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The Iron Goddess of Mercy – Part 1

Myths and Legends of Tea coverThis is one of the stories from my book, Myths & Legends of Tea Volume 1. I will post the conclusion tomorrow [Update: here it is]. If you just can’t wait, no problem! The Amazon Kindle edition and the Apple iBook edition are online and waiting for you, and you can have all of the stories from Volume 1 right now!

Each story is followed by notes about the tea and how to prepare it. I hope you enjoy the stories!

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761

It was the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty in China, but our story concerns no emperors, warlords, or nobles. It is just a tale of a humble farmer by the name of Wei.

Wei lived in Anxi Country in the Chinese province of Fujian. People there were struggling with hard times. Fujian, they say, is eight parts mountain, one part water, and one part farmland. Wei’s tiny village was no exception. He and his neighbors grew what they could. A bit of wheat, a bit of rice, and a few sweet potatoes were enough for most of them to get by.

Their favorite crop was tea. They worked hard to produce good tea, using the complex oolong production style. Their process wasn’t bad but the result was usually mediocre, as it came from poor stock.

“Oh, well,” they used to say. “You can’t get silk from an earthworm.”

Each week, Wei would go to market in the city. Each week, he passed an old temple that had fallen into disrepair. The pathway was overgrown, the gates had fallen, and it appeared that nobody had worshipped there in a very long time. It was such a part of the scenery that Wei walked by it without even seeing it.

Like the rest of his village, Wei was a Buddhist. It’s difficult to describe how Buddhism works to Westerners like us, as the Buddha himself isn’t considered a god but an enlightened being. What we often refer to as gods and goddesses in Buddhism, actual Buddhists would call bodhisattvas. The temple Wei passed each week was built for the Bodhisattva Guanyin, whom you or I might call the Goddess of Mercy.

One particular day – a day that would become a major turning point for Wei, Wei’s village, and lovers of tea everywhere – Wei stopped on the road to rest. Not that stopping on the road was an unusual occurrence. The trip was long and Wei was not as young as he used to be. On this very notable day, however, he stopped right at the pathway to the temple of Guanyin.

After Wei set down his heavy load, he pushed back his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. What used to be the temple’s garden was surrounded by a small rock wall, more decorative than functional. It would do no good at keeping out deer or rodents, and in its current tumbledown state, even a rabbit could hop right through in several places.

Once, the flowers and cherry trees of the garden had been carefully-tended, but that was long ago. The undergrowth almost completely obscured the path, bushes had grown tall and scraggly, and the unpruned cherry trees blocked the sun to the flowers. At least, he thought, the wall provides a place to sit and the trees give me shade.

He looked down the pathway, wiped his sleeve across his forehead again, and thought about the temple.

Guanyin is the Goddess of Mercy, he thought. Okay, perhaps he called her a bodhisattva rather than a goddess, but he was, after all, Chinese, and neither goddess nor bodhisattva is a Chinese word, so I shall use the more familiar word in my telling of Wei’s story.

It is not seemly that we should treat Guanyin’s temple with such disrespect, he continued to himself. We should show … well … mercy.

He picked up his wares and continued to market, but his moment of epiphany (or dare I say, enlightenment?) stuck with him throughout the day. The following week, he brought some old gardening tools with him and stashed them beside the pathway on his way to market. He hurried through the selling of what little he had to sell and the buying of what little he could afford to buy, and then he headed home.

When Wei reached the temple, he retrieved his tools and began clearing the path. Carefully, he pruned back the bushes that encroached on the pathway. Thoughtfully, he trimmed the tree branches that overhung the walk. Delicately, he pulled the weeds from the path itself. Soon, the sky began to redden as the sun fell in the west, and he secured his tools behind the rock wall and went home, a bit disappointed that he had cleared only the beginning of the path.

Over the following weeks, Wei repeated the process. Sometimes he would clear the plants. Sometimes he would fix the flat rocks and fill in gaps to smooth the path. Sometimes he would leave the path alone for an evening and work on the wall. He made a special trip with a friend from the village to fix the gate.

This continued until the path was clear all the way to the temple entrance. Pleased with his progress, he lit a candle and stepped into the temple itself.

The sorry state of the exterior was nothing compared to the disrepair of the inside. Webs occupied the corners of the room, and spiders occupied the webs. Dust was everywhere. The offering bowl was reduced to ragged shards, and vines crept in the windows. A mouse skittered across the floor, and a snake watched hungrily from behind the altar. But Wei noticed none of it. All of his attention was drawn to the statue of Guanyin.

There she sat! The center of the temple was dominated by the statue of a beautiful maiden meditating. In her lap she held a fish basket. Although the statue was dirty and old, it was unbroken and the fine details of her necklace and her Tang Dynasty clothing were clear. Wei thought he could see sadness on that lovely face, and it nearly broke his heart.

