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What is Dancong Part II: Origins of Dancong

By Dchew78 @peonyts

In the first part of this series, we looked at what a Dancong (单丛) is and how a commonly repeated translation “single trunk” gives rise to a complete misunderstanding of what it encompasses.

Next, let us look at how Dancong begun.

The Legend

Most accounts of the origins of Dancong begin with this tale:

What is Dancong Part II: Origins of Dancong

Image taken from Wikicommons

During the Song Dynasty, particularly the era known as Southern Song (南宋) China was constantly beset with foreign aggression from its northern neighbors.

As the Song Dynasty drew to an end, the monarchy fled and shifted capitals a few times, from its founding capital of Bianjing (汴京) -modern day Kaifeng- to Hangzhou (杭州) and then Fuzhou (福州).

The tale begun when the royal family- Emperor Zhao Bian (赵昺) and the remnants of his kingdom- fled from Fuzhou to Guangzhou (广州).

En route, they passed by Mount Wudong (乌岽山) in the Phoenix Mountain belt (凤凰山脉). Having been on the run from the Mongolian troops, the emperor and his faithful followers were thirsty and tired.

A quick thinking follower saw the leaves growing in a tea tree there and picked some for his king. The fresh leaves revitalized Emperor Zhao Bian and quenched his thirst.

The grateful emperor bestowed the name “Song Tea” (宋茶) upon the trees. Song Tea later came to be known as “Song Cultivar” or Songzhong ( 宋种).

The Historical Origins of Dancong

Naturally most people treat that as mere fiction, just a fanciful opener. That is not to say there are no historical accounts of Dancong.

It was unclear when the Phoenix Mountain area first started producing tea but we do know by the rule of Emperor Hongzhi (弘治) of the Ming Dynasty (circa 1502), Phoenix Mountain tea had already been earmarked as a tribute tea.

At that time though, there was no mention of “Dancong” or specially cultivated trees, merely a generic term for teas grown on Phoenix Mountain.

Fast forward to 1705- during the rule of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, the Raoping District Magistrate Guo Yu Fan wrote about the eclectic nature of Phoenix Teas. It was during his tenure that the local officials started taking an interest in tea production and the early origins of cultivated trees should have started during that era.

Chen Yuan (陈橼)- one of the foremost tea experts in the world- wrote that by the middle of the 19th century, in the aftermath of the crippling Opium War, amongst the tea exported included “Phoenix Dancong”.

By the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908), Phoenix Dancong became a celebrated tea even abroad especially by migrant Chaozhou communities.

So while we are not certain when exactly it happened, it must have occurred sometime from 1705 to 1840 that Phoenix Dancong became a recognized variety and eventually it became celebrated.

Another Look at the Legend

The reason for so many legends is that Chinese love association with celebrities.

For example, if you go to numerous Chinese restaurants, you will probably chance upon a photo collage of the owner/chef taking photos with numerous celebrities. The more the merrier and even better if you can international stars.

What is Dancong Part II: Origins of Dancong
That is supposed to lend credence to the restaurant.

In the same way, numerous Jiangnan teas have Qianlong related tales; or anything to do with Jiangnan for that matter.

Monarchs are always a favorite of legends, as are poets and scholars.

The sad thing is that the Chaozhou area doesn’t see all that many monarch types, being at the southern end of China whilst historically ruling types are based in the north.

Probably the only plausible association is the aforementioned Emperor Zhao Bian hence despite the ignominy of being the last emperor in a dynasty, he was chosen for the tale.

If you look at it, it is really quite unlikely that Emperor Zhao Bian gave any attention to the tea.

Firstly, he died at the ripe old age of 8 years old.

Yup, no typo there, his age was single digits at point of death.

Can you imagine a 6-8 year old being appreciative of a mere leaf and bestowed the national honor upon it? All while fleeing for his life with his predecessor and older brother having died at age 10.

Here is my theory for the Song tea story:

We do know there are numerous old trees in Phoenix Mountain area- one estimate dated in the 21st century counts more than 3,000 trees that are at least 200 years old.

Logically, old trees would only be recognized after the production of Dancong which would be no earlier than 1705 since that was when Guo Yu Fan’s work begun.

What better way to highlight the age of the trees then to date it to a previous seminal event?

The Qing Dynasty though was founded in 1644, dating it to any event in that era is quite meaningless since no one would be impressed by trees that are barely 100 years old.

Of course since numerous rebellions during the Qing Dynasty were raised in the name of 反清复明 or “rebelling against Qing to restore Ming Dynasty”, a prudent choice would to avoid any talk of Ming Dynasty related events.

Yuan Dynasty is rather short and more importantly ruled by the hated Mongols. Any association with Yuan Dynasty is not likely to gain much popularity with the locals.

Hence Song Dynasty would be a good era to date the trees to. Plus it was a fact that Emperor Zhao Bian fled from Fuzhou to Guangzhou and Mount Wudong would be a plausible path.

Hence deposed Emperor, last in the dynasty line notwithstanding, Emperor Zhao Bian provided a quasi-plausible legend, plus Song Tea has a nice ring to it whilst being sufficiently long passed that it was unlikely to be frowned upon by the Qing rulers.

Here is a disclaimer, this is just a hypothesis that seemed logical to me but I have not dug deeply into it.

Song Dynasty or not, there are some famous old trees still in Phoenix Mountain today and thanks to cloning and asexual propagation, we are able to enjoy Dancong at more commercially affordable prices.

See our Phoenix Dancong in stores

See here for other articles related to varieties of oolong tea

See more articles on overviews of various categories of tea

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