Monkeys, Tea Leaves and Lies

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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16 Comments

  1. A humorous essay. It’s quite interesting that tea sellers perpetuate the “false and incredible” stories about the origins of the tea’s name.

  2. Thank you. I really wonder how many people believe the hype.

  3. From what I have seen, few believe it is currently picked by monkeys – but most believe it was done so in the past.
    :o)

  4. It is a compelling story, if less than credible.

  5. thanks for your article. I was actually going to cite the Kasora.com’s World of Tea article you mention as a reference to this story being a colorful marketing myth. However a little research into Kasora reveals it to be a link farm that puts content online in the hope of catching clicks.

    Hopefully you are a more reputable and personable source.

    cheers!

    -k

    • Kasora is no longer in existence and the domain is for sale (hence, the link farm effect). For a brief time they were a small company offering some of the highest quality tea obtainable from an American company. The owners and employees were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful in finding rare and wonderful tea. Oh how I miss them.

  6. I am an actual person, which makes me a little more reputable than an aggregation bot! This was an enjoyable topic to research and write about. I see plenty of claims of monkey-picked tea.

  7. This is interesting. I never thought people would actually think the tea is monkey picked and sell it accordingly. Maybe because of my Chinese language background, I simply take the name as a metaphor for a rare, hard to harvest tea. Every Chinese tea with history has a legend behind it. There are just too many of them. Even reading Chinese, I only know a couple. These stories are interesting, and maybe provide some background of the tea. But seriously, I don’t agree with the sellers telling people these tea are “monkey picked”.

    • It’s a good example of the way tea is so often marketed to Westerners as “Oriental” or “exotic,” which always really bothers me. And in my experience, Americans are particularly dense when it comes to differentiating metaphor from literal reality.

  8. That’s a really interesting history of Monkey-picked tea haha I KNEW it had to be picked by humans! Adults especially, I can’t wait to get my hands on this tea!

  9. ha,great article.i believed it might be true about the monkeys till i googled it.
    How the internet quickly debunks gentle fantasies/myths-sigh!
    Like at xmas now , little children will be googling ” Is there is santa claus?”!

    perhaps the monks used to pick the tea in one village centuries ago (monk-tea) and some anglo misinterpreted it as ..monk-ey?!)possible!

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  11. Here’s an updated link for the edible.com site you mentioned http://www.edible-shop.com/shop/herbivore/monkey%20picked%20tea/

    They say “No folks we’re not pulling you leg! This rare chinese tea is carefully picked by specially trained monkeys in a remote mountain rehion of China…”

  12. The name of the tea, “Monkey Picked Oolong” has nothing to do with the way the tea is priced. It’s not priced by it’s legend, it’s priced by it’s quality.

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