The original Oriental Beauty

As some of you know, I’m a historian in my day job, and my new project is working on the history of how ideas (drinking practice, health concerns, etc) and technologies (plantation methods, processing techniques, etc) pertaining to tea moved across borders. Taiwan turns out to be the most interesting place to look at, because of its close connection with China, but at the same time because of its distinctive history and geopolitical location, thanks to it being under Japanese jurisdiction for the first half of the twentieth century. It ends up being a nice, big melting pot of stuff, perfect for my purposes.

As a result, a side story I’ve been pursuing on and off is the history of the tea Oriental Beauty (dongfangmeiren), more commonly known locally as Pengfeng tea (bragger’s tea). There are two kinds of legends surrounding the origins of this tea. One has something to do with nomenclature – the name Oriental Beauty. You have probably read this online somewhere, most likely from some vendor trying to sell you tea, but the story usually involves some queen of the United Kingdom (some say Victoria, others Elizabeth II) drinking it, finding it absolutely marvelous, and therefore giving it this nice name. This story is almost certainly false, and is made up to sell tea.

The most common name for the tea in the local community, Pengfeng tea, means bragger or bluffing tea. The idea is that the farmer who originally made the tea was able to sell it for such a high price, he bragged to his friends and neighbours, none of whom believed him. So, the name of the tea was born.

This story has always sounded sort of true, but like many such stories, there are lots of slightly different versions, making you wonder whether it’s true or not. What we do know is that the tea was from Beipu. The farmer was probably surnamed Jiang 姜 and there were large sums of money involved. Exactly how large, nobody knows. Everything I saw was a “it is said that” sort of version.

Everything, until today.

On my last trip to Taiwan I was able to get a copy of many issues of a journal called Taiwan no chagyo, or Taiwan’s Tea Industry. It was a trade journal from the colonial period. I have been going through the issues to look for information on all sorts of things, and today, reading one issue from 1933, I came across this

 photo 6444773A-AE60-4A0F-8BAF-4599EAFACD41.jpg

 photo 3EBC28AA-1073-4F70-AA64-2650DEF5CC24.jpg

Bingo. The headline is “A high class tea worth a thousand yen”. Not a thousand yen for one jin, mind you, but a hundred jin, which doesn’t sound like a lot of money, until you figure out that the average jin of tea back then sold for a yen or less – so one jin of tea that sells for 10 yen was, indeed, an astronomical sum. The tea was one of the participants in a local tea competition, and it broke the 300 point mark in whatever scale they were using to grade the teas. The buyers included the governor’s office. It was obviously a cheap and easy way to promote better tea production – encouraging farmers to make better tea and they would be rewarded too with great prices if their tea were good. As the Taiwanese government was trying hard at that time to increase the production quantity and quality of tea for export, it made sense to pull a PR stunt like this.

The tea probably already existed by this time, but this was what made it famous. It probably is also where the name Pengfeng originally came from – maybe not so much a bragger in the liar sense of the word, but the farmer getting rather pleased with himself and annoying all the neighbours. Either way, it’s very gratifying to have found the smoking gun, so to speak, for the story, and it’s good to know that sometimes some of these legends do have some basis in fact.


Comments

The original Oriental Beauty — 5 Comments

  1. Hi, I come across your blog about Tea. It’s definitely a lot of information.
    I’m intrigued that you are working on paper about the Oriental Beauty tea.
    I’m from Taiwan, and more specifically, the Oriental Beauty is made from our family.
    I heard the story from our family story all the time, but never tried to looking into the historical documents, and it’s great to know that there were Japanese document about it.
    My great grand father, he was the man “invent” the tea, or say accidentally made the kind of tea. Our family was in the tea producing business lead by my great grand father, he has tea farm and factory, and he did some production experimental works from time to time.
    The story about Oriental Beauty, was that there was a batch of tea leaves which was collected late, and was already bitten by tea bugs. Normally, this kind of batch will be dumped, and will not going through the production. However, my great grand father decide to still use the batch of tea leaves, the original intention was just not to waste them, as it was a great effort to grow/collect the tea leaves, even if it’s already gone bad. Surprisingly, the tea went through this process having a special flavor, and the batch then sold to the Japanese with a high price.
    When my great grand father told their friend, and other farmer that he used the bad batch of tea, and made a fortune, people did not believe him, and called this whole action as “bragging”(use bad batch tea and made a fortune), but it was in a funny sense, and not saying that he’s lying, since there was the sales record.
    The tea went popular in Japan, and was made special request even from the emperor, and it was a big event that Japanese governor in Taiwan sent policemen to our family to make sure the tea worker wash their hand in the production facility.
    So to your point, it is not a legend, but true story happened as you can find the document to prove it, and people from our family to tell the story.

    • Thanks for the comment. This is very interesting! Do you still have extended family in the tea business? Would anyone be interested in answering some questions, especially folks from the older generations? I’m planning on a research trip to Taiwan soon and would love to stop by Beipu, and if any of your family’s still there I would love to be able to visit.

      • Hi, good to know that you are going visit Beipu, it’s actually been a while I have chance to go back. I can send some information to you privately, or if you contact me with twitter private message, I could reply you.

  2. This is a very satisfying post with an equally satisfying comments section. It’s a pleasure to share in some of your learning and research and see such a serendipitous reply. I can only imagine having access to archives akin to those you do; Maybe someday I’ll be so fortunate.

Leave a Reply