By Zhang Xueying, China Today
In most Chinese tea villages, March is the time of year in which locals start to pick and process tea. The usually tranquil villages suddenly become bustling centers of activity, as people take out special tools and prepare for tea processing. In some villages, local residents hold traditional ceremonies, thanking heaven for its blessing. The price of tea picked in March is extremely high because it is fresh, tender and contains multiple trace elements.
China has been famous for tea production since ancient times. Of the goods transported and traded along the Old Silk Road linking China to the Middle East and Europe, the importance of tea was matched only by silk. China produces Oolong, black, green, white, yellow and dark (aka post-fermented) tea. The Oolong, green and black varieties are most notable for their high quality.
Most of China's tea villages are found in remote mountainous areas in the country's south and southwest, where the beautiful scenery is often hidden under clouds.
Pu'er from Xishuangbanna of Yunnan Province
The folk customs of the Dai people and the charming natural beauty of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China have long made the area a tourist mecca. In recent years, with Pu'er tea becoming increasingly popular, tourists have started including the Six Famous Tea Mountains in their itineraries, as well as other tea-related spots such as Jinghong, Yiwu, Xiangming, Mansai and Mengyang.
The Six Famous Tea Mountains represent the splendid history of Pu'er, dating back thousands of years. The peaks are six conjoint mountains with a height of around [3,300 feet] above sea level. In the flourishing forests at around [2,640 feet] above sea level, many wild tea trees can be found. It is said that the [8,000-square-mile] area is the origin of all the world's tea trees, and since the mid-20th century, the oldest known tea trees in the world have been successively discovered here. A tree some 3,200 years old is now known to exist.
Legend has it that tea produced in Xishuangbanna was first traded before the Qin Dynasty – that is, before 221 BC. However, the earliest historical records of tea trade in the area date from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). At that time, tea was mainly sold to the Central Plains area around the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River; the areas south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, including southern Jiangsu and Anhui provinces and northern Zhejiang Province; Sichuan Province; Tibet; and India. From the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Pu'er tea underwent a boom as it gained a reputation as the tribute tea of choice for the nobility in the imperial palace. In the yard of Che Family home in Yiwu County, there is still a board inscribed with four characters, "Rui gong tian chao." These characters were inscribed by an emperor in the mid-19th century, and mean "Divine Tribute to the Kingdom of Heaven." Locals still regard the words as a great honor.
At that time the imperial court set up a special institution in Pu'er Prefecture, the tea collecting and distribution center, in a bid to manage tea production, processing and trade. This is how the tea's name came about. By that time, trade in Pu'er tea had reached Southeast Asia and parts of South Asia.
Meanwhile, transporting Pu'er tea became a thriving business. Yunnan is a mountainous province with many virgin forests, so good transportation in the early days relied on a large numbers of mules, horses and oxen. Those transportation teams were known as horse or oxen caravans. The operators of these caravans were mostly Han, who had shuttled between inland areas and Yunnan for 1,300 years. Even today in Yiwu County, many local Han people say their ancestors were immigrants who came with the caravans.
Yiwu in Xishuangbanna is a small town legendary for its tea. In 736, Liu Hancheng, a Han person, led a horse caravan to Yunnan. The caravan surmounted various difficulties until it finally reached a virgin forest located at an altitude of about [4,290 feet] above sea level in northern Mengla County, Xishuangbanna. There Liu decided to settle down and join the tea business. He opened a teashop named "Tongqing," which was among the first in the area. Over the next 200 years, many other teashops sprouted up, some of which are still famous today. The emergence of the teashops transformed the forested area into a small town. Traders came from afar and made huge profits, and thereafter settled in the area.
Yiwu has been a renowned tea processing center and export base since the Qing Dynasty. However, now there are only dilapidated walls and cracked houses here, and weeds grow along the sides of ancient roads. Even the famous Shiping Guildhall, which was once a thriving well-decorated edifice, has become a ramshackle building. Only the hoof prints on the ancient roads remind people of the prosperity of former days. But tourists still visit the old tea processing mills in Yiwu. In spring or autumn, visitors watch how Pu'er is processed manually, in contrast to most areas where Pu'er is processed with machines.
The Gao family firm is local tea trader with a history of around 100 years. The family plants tea in its own garden, covering an area of about 100 mu (1 mu equals [just over 800 square yards]). Some of their wild tea trees are more than a century old. Because of their high value, tea dealers come from as far away as Taiwan to ask about their yields. Nowadays, there are three people in the Gao family and they still work together processing their tea. Gao's wife is in charge of drying the leaves through rapid pan-frying. Then she rolls, rubs and shapes the leaves. Frying the leaves also helps remove their bad smell. After that, Gao's daughter steams the pu'er. The dry leaves become soft in the warm and humid environment. At this point she wraps the leaves in a cloth and shapes them into a cake – the form in which the tea is sold.
The last step is the most important – the pressing of the tea, which needs to be done by men. Gao bends over and lifts a large stone of around [22 pounds]. "We have to press pu'er with this stone for at least half an hour," he explains. The Gao family has 20 such stones, and continually working them to press the pu'er requires considerable physical strength. It also requires a certain technique. Knowing how, where, and how long to press involves much knowledge and experience.