He stood staring at Guanyin for many minutes, finally breaking his reverie to look about the room. To one side was a painting of Guanyin with a child on each side and a white parrot above. A beetle crawled across the frame. Even the painting looked sad, he thought.

Wei was touched by the experience and vowed that he would get rid of that melancholy look. He continued coming back each week on his way home from market. On one visit, he brought a stick long enough to take down the spider webs. Of course, he carefully took the spiders outside without harming them. Guanyin is, after all, the Goddess of Mercy.

The next week, he brought a broom and swept out the temple. The next, he delicately dusted the statue itself. He found the nest the mice had built and moved it outside. The snake, he scooted out the door with the broom. This had to be repeated several times as snakes can be stubborn once they’ve chosen a home.

The next time he stopped at the temple, he looked at the shattered bowl in front of Guanyin’s statue. He carefully gathered the pieces of the broken offering bowl in the sleeve of his robe and took them home. He set the pieces on his table and studied them. Wei was a simple farmer. He didn’t have the skills to repair the bowl. But perhaps he knew someone who did.

Wei once again gathered up the bowl fragments and carried them to the home of his good friend Wang, the potter. Wang invited Wei into his home and went immediately to the teapot. After all, when a friend visits, it is important to serve them tea.

As the water heated, Wei began to tell Wang about the temple. Wang listened as he carefully measured out the leaves. At first, the tale did not interest him much, for China is filled with old temples and roadside altars. Some are well-kept. Some are not.

As large bubbles began to form and rise through the water (the Chinese people call this stage “fish eyes”), Wang put the tea on to steep. When Wei started to tell him about the offering bowl Wang’s ears perked up.

“I do not know how to fix the bowl,” Wei told him, “and I do not have the money to buy one.”

“Let me look,” Wang said, and Wei spread out the pieces before him. Wang became so engrossed in studying the broken bowl that he almost forgot to pour the tea. He was so distracted that he hardly noticed the muddy flavor and the bitterness of their tea. When you can rarely afford to buy good tea, you soon become accustomed to poor tea.

“Can you repair this,” Wei asked anxiously, “or perhaps make another one like it?”

“Where will you get the money to pay for it?” Wang responded. “I am very busy and must make many bowls to sell so that I can feed my family. And Guanyin’s temple is your project, not mine.”

“You are my friend, Wang. When you were sick last summer, who brought tea and rice for you and your wife? When the monsoon rains came early two seasons ago, who helped you to make a ditch to drain your wheat field and irrigate your rice properly?”

“You are right, Wei. I am sorry. Friends help their friends. I shall make you a proper bowl. I cannot do it today, and maybe not for a couple of weeks, but I will make a bowl that you will be proud to give to Guanyin.”

And so things went. Wei replaced the offering bowl with the one that Wang made him. He pruned the trees. He found an inexpensive incense burner and set it in a nook on the wall. He took a pitcher of water and washed the statue. He kept the pathway clear. He even planted some flowers. And every week he lit incense and meditated before he left.

Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion to Wei’s story!

Buy the Amazon Kindle edition of Myths & Legends of Tea, Vol 1

Buy the Apple iBook edition of Myths & Legends of Tea, Vol 1

Tips for reading news about tea studies

Header - Tips for reading news about tea studies

As Dr. Oz is being thoroughly (and rightfully) shredded by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee for pimping weight-loss scams, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that (a) there are a lot of valid health benefits to tea, and (b) virtually every news story about tea and health manages to misrepresent or misinterpret the scientific study they’re describing.

As you read articles about tea and health, it’s important to keep in mind that the person writing the article is usually not the person (or people) who actually performed the study it references, and that the reporter/blogger may have read only the summary, not the whole study. Also, in larger news operations, the person writing the headline isn’t the same person who wrote the article, and if they’re operating on a deadline, the headline may not accurately sum up the story.

Tip 1: Beware of extreme claims

There’s an article on Authority Nutrition entitled,”How Green Tea Can Help You Lose Weight Naturally.” It’s worth reading. There are good explanations of the benefits of tea, and it cites dozens of actual scientific studies. But any article that begins with a statement like “green tea is the healthiest beverage on the planet” should set off alarm bells. No, there’s never been a study that tested every single beverage on the planet (there’s never been a study of every style of tea on the planet, for goodness’ sake). No, we don’t have a generally-accepted definition of “healthiest beverage.” An opening sentence like that one tells you you’re about to read something sensationalistic, and you should view everything they say with skepticism.

Any article that begins with a statement like “green tea is the healthiest beverage on the planet” should set off alarm bells.

