The History & Cultural Origins Of Chinese Wulong Tea?

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The word Wulong (Oolong; in Chinese) is literally translated as black dragon.  So what we call Wulong tea means Black Dragon Tea.  I’ve pondered this many times.  Wulong tea is closer to a green tea type tea.  It looks like a green tea when brewed as it has a beautiful clear golden yellow color.  It also looks like a green tea in its prior to brewing.  So why call it Black Dragon Tea?
Because the origin of Wulong tea is shrouded in the mists of antiquity there are three theories about how Wulong Tea came to have that name.  But in my mind, one seems more likely from a historical perspective.
The first theory is that it was first cultivated in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province in China during the Ming Dynasty.  Evidence comes in the form of two poems published during the Qing Dynasty which followed.  The Qing Dynasty started in 1644 and ended with the Xin Hai revolution in 1912, when the empress dowager abdicated the throne on behalf of her son the emperor.
The first is called the Wuyi Tea Song by Yi Chaogun.
In the fifteenth century Tea fields were abandoned
As some of the rock tea starts to grow
The love it when the North wind
Starts to blow on a sunny day
But not the South wind or rain
The fragrance dissipates
The beautiful Plum and Orchid Aroma
Come from the final baking process
The second is called Tea Tale by Wang Chaotang.
Wuyi Tea is left to sun in a bamboo basket
Then roasted and baked
Longjing tea is pure because it is roasted but not withered
Only Wuyi tea is roasted and withered
Half green and half red
Roasted green and withered red
Left to wither then shaken
When the fragrance emerges; it is roasted

The timing has to be precious. This theory seems most plausible to me as these poems seem to chronicle the processing of Wulong Tea.  The process for preparing Wulong Tea is still the same today:

  1. It’s picked by hand.
  2. Left in a basket in the sun to oxidize.
  3. It’s rolled into balls
  4. Baked in an oven
Black Tea (front) is in leaf form, the Wulong Tea (rear) is rolled into balls.

It’s important to know that Green, Black and Wulong Tea come from the same plant.  The differences are in the fermenting or oxidizing of the leaves.  Green Tea is not oxidized, and black tea is fully oxidized.  Wulong tea is partially oxidized.
So as the poem says it’s “half green and half red.”  Black tea in Chinese is called Hong Cha Hong means red in Mandarin.

The second Theory is based on the Tribute Tea.  This is tea that was grown and processed for emperors, and dates back to the Song Dynasty.  The emperors of that time set up the Beiyun Tea Garden again in Fujian Province.  The tea produced there was in the form of a hard cake called the Dragon-Phoenix Tea Cake.  But as the Song Dynasty became the Ming Dynasty this teacake fell out of favor.  The Beiyun Gard changed its process to loose tea.  The result was a glossy, dark loose-leaf tea.  Called Bvlack Dragon Tea.
This version seems less likely to me as Wulong tea is not a dark colored tea leaf, the color is a green that turns to a yellow color as it brews.
The final theory is based on a legend as are a lot of Chinese Traditions.  According to the legend a man named Long, who was particularly dark skinned and called WuLong (Black Dragon) was hunting.  He was distracted by a deer and followed after it.  By the time he had returned to the tea stored in his bag it was halfway oxidized.  The tea became popular and was called Black Dragon Tea after this man. This legend while an interesting story seems the least likely explanation for the name.  In any case I drink Wulong Tea far more often than any other kind.
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