I didn’t realize that normal tea farmers mostly don’t know how to make tea until I quit my job from the tea export company in Yunnan. After that, I traveled a lot to visit many different farmers, talk to them, get to know them, and try to learn from them, but it was neither easy nor exciting. I gradually became disappointed because it was so difficult to find a tea farmer who really knew how to make high quality tea by hand without using a machine.
Yunnan and China have such a long history of tea. Why was it so hard to find a tea farmer who could make high quality tea without using a machine? I asked every single farmer that I met. They had an average age of 30 to 60 years old. Some of them owned ancient tea trees inherited from their fathers and knew how to produce tea, but those were very few. Other tea farmers who grew tea bushes or worked for factories didn’t know how to produce tea by themselves at all. The only thing they knew was how to pick the leaves, but even with that, they did not know how to pick leaves like their fathers had. They had been taught how to pick leaves by a person in a tea company or tea factory who managed them.
This is not a coincidence, there is actually a very deep historical reason: since the Tang dynasty, China has had a very strict tea policy, which included tea industry law, a tea business management department, tea tax, a tea production and selling system, tea trading, and tea price management, etc. From the Tang dynasty through the Qing dynasty, a total of 1293 years, China’s feudal emperors and the government totally monopolized the tea industry. In the Tang dynasty, the government passed the law that all normal people’s tea plants had to be moved to the government’s tea garden. Every part of the process, from growing to production and selling, were all run by the government. If any normal people wanted to grow tea, they had to pay very high taxes to the government. In the Song dynasty, there were several uprisings of tea farmers. So from this period onward, most tea masters who could make high quality tea were from the imperial palace. They controlled the best tea plants and had the best tea producing techniques. During the Qing dynasty, the government expanded the government-owned tea gardens to all of the major tea growing areas in China, and the government could produce all major tea varieties.
From the Tang dynasty until the 20th century, no major tea masters were farmers. Some worked in the government, some were poets or other literary figures, and some were tea businessmen. For example, there was a very famous poet named Lu You (陆游) in the Song dynasty. He worked in the government tea and salt business. His ten years in the government inspired many famous poems about tea, and his poems also made clear his opinion of how to make tea and taste teas, so he is as important a figure in tea history as Lu Yu, who wrote the Classic of Tea.
After the Qing dynasty, China entered the modern era. During this period, China’s tea industry gradually industrialized, and the descendants or apprentices of people who used to work in the Qing government started to get involved in the tea industry. In 1905, an officer from the Qing government named Zheng Shihuang (郑世璜) brought some other officers to India and Sri Lanka to study how Assam tea, Darjeeling tea, etc. were produced in South Asia. Since then, China’s mechanized tea production started to develop, and many tea farmers were able to get involved in tea production.
Hu Haochuan (胡浩川, 1896-1972) was a tea expert in modern times. In 1921, he went to Japan to study Japanese tea production techniques. In 1924, he returned to China and became the manager of the Anhui Keemun Tea Improvement Department, and also served as the head of Anhui Province’s Tea Management Department. After 1949, he became one of the important tea artificers who joined together to build the China Tea Company. He was a major figure who drew up the plan for tea production and selling for all of China, and he also set the purchasing, producing, and exporting standards for China’s tea. From 1933 to 1934, he wrote a book with another tea expert named Wu Juenong (吴觉农) who also studied in Japan, and the book was called China Tea Industry Revival Plan and How to Copy Kemmum Mao Cha.
Following this historical line, we can discover one thing: between the Qing dynasty and modern times, no craftsmanship from folk artisans was recorded. There were only a few major people who were related to the Qing government, or who had the chance to go to Japan and become major artificers, who influenced China’s entire tea industry.
This explains why normal tea farmers hardly know how to produce teas. I continually searched for the real tea artisans who had not had their knowledge passed down from government officials, and we found that there were very few tea artisans deep in the mountains. Most of them were ethnic minorities, with their own cultures that are totally different from the Han Chinese. They had their own customs and could hardly speak or understand Mandarin. They used no machines, and the tea was purely handcrafted in a peaceful environment. Most of the artisans who could make really good teas were 60 to 80 years old. Some of their descendants have learned from them and continue to make tea using the ways they had been taught, but most old tea artisans’ descendants didn’t want to stay in the mountains and had already left their villages to go to the cities. More and more, old tea artisans are losing the opportunity to pass their knowledge on to successors.
Popular tea provinces like Zhejiang, Yunnan, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Sichuan, and Fujian are all losing their tea artisans. Right now, most tea artisans are over 40 years old, and most young people born in the 80s or 90s aren’t really interested in studying how to make tea, because it is very difficult. You need to have lots of patience, as it takes three years to learn the basic techniques alone, and if you want to become a true artisan, it may take you more than 20 years. Right now, most young Chinese people are facing very difficult times economically. The basic cost of living is increasing. This requires them to get jobs with a quicker turnaround, so fewer and fewer young people choose to study how to make tea. Furthermore, since teas are more and more commonly made by machine, tea companies are generally trying to buy machines instead of skilled labor, making it that much more difficult for young people interested in studying the craft of tea to find a job.
China has six major categories of tea, and there are hundreds of different types of teas within these categories. As a tea artisan, if you can make more than 2 or 3 different types of tea, then they are truly incredible. Most tea artisans spend their whole lives getting good at making just one type of tea well. Unfortunately, even though machines can produce tons of stable quality teas, the quality, flavor and aroma can never really be compared to that of a good tea artisan’s tea. Because tea is from nature, and nature is always changing depending on the weather, climate, and environment, only a person’s hand can feel how different the tea leaves are from year to year. The tea of a certain year may need lower temperate firing, or it may need longer drying in the sun. Everything needs to be adjusted based on changes in nature. Machines totally ignore all of those details, and treat tea leaves as identical industrial products with very little attention given to the uniqueness of every tea.
There is lady named You Yuqiong (游玉琼) who lives in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province who can make fantastic Wuyi oolong purely by hand, and her technique has been listed as a part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. As a Chinese person, I feel it is really a shame that such a big country with such a long tea history has so very few of people who know how to make good, handmade tea, to the point that the few who do are basically on an endangered species list. We shouldn’t be happy about this at all! As for this lady’s tea, I wanted to buy her tea to taste, but unfortunately, it is way too expensive and I can’t afford it. Her tea is such a treasure that it has been collected by a national museum in China for preservation!
Imagine that if most normal tea farmers knew how to make pure, high quality, handmade tea; if most tea farmers grew teas from seeds in the traditional way; if this world had never created machines that could produce millions of metric tons of tea; and if we didn’t genetically alter tea and allowed it to grow in the wild, what fantastic tea we could get - and we might even be able to afford it!
If we all want to a peaceful world, maybe we really should seriously think how to protect the true tea artisans and biodiversity tea environment, as a consumer, every single of your decision is giving a big influence for the world of future.
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