Tip 2: They only studied what they studied

There’s an article on Byron J. Richards Wellness Resources entitled, “The Effects of Green Tea on Weight Management.” The author is a Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist, the studies cited all appear to be properly-conducted randomized controlled trials, and the conclusions all appear to be valid. So what’s the problem? Reading this may make you want to rush to your tea cabinet and throw away all of those white teas, oolong teas, yellow teas, and pu-erh teas. You need to replace those all with green tea, right. Wrong!

The studies looked at green tea. Specifically, they measured catechins and caffeine in green tea. They never compared green tea with white tea — or any other kind of tea. White tea may be even better for weight loss. So might oolong, pu-erh, or yellow. If green tea is measured against anything else in a study, it’s almost always black tea. What’s the difference between green and black tea? Black tea is oxidized, and that process converts a lot of the antioxidants into other compounds (catchins are a type of antioxidant). But white and yellow tea isn’t oxidized, and oolong is only partially oxidized. Shu pu-erh is oxidized and fermented, and sheng pu-erh is fermented without being oxidized first. Don’t draw conclusions about your oolong from a study that never even looked at oolong!

Tip 3: There’s more to tea than antioxidants

I think it’s pretty universally agreed that antioxidants are a good thing, but they aren’t the only source of health benefits in tea. When I got in a tiff with Fox News’ Chris Kilham about misrepresenting studies, it related to a study that showed coffee had some great health benefits. Reading the study showed that it looked at one thing: caffeine. All of the health benefits it listed for coffee would apply just as much to tea, guayusa, yerba maté, or Mountain Dew. If you like black tea, don’t let yourself get talked out of drinking it just because it doesn’t have the same antioxidant content as green tea.

Tip 4: All green tea is not created equal

It’s wonderful to see an article like the one titled, “Green Tea,” on the University of Maryland Medical Center page. It has tons of information, cites numerous studies, and explains potential drug interactions and side effects. But, like all of the other articles, it just references “green tea.” Did they test Japanese steamed green tea like sencha? Pan-fired Chinese green tea like longjing? Or was it roasted (hōjicha), powdered (matcha), shade-grown (gyokuro), scented (jasmine), or rolled (gunpowder)? The Kevin Gascoyne study I referenced in my 3-part series on caffeine found tea caffeine content ranging from 12mg to 126mg per cup. Yes, the most caffeinated tea had ten times as much caffeine as the least. He found a similar range of antioxidant contents. If you want to replicate the results of the study, you have to know what kind of tea they used.

Tip 5: Pay attention to who funded the study

If they had done a study that found that green tea gives people smelly feet, how much publicity do you think that would have gotten?

You can’t automatically discount a study because the funding group had something to gain from it. Tea companies are the ones most likely to fund tea studies, after all. But take a look at “Green Tea Promotes Weight Loss, New Research Finds,” an article on Medical News Today (well, actually, it’s a press release, but they don’t make that obvious until the end). It’s very clear in reading the article that Lipton did the research, and that Lipton is very excited about having done the research. It’s a big company, and their PR department did a good job of really spreading the news about that study.

If they had done a study that found that green tea gives people smelly feet, how much publicity do you think that would have gotten? I always tend to pay a little more attention to research coming from neutral parties, or research that’s been duplicated by neutral parties.

Tip 6: Check to see if the methodology was realistic

WebMD has an article entitled, “Green Tea Fights Fat,” which does appear to actually compare weight loss effects of green tea with oolong tea. But read this sentence from the article carefully: “For three months, the first group drank a bottle of oolong tea fortified with green tea extract containing 690 milligrams of catechins, and the other group drank a bottle of oolong tea with 22 milligrams of catechins.”

First, they aren’t comparing green tea with oolong. Both groups drank oolong tea. In one group, they added green tea extract, and in the other, they didn’t. So this study actually compares drinking oolong with drinking oolong plus green.

Second, the average cup of green tea has 50-100mg of catechins. That means the “extract” they fortified the bottle of oolong with made it equivalent to 7-14 cups of green tea. That’s a lot of tea!


If you have specific reasons for controlling your intake of caffeine, L-theanine, catechins, and other components, then there’s plenty of research to plunge into. Focus on people who actually study tea rather than folks like Dr. Oz or Oprah. Look at the paper and see what they actually studied. If it doesn’t apply to you, move on to the next one. If it does, take it at face value without trying to overgeneralize.

But if you’re just looking for a healthy drink that tastes good, stop worrying and buy more of what you like the most. You’re likely to drink a lot more of a beverage you love than one you don’t. If you like to experiment, all the better! If you drink a wide variety of tea, you’ll get a wide variety of nutritional benefits, and you can enjoy yourself as you do it.

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