage. As the bush grew, he cut away branches for his neighbors to plant and nourish, and soon the whole area of Fujian was full of these magical bushes.

Experimenting, the farmer dried the leaves in a stone wok; they soon turned a smooth charcoal black, just like his lovely Guanyin. The nectar produced from leaves fired in this way were ambrosial, fragrant like the finest blossoms, delicious like no other drink that ever touched lips. The farmer called his drink Ti Kuan Yin, (Tea of the Iron Goddess of Mercy.)

Today, the province of Fujian in Mainland China, and throughout Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa,) grow and process the finest oolongs, of which Ti Kuan Yin remains the most beloved and well known.