All the tea in China


This article, which first appeared in SACU's China Now magazine 1981, gives a background to the history and cultivation of tea in China.

Well, yes, there is plenty of tea grown in China and almost everyone drinks it. One of the lasting memories of a visitor to China must be the bowls of this pale, delicate brew served at every stopping place, every discussion meeting and rail trip, and the tea-making apparatus in every hotel room (thermos flask and packets of leaves). Tea, it seems, has been drunk in China through all the centuries, from the Zhou dynasty when in 1066 BC, the leaders of some Sichuan minority nationalities paid tribute in tea to King Wu (Huayang State Chronicles by Chang Ju of Jin dynasty, 265 - 420 AD), to the Buddhist monks of the sixth century AD who found it helped them to keep awake through their long hours of meditation (Buddhism spread widely through China in that period), to the great Tang dynasty (618 - 907) from which we have Lu Yu's Cha Jing (Classic of Tea) in 760 AD - the first specialised treatise on tea in the world. Lu Yu examines not only tea production: soil, environment, picking and processing, but the art of drinking it, and this gives a hint of the mystique associated with tea in China, a feeling different in quality from our cheerful extrovert reception of the cuppa'. Little handle-less teacups for the precious liquid can be seen in Chinese classical paintings of retired scholars, and did not Chairman Mao begin his poem to a fellow revolutionary, Liu Yazi,

I can't forget how we drank tea in Guangzhou
And exchanged verse in Chongqing when
the leaves were yellowing.

There tea-drinking and poetry were somehow related in his mind. Even to-day, some Chinese will rise slightly from their seats and receive a proffered cup with both hands and a slight bow. Something a bit 'special'.

tea growing
Tea bushes Jingxian County,
Anhui 1977.

It is true that in 18th century Europe, tea was an expensive, precious and highly valued commodity. Introduced by the Dutch in 1606, tea from China, and later India, was bought by the wealthy as a fashionable drink. Hence the silver teapots and the fine porcelain teasets. We may remember Hogarth's picture in 'A Harlot's Progress' where the girl is overturning the silver tea-table and teapot of her rich paramour, the tiny teacups smashed and the Moorish serving-boy standing by in terror with the tea kettle. Even in later times, the lady of the house tended to keep her tea under lock and key, no doubt because of the cost of a luxury article, not yet produced on a big scale and brought to Europe across half the world on sailing ships - the tea clippers, through many hazards of sea and weather.

Some have spread the heresy that India rather than China was the original home of tea production. For instance, one Major B. Bruce, a British Military Commander in India, claimed to have found wild tea trees (one of them 43 ft high) in more than 100 places in Assam province, a district in Burma bordering Yunnan in China's south-west. Here he said was the origin of the cultivated tea plant. The truth seems to be that the British colonial administration in India saw the possibilities of profit in the tea trade and sent their agents to China to buy tea seeds in order to start plantations in India. Similarly tea seeds were brought from China by merchants of Japan, Sri Lanka and Russia. Certainly a great deal of evidence points to China as the original home of the tea tree. And the Grand Panjandrum himself, Linnaeus (1707 - 1778), father of plant classification, named the tea plant 'thea sinensis' China tea. The Chinese word cha in putonghua (standard Chinese) is, in fact, pronounced something like tay in Fujian, a main tea-producing province. This was also the English pronunciation in the 18th century; the French and German words for tea have a similar sound today. This seems to prove something.

The Chinese tea plant, no longer a tall wild tree but a low bush with fragrant creamy-white flowers, does best in a warm humid climate. Humidity allows the leaves and buds to grow slowly and remain tender. And in general, the higher the ground the better the tea. To put it more poetically, it grows well in mountains and mist. So most of China's tea plantations are in the mountain areas of the south-west: for instance on Fujian's Wuyi Mountain, Sichuan's Emei, Jiangxi's Lushan and Anhui's Huangshan - mountains of particular beauty and grandeur.

There are, of course, many different areas, but three types predominate: green, black and scented. The tea we tend to associate with China is the green one, made from unfermented leaves and producing a pale, mildly flavoured drink, generally favoured by the Chinese in the summertime. Probably the most famous of these is the Longjing 'Dragon Well' from a village of that name in the hills near Hangzhou. The village has a clear cool well, fed by a nearby spring and in ancient times, people came to this well in time of drought to pray for rain. They believed a dragon (dispenser of rain) lived in the well.

The black is a fermented tea with dark leaves. 'Keeman Black' from Anhui, for instance, one of the most expensive blends, has a unique fragrance and fine, tightly-rolled leaves. 'Yunnan Black', growing one to two thousand meters above sea level in a region of fertile soil, cloud-capped peaks and deep misty valleys, produces a reddish brew, strong in flavour and with a sweet aroma. The 'Lapsang Soochong' of Fujian is well known in Britain and well appreciated by connoisseurs.

Now the scented teas, the most delicate and fragrant. They are first-grade green teas mixed with dried scented flowers, usually jasmine or Yulan (a kind of magnolia). The best jasmine tea comes from Fujian which produces large heavily-scented flowers and loose-textured tea leaves which absorb the fragrance well. The choicest grade of jasmine-scented tea is the 'Chun Feng' (Spring Breeze), so called because the early Spring, when the breeze blows in the Fujian mountains is the best time to pick the tenderest tea leaves. Much skill is needed in blending, the scenting of the tea being usually done at night. The freshly picked jasmine is kept in a cool place till nightfall. When the flowers start to open and give off their scent, they are put next to the previously heaped tea leaves in a given ratio. The dry leaves absorb the fragrance. Ordinary grades are scented two or three times; the special grades even more. This process was formerly carried out by hand but now by machine.

There is one more type of characteristic Chinese tea, the 'Yunnan brick tea'. This is made from steamed green tea leaves, pressed into all kinds of ornamental shapes or patterned bricks and left to harden. It is mainly for export to the Border Regions: Xizang (Tibet), Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. The Tibetans traditionally drink their tea 'buttered'. A hunk of tea brick is well boiled, salt, soda and a large piece of rancid yak butter are added and the whole churned well in a wooden cylinder. The concoction sounds horrific but is said to be very sustaining - good for countering fatigue in the rare air. Alan Winnington reported that Tibetans drank up to 60 cups of it a day.

The secrets of tea-brewing? The 'Tea Classic' advises mountain or spring water, snow water or lately, well water. Soft water is best, for very alkaline water makes the infusion taste flat or stale. One should avoid surface water from alkaline districts or still water from the plains. It's best to use a small pot (too much water at a time 'stews' the tea), preferably porcelain or, failing that, earthenware. Metal is not satisfactory: so much for our Queen Anne silver. It goes without saying (Lu Yu doesn't say it) that one should not 'ruin' tea with milk or sugar.

Finally it is reassuring to be told by Chinese pharmacologists, ancient and modern, that tea promotes health. It is said to clear the mind, stimulate the nervous system, brighten the eyes, strengthen heart muscles, help to lower blood pressure, kill certain bacilli, to be useful in the treatment of dysentery and to encourage a sense of well-being. Although no encouragement is needed to drink more tea in the West, and still less in China, it is cheering to know that while indulging ourselves in the beloved cuppa', we are actually doing ourselves good.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 97, Page 14, July 1981

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.