There’s something about a good oxymoron. This one— Ti Kuan Yin, “Iron Goddess of Mercy”—uniquely captures the complexities of what some tea-drinkers consider to be the world’s best-known and best-loved Oolong.
In English, “iron” would not be a word associated with the quality of mercy. Even if we consider the juxtaposition of words in the context of the Chinese Wu Xing, or Five Phases identified in the Chinese cosmos—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water—Metal is the least yielding, the least merciful. As far as goddesses go, “iron” suggests more of a fierce, Valkyrie warrior-woman as opposed to the bodhissatva Kuan Yin, who hears the cry of the world, eases all suffering, and dries every tear with her unending compassion.
This seeming contradiction is what begins the revealing of this tea. Like so many depictions of Feminine Divinity across all cultures, this Chinese Oolong shows itself in a series of subtle, teasing unveilings.
The optimum steeping temperature for Ti Kuan Yin is 185 – 206 F, for 3 – 5 minutes. I took the middle way for the first steep, bringing the cup to my lips at four minutes. Bliss. I found there to be an elusive waft of grain in the first steep, with a pristine, fruit-blossom aroma.
As an Oolong, this tea is semi-oxidized, offering some of the feeling of both green and black teas. The second steep brought a less floral, nut-like, more roast-y, and deeply soothing note, as if the tea had literally ripened between steeps. Mistakenly thinking that the tea would weaken in value, my second steep was six and a half minutes. This second brew was a transparent amber, full, without a trace of “iron”, or any bitterness.
A number of ancient legends give this tea her name, one involving an iron statue of Kuan Yin who gave the gift of the tea-plant to a humble farmer who cared for her neglected shrine. As with ourselves, rediscovering and honoring life’s sacred places—sweeping out the twigs and dust—always yields revelation.
I especially enjoyed this tea as the weather in Los Angeles moved from brilliant and scorching to a chilly rain. According to the Chinese tradition, Metal is in fact in the fourth position of the Five Phases, associated with Autumn, and closure.
- Victoria Thomas