Da Hong Pao from Wuyi Mountain of Fujian Province
Da Hong Pao is the best Oolong Tea. It is grown in Jiulongke (literally the nest of nine dragons), a valley on the north side of Wuyi Mountain. The site appears on UNECSO's list of both natural and cultural World Heritage Sites.
Jiulongke is named after the nine cliffs flanking the valley, which look like dragons. Visitors can see six original Da Hong Pao tea trees of 350 years old growing among the rocks of Jiulongke. They look ordinary, but [0.7 ounces] of the Da Hong Pao can be sold for [US$31,580]. In the past gun-toting guards patrolled the area. However, since 2006 it has been forbidden to harvest leaves from these trees. Da Hong Pao currently sold on the market comes from plants grown in the 1970s and 1980s.
In fact there are many tea trees growing on the cliffs and hills of Wuyi Mountain, but for hundreds of years people have believed that Da Hong Pao is the best. The most outstanding feature of Da Hong Pao is its strong aroma, which resembles the scent of an orchid. The fragrance is intense and long-lasting.
Tea from Tianxin Temple on Wuyi Mountain enjoys an equally high reputation. Built during Emperor Dezong's Zhenyuan reign (785-804) in the Tang Dynasty, the temple has a history of over 1,200 years. It is the largest temple on Wuyi Mountain, and sits not far away from the six original Da Hong Pao tea trees. In fact the trees used to belong to the temple and were protected by its monks. Every year they would pick a few leaves and make tea for themselves. It is said they were very skillful in their processing, and the tea they made was praised and adored by emperors of several dynasties. This was how Da Hong Pao won its reputation.
Viewed from afar, the temple often looks indistinct under a cloud of fog. Around the temple are green pines and bamboo groves, giving a secluded and restful feeling, though these days there are many visitors. If they are lucky, they can not only drink fine five-year-old Da Hong Pao, but also have the opportunity to talk about tea and study Buddhist scripture with masters in the temple.
Xiamei Village is another place that has gained fame for tea making. It is situated on the east side of Wuyi Mountain. Surrounded by green mountains dense with streams, the ancient village is quite charming. Visitors could be forgiven for thinking they are in a southern water town. It is picturesque for its small bridges, clear streams, lovely houses and richly ornamented ancient architecture.
The village used to be a collecting and distribution center for Oolong tea produced on Wuyi Mountain. Tea dealers gathered here to load the tea onto ships and transport it to countries in Southeast Asia and Europe. According to local historical records, in 1681, the 19th year of Kangxi's reign in the Qing Dynasty, there was a large amount of tea transported from Xiamei Village; on busy days around 300 ships a day came and went.
At that time horse caravans from Shanxi Province also came here and transported tea northward, inaugurating a tea trade road that led to Kyakhta, on the then Sino-Russian border.
The tea business brought Xiamei Village prosperity and attracted many rich tea merchants. It is said that the Zou Family, the biggest tea trader in the village, was able to lend the court 500 million taels of silver, an amount almost equivalent to half the national treasury at that time. No wonder Kangxi and Qianlong, two famous emperors of the Qing Dynasty, both traveled south several times and chose concubines from the Zou family. This was rare in the Qing Dynasty, since intermarriage between the Manchu and the Han people was forbidden. Today visitors can still get an idea of the Zou family's prosperity and glory by taking a look at the beautiful and magnificent Zou Family Ancestral Temple.
Black Tea from Qimen County of Anhui Province
Keemun from Qimen, Darjeeling from India, and Uva tea from Sri Lanka are considered the world's three major black teas. Keemun won the gold prize in the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition and thereafter became famous around the world. On the international market, Keemun was especially favored by England's nobility for afternoon tea. They think Keemun has a sugary flavor with a flowery scent.
Qimen County is in the Yellow Mountain Scenic Area in Anhui Province, which is a cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. About 90 percent of the people here are tea producers.
Every spring when it is time for tea harvesting, women pickers can be seen everywhere on the green mountains. These diligent women, singing tea-picking songs, form part of a beautiful scene. Men also work busily during this season, processing tea day and night. Visitors can smell the fragrant tea everywhere. In the past, local schools arranged holidays for students during tea-picking season, allowing students to help their parents with the harvest. Even today many schools in Qimen's rural areas still have these unique "tea holidays."
Most people in Qimen drink tea, particularly on special days such as the beginning of the new year, when they drink to bless their business. When spring comes they mark the start of transplanting rice seedlings with a cup, and when summer begins, they drink for relief from the summer heat. On the Mid-Autumn Festival they drink tea and appreciate the full moon, and in winter they drink tea to keep warm.
Besides sipping fine tea, tourists in Qimen are also attracted by the beautiful scenery. There is a nature reserve called "Guniujiang" on the western branch of Yellow Mountain, which has the same wonderful scenery as Yellow Mountain. Plentiful plants can be found here, including towering rare trees, vines, pteridophyte plants on the ground, and unknown flowers and grasses on the mountain paths. At the foot of Guniujiang there are a lot of teashops, providing a good place for visitors to appreciate a tea ceremony. As well as Keemun, there is another famous local green tea called "Wuliqing." In addition, wild tea made by local farmers are also very popular with tourists.
Photo 1 Pu'er tea has been transported by horse caravans for hundreds of years.
Photo 2 Xiamei Village, a distribution center for Oolong tea produced in the Wuyi Mountain.
Photo 3 Qimen in Anhui Province grows good-quality black tea.