Although I was aware – prior to visiting the Bowers Museum – that the focus of the exhibit “Masters of Adornment: The Miao People of China” would be on the ethnic group’s silver jewelry and textiles, I was nonetheless hoping to see some adorned teaware since tea culture has prevailed for centuries in the region.  However, there was not a tea cup in sight.

With a population of nearly nine million (based on the Year 2000 Census), the Miao people form China’s fifth largest ethnic group.  The main character in Clint Eastwood’s movie Gran Torino is a Lao Hmong – a subgroup of the Miao ethnicity.  Popular fiction of the “martial arts and chivalry” genre often portrays Miao characters in exquisite costumes and endowed with exotic beauty and extraordinary skills; some practice black magic, specializing in the concoction of the ever-fascinating “gu” – a venom-based poison.

In 1982, Duyun Mao Jian tea, a green tea produced in Duyun – the capital of Qiannan Buyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou Province – was selected as one of the Top 10 teas in China and has retained the honor ever since.  An even earlier recognition was bestowed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915!

The inclusion of “Duyun” in the name seems a standard practice in Asia, but why “Mao Jian?”  Not all tea names can be conveniently translated and labeled with a catchy moniker like “Oriental Beauty Oolong.”  In addition to Duyun Mao Jian, there is the celebrated Xinyang Mao Jian, so Mao Jian is really an established tea variety.  Some say Chairman Mao granted this tea its current name in 1956, and one can’t help noticing the incorporation of his own last name, “Mao,” which literally means hairy.  Perhaps he did name it so because of the variety’s hairy leaf bud.  On the other hand, one would not be surprised if it was another act by a dictator inflicted with narcissistic personality disorder.   How did Xinyang Mao Jian get its name?  Was it also renamed during Mao’s reign?

If the new name was not given until 1956, then what was the tea called at the 1915 Expo?  It was probably called the Fish Hook Tea, just one of the few known old names.