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China’s Evolving Tea Traditions

Tea drying

Tea is being dried after being picked in China. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, and Wuding, at the height of China’s Oolong-producing Phoenix Mountain range, are farther apart than just the eight-hour drive and 5,577-foot climb of road between them. In these places, China’s extremes burst out in spurts of color and flavor.

Whereas the city’s incessant gray concrete streets, bland building blocks and elevated highways are punctuated by neon lights in primary colors calling out karaoke bars and seafood restaurants, the mountain passes are flush with greens of varying hues and strokes of flowering trees.

While Guangzhou offers up flavors of all varieties, the pure and simple home-cooked foods in the rural areas highlight quality, local ingredients.

These are the places where the ancient traditions of tea-growing meet the Chinese tea industry’s future. Here, Liu Jingjun was born into a tea-producing family whose 1,076-square-foot plantation, about 3,280 feet above sea level, lies en route to Wuding, the peak where the most expensive Oolong trees, some of which are hundreds of years old, grow.

The head of the family, who I called Lao Liu or “Old Liu,” acquired the lease of the land immediately after the Cultural Revolution, once regulations regarding communes began to loosen and small landowners were allowed to privately manage a couple acres of land.

Liu recently drove his new Volkswagen Passat to his father’s farmhouse down smooth highways that had been paved just a year before. We wound our way up the mountainside along roads that had been rubble and dirt until three years before. Before these changes, Liu had to walk a couple of hours on these rough roads to and from school. Tea producers were limited to distributing their wares via expertly-driven motorcycles.

Growing demand, changing technology

Thirty years ago, the main buyer of Chinese tea was the government, which remains a big customer, said Bethan Thomas, a British tea consultant who has studied the country’s tea ceremonies and supplied Chinese tea to the West for several years. China’s rapid economic boom and improved living standards have greatly influenced the tea industry, said Pang Ying, manager of the Amanfayun teahouse based to the west of West Lake, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Hangzhou, an area renowned for its Dragon Well green teas. Chinese people have increasing amounts of disposable income to spend on tea, which is leading to ever-higher quality expectations from consumers, Pang said. Tea art houses, which are each called “chaguan,” are experiencing a renaissance domestically, Thomas said.

“Rather than a Buddhist tea garden, they now have options to go to a tea garden where beautiful woman will serve you according to particular guidelines. It is elevating how people consume tea,” Thomas said.

Internationally, there is growing demand from Europe and the United States, creating extra avenues of sales. “It’s fantastic, the pre-Qing Ming first flush had a higher value than gold this year!” said Thomas referring to the tea picked before April 4, which is the Chinese tomb-sweeping day called Qing Ming.

Today, after decades of restrictive Communist policies and economically slow times, Chinese tea producers are honing this craft once again.

“When farmers master the use of tea machinery, equipment and technology, they can really enhance the production of tea and ensure a consistent quality,” Pang said. “Improving productivity has been the greatest reason for the modernization of tea production.”

Fundamentally, electricity and financial resources make these implements accessible to these producers. In addition to traditional equipment like broad, round wicker trays used for withering (air drying), the Liu family, with funding and access to electricity, has now invested in a circling machine, in which the tea leaves are tossed to bruise their edges. This begins the process of oxidation while the leaves dry, which is the first of many steps in tea processing.

Tea leaves are hand-fired in woks. Modern woks that tea farmers have begun using have electronically controlled temperature, which means the leaves can be perfectly fired every time, said Thomas.

“But they still use the very traditional technique with your hands as it has been done for thousands of years,” she said.

Like many upwardly mobile people in China, or anywhere in the world, the Liu family now has a computer, camera, Internet access and mobile phones.

New prosperity

Zooming past scores of handmade tofu street vendors standing beside wooden shacks and rundown Buddhist temples dotting the roads, it becomes clear that tea producers are doing relatively well. Every new plantation we visited had new, foreign luxury-brand cars in front. Farmhouses are being renovated and enlarged, and the Liu family home, which was previously cobbled together with clay walls, wood beams, straw roofs and mud floors,  is now being outfitted with ceramic tile floors, glass windows, smooth insulated walls and a cement roof. The house is four stories tall, with enough bedrooms to house Lao Liu’s two sons and two daughters, plus each of their spouses and children.

Curving higher and higher to the top of Phoenix Mountain, we stopped at three Oolong tea farms, drinking tea with the families who produce the tea while the many wives and husbands of the extended family network took turns resting from their work. The families work together picking the tea, laying leaves out to sun-dry, and then shaking, burning, spinning and sifting the crop before tea leaves are placed in a drying machine and then packaging for sale.

Sometimes simple crackers and cookies were brought out, but always, without fail, we were treated to a Gongfu cha tea ceremony, to taste that day’s crop and compare with other recent varietals the family’s gathered. Laughter, stories, business deals and family arrangements shuttled back and forth, between which we listened to gentle slurps and water being splashed out of cups to empty for another round.

Photo: Tea is being dried after being picked in China. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at