If you like Wuyi oolong (Yancha/岩茶), you must have heard Wuyi oolong’s “Yan Yun” (Chinese: 岩韵).
Tea leaves are tangible, but “Yan Yun” isn’t. There are many tea lovers on the internet have their own way of explaining “Yan Yun”. Many of these explanations talk about “Yan Yun” as if it’s a particular flavor. Some even confused Yan Yun with a specific tea-making process. As a result, few posts managed to provide plausible explanation.
Explaining the intangible is challenging, and it’s even harder when a language barrier is in the way. Surprisingly, many Chinese speakers don’t quite understand “Yan Yun” as well. However, language is the best carrier of cultures. To understand Yan Yun, we must understand its original meaning in Chinese.
Yán Yùn, or 岩韵, has two characters. The first character, Yan/岩, means rocks. Yan is also the first character of “Yan Cha/岩茶” (Wuyi oolong).
The second character Yun/韵, however, is very difficult to explain. It doesn’t refer to anything physical. Yun is the ultimate reason why “Yan Yun” is an abstract term.
Since its inception, the character Yun/韵 is primarily used in music. When in music, Yun refers to the rhythm that can give great pleasure to listeners. Chinese words such as “韵律/Yùn Lǜ” (rhythm of music/speaking) and “音韵/yīn yùn” (phonology) all took after this meaning.
Of course, rocks don’t have a “rhythm”, and the “Yun” we’re talking about here is beyond its classic meaning. In the more educated and fashionable use of Chinese, Yun/韵 is particularly popular in words describing “essence”, “gracefulness” and “elegance”. (If you’re interested, you can google words “风韵/fēng yùn” and “韵味/yùn wèi” for further explanations.)
Therefore, we’ve translated a bewildering pronunciation in Chinese into a readable phrase in English. The literal meaning of “Yan Yun” is “the essence of the rocks”.
But we’re not going to stop here and leave you in limbo. A metaphysical explanation is no better than a puzzle.
From its literal meaning, we understand that “Yan Yun” is about “rocks”, not just tastes. The first concept of “Yan Yun” refers to the tea plant growing environment.
As we know, the best Wuyi oolong (Yan Cha) tea plants grow on scattered rocks (with a thin layer of soils). Good tea is all about good fresh tea leaves. Thus good “Yan Yun” is related to quality fresh leaves. Growing on rocks, tea plants develop deeper and stronger roots that can better supply nutrients to leaves. A good “Yan Yun” is in fact the result of good fresh leaves from a premier tea plant growing environment.
This is why not all Wuyi oolong teas have “Yan Yun”. Wuyi oolong produced with fresh leaves grow on plains generally lack good “Yan Yun” due to this fact. Instead of acquiring “the essence of the rocks”, tea leaves obtained “the character of the soils”.
The second concept of “Yan Yun” addresses the delivery of the tea soup.
Since “Yan Yun” is the expression of the rocks, a tea with good “Yan Yun” must carry a few signature characters from abundant nutrients. Just as kids with better nutritions grow taller and healthier, fresh leaves with better nutrient supplies produce finer teas. Please note that a “finer” tea doesn’t necessarily refer to “a better flavor”. A finer tea means a richer and more constant delivery of the taste.
When drinking most teas, we have a distinct feeling of tea gradually losing its flavors. A Wuyi oolong with good “Yan Yun” doesn’t behave in such a way. Its color, taste and mouthfeel stay the same for more than 13-15 infusions.
In Emperor Qianlong’s poem, he described Wuyi oolong’s “Yan Yun” as “upright” and “outspoken” (就中武夷品最佳，气味清和兼骨鲠。please see the end of the blog for the complete poem). Mr. Liang Zhang Ju, a scholar in Qing dynasty, also praised Wuyi oolong’s “Yan Yun” as “alive”.
These are both visualized experiences. How can a tea be “outspoken” and “alive”?
The answer lies in the tea soup. To be honest, most tea-drinking experiences are dominated by people. A normal tea is merely “flavored water” to many people. The taste goes down with the tea soup, and that’d be the end of the story.
A Wuyi oolong with good “Yan Yun” dominate us. Its tastes and aromas transform vividly before, during and after the sipping. This is why Yan Yun can be “outspoken” and “alive”.
“Yan Yun” is the result of both the tea plant growing environment and the delivery of the tea soup. Paired with delicate tea-making process, “Yan Yun” is the ultimate expression of a good Wuyi oolong (Yancha).
Finally, we hope today’s blog can at least answer some of your “Yan Yun” questions. This blog is far from a comprehensive introduction to “Yan Yun”. We will certainly revisit this topic in the future.
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Emperor Qianlong’s Tea Poem: