Notes from the Tea Fields: Contemporary Tea Culture in China

I sit with a thimble-sized Yixing clay teacup in hand, looking into the second steeping of my Laoshan green tea, transported away by the smell of wet earth and soy beans swirling up in water-bead vapor trails towards the ceiling light. The glass pitcher used to steep the tea rests on my desk, with bright green leaves covering the bottom. The small leaves were moments ago dry and twisted to the thinness of yarn; now open as if they still lived to absorb the muted sunlight of Laoshan.

They remind me of a friend’s hand, calloused from picking tea leaves each day. We walked his tea farm, the northernmost crop of tea in all of China. He gestured to the rocky peak of Laoshan. “The rain that falls here is filtered by those rocks. It runs down the mountain peak and collects here.” In front of us was a crystal-clear pool of Laoshan water with circular rocks at the bottom. “It is the clean water and the unique mineral content that give my tea its earthy and pure flavor.” He bent over and picked three perfect buds, each with a just-unfolded leaf still attached. “Drinking tea affirms our bond with nature. We must keep the countryside clean and unpolluted for good rain and fog to nourish and protect the leaves. When you drink my green tea, I hope that its flavor will remind you of Laoshan, and make you thankful for nature and for the hard labor that the farmers carry out to pick each leaf.”

We walked back towards the buildings at the center of his farm and I saw peasants spreading leaves out on bamboo mats to wilt, sending the leaves through an air dryer, twisting them into a unique spiraled shape and drying them again. A worker asked me in heavily accented Mandarin to film her so that Americans could see the work that went into tea. “Everything I do simply keeps the natural flavor of tea sealed in those dried strands so that weeks or months later, the leaves can be woken again by water.”

As I sip the tea, I remember those words and admire her skill, thinking how far from Laoshan those leaves have now traveled on their way back to America. Of the many people in the tea industry that I befriended over two months, the farmers left the deepest impression. Conveniently, to discuss the farmers is to discuss the origin of tea, the starting point, the bulwark of tea culture.

One weekend I took a pilgrimage from the tea’s final frontier in Qingdao to the very heart of green tea culture, Hangzhou. On my taxi ride from the airport to the hostel I was lodging at, the driver asked my why I came to Hangzhou. I explained to him my goal of understanding tea culture in its most traditional context. His reply; “You came all the way here from Qingdao for that? I will help you out, alright? This is tea culture.” He took his thermos from under his seat and set it in front of me. “First I boil water, then I add leaves. Did you get that? There is nothing else.” I did not know how to respond, so I bought time with a question,

“What kind of tea are you drinking?” He opened the thermos and let me look at the mess of broken leaves and swirling sediment.

“It isn’t much. Not the kind of tea you probably like, but it works. Just green tea.” I decided that asking what region his green tea was from was not the best idea. We sat in silence for the rest of the trip. When I arrived at my room I was reminded of the tea master Sen Rikyu and his instructions on successful tea ceremony: “Make a satisfying bowl of tea, lay the charcoal so that the water boils efficiently, provide a sense of warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer, arrange flowers as though they were in the field…act with utmost consideration towards your guests.” His disciple was indignant at the seeming simplicity.

The master responded, “Observe all my rules without fail and I will become your disciple.”1 The enormous depth of the ceremony for Sen Rikyu lies in its simplicity.

Was this taxi driver a modern tea sage, or simply someone having a little fun at my expense? Whatever the answer, his words reverberate even today whenever I talk to a classmate about tea.

When I reached the hostel, I washed the sticky layers of humidity off my face, and got out a napkin with an address written on it. “54 Longjing Village.” This was given to me as the address of some Dragonwell tea farmers. I wondered about the lack of a road name, but thought that even if I didn’t find them, it would be a good chance to stretch my legs amid the tea field after a long plane ride.

The bus line ended in Longjing village, nestled between mountain peaks above Hangzhou, including the famous Lion’s peak where in April of 2005 two ounces of the first picking of the spring sold for 17605 USD.2 Beginning with the Qianlong emperor’s declaration of Longjing tea as a tribute tea and continuing through Mao Zedong’s famous love for Longjing tea and his visit to the village to pick leaves himself, a sense of legend pervades the leaves here. As the bus came to a stop, a woman sitting next to me asked me if I wanted to try some Longjing tea at her house. I told her I wasn’t here to buy tea, but to visit someone. She didn’t pursue the topic.

As I got off the bus, a group of about ten bored looking villagers sitting in the square suddenly stood up and picked up their bamboo baskets of tea. “Lonjing tea!” they yelled in halting English. “Come to drink Longjing tea.” I said again, I didn’t come to buy any tea. Switching to Chinese again, they asked, “why did you come here?”

I had read about these people before arriving. Many travelers claimed that they could not get rid of the tea sellers until they bought a token amount. Not wanting to find myself with a canister of tea grown hundreds of miles away, then packaged and sold as Dragonwell Lion’s peak tea to eager and curious tourists, I stretched the truth, replying “I have friends I am visiting.”

“Who?” I glanced at the napkin and read the name.

“Oh.” The villagers sat back down disappointed at a lost sale.

My anxiety over finding the right road was in vain. The village began at a government-constructed archway commemorating the nearly-holy tea and continuing down the only road. The bus line ended where the pavement did. From that point on, cobblestones lined the clean village. I looked for number fifty-four, realizing that none of the structure looked like companies. Instead the village was made up of peasant houses, some with signs proclaiming “Dragonwell tea for sale.” I walked for about twenty minutes until the cobblestone too ended and a dirt road continued. As the road began to wind up to the mountain peak a watermelon peddler and her kids were sitting in the shade of a Fir tree.

“Watermelon! Do you need some watermelon?” While the heat-soaked air indeed tempted me to eat a little watermelon, I instead asked,

“Do you know where the Li family lives?” They pointed to a house perched on top of a small hill in the valley, covered with low to the ground lines of tea bushes. Bright green leaves curled into little needle shapes contrasted with the large dark older leaves. These buds are the lifeblood of Longjing Village, worth as in the case of the 2005 auction, more than their dried weight in gold.3

I walked timidly up the dirt path of the house, seeing not even the customary “Tea for Sale” sign. Nobody was sitting on the stone courtyard outside the house, so I poked my head in the door and asked if Mrs Li was home. While the villagers of Laoshan were always curious at my white skin and curly hair, the man sitting in his living room didn’t blink an eye at it. “Please sit. Drink some tea.” He pulled out a wooden chair and brought a thick tall tumbler glass with those precious Longjing leaves at the bottom, pouring steaming water from a three foot-tall pink thermos. He disappeared for three minutes, then walked through the living room into the outdoor kitchen. “She will be right with you.” He looked at my full cup and laughed, “You can drink it now.”

A short muscular woman came in with her college-aged daughter. The daughter greeted me in broken English, but hearing Mandarin in response, relievedly shifted language. The mother frowned, “You should practice your English with the foreigner.”

“Mom, that is embarrassing. I can’t speak English.” The mother turned and addressed me,

“This is my daughter, we are sending her to college, but she is home from the city for vacation. How do you like the tea?”

“It is very different from the Laoshan green tea I am used to. I need to think more about the flavor. It is interesting.” Honestly, the mystique around Longjing village created expectations too high not to be broken when trying the most famous tea in China. I explained that I had actually come to learn more about tea culture in Hangzhou. The woman told me to wait, returning with a second chipped glass of tea with the tea leaves swirling around as the steeped.

“See the way the leaves unfold and float vertically like that? This is our best tea.” I smelled it and was immediately taken back by the strong mineral-earthy smell. The taste was a world away from my first cup. “The first cup is what we drink every day. I want you to try the second one so that you know true Longjing tea.

The woman and her family spend a frantic two months in the spring picking their plot of leaves on Lion’s peak, working from before dawn until long after dusk every day. They say that the difference of one day on when leaves are picked changes not only the flavor but also their price significantly. A March 28th cup of tea costs much more than an April 2nd tea.

In the cobblestone courtyard in front of their house, the family lays out the tea leaves to wilt and then shapes and sears them in a large wok under low constant heat. Their hands are calloused from pressing the leaves directly against the hot metal for a perfect shape and appropriately roasted flavor. Even the daughter returns from collage to expedite the time-sensitive tea-making process. After the tea is picked and dried, it is not harvested again all summer. The family explained that the leaves absorb too much sunlight in the summer to have the distinctive sweet and earthy taste that Longjing promises.

At my visit in July, the streets were quiet, children played on house steps and old men crouched around tables talking to the constant click of Mah Jong tiles. Women were gathered together between houses chatting with each other. I asked the mother of the family, “Who do you usually sell tea to? Is it to middlemen that come up to the village, to tea stores in the city, or does a family member set up a market stall in Hangzhou and sell to individuals?”

The woman smiled, “We don’t care too much for money up here. Our lives are simple. We pick tea all spring and relax for the rest of the year. We grow our own food, so we don’t need much. If people come to our house, we will sell them tea. Some villagers go sell to tourists, but that is because their tea is not as good. We sell to one person who finds us, and they tell their friends, who tell their friends. That is enough.”

It is individual farmers like these who lay the foundation of my search for tea’s identity. These farmers own their land generations back. During the cultural revolution, they said, the land was made into commune-style farming. I asked if they were ordered to increase output and lower quality to provide more tea for China. The woman’s husband entered, “No, we have always given the same quality tea.” It seems that even revolutionaries, Mao Zedong included, had a penchant for this legendary tea.

While the men and women who devote their lives and their land to tea share their knowledge with a humility fitting for the Buddhist and Daoist use of the beverage for meditation and contemplation of the universe, one need only descend the Lion’s Peak to Hangzhou proper for a completely different view. Teahouses line every block, from the four story lakeside operations to smoky establishments with only “green tea,” and “black tea” on the menu where young couples rendezvous and middle-aged women gossip loudly. Prices for a pot range between a 200 USD Taiwanese Oolong and a 40 cent local green tea made from broken leaves.

Even in Qingdao, where tea by no means pervades daily life to the extent it does in Hangzhou, incredibly expensive tea can be found. I sat for an afternoon with a woman who started her own tea shop at age 22, sensing an opportunity with the growth of connoisseurship in a city of increasing wealth. We sipped a heavenly Tieguanyin oolong tea whose price I inquired about. She said that it is probably worth 40 dollars a pound, which was at the time moderate price for the level of quality. Surprised by this I assumed that she must have even better Tieguanyin since most tea shop’s high end oolong goes for upwards of 100 dollars a pound. “No,” she said, “this is my best Tieguanyin. I know that you appreciate the tea for its flavor, so I tell you forty dollars, but if some people come in and ask for my best Oolong they would leave offended if I sold it so cheap. More and more people have so much money to spend, but they do not understand tea. They want to impress their friends so instead of offering a creamy, flowerly Tieguanyin to friends they will say ‘I have a 200 dollar a pound Tieguanyin.’ It is this kind of person that make our prices so high. If I sense this kind of person, the tea you are drinking becomes a 180 dollar tea.”

It was this shrewd woman who made me first aware of a demographic group that used tea as a means to advance socially. They might give an expensive tea to their boss with the price left on, or bring it to a tasting where they compete with their friends to bring the most costly sample. Those who can find the highest price win the highest esteem. I stayed up late that night trying to reconcile the humble kindness of my farmer friends who make the tea with the snobbish use of tea by the elite.

I started the next day early, traveling to the tea markets asking other proprietors about these special customers. Sure enough, everyone that I spoke with had similar stories, all told with a tone of resentment towards the customers in question. However I came across one man with an interesting perspective. He prepared an old Pu’er tea made from the first spring buds of tea trees in Yunnan and aged for a decade in a compressed brick. The bricks sell for hundreds of dollars each and taste like wild mushrooms dried with cinnamon and nutmeg. The tea was extraordinary; Technically made from the same plant that an earthy astringent green tea is made from but processed in such a way to taste of mushroom and mulling spice. The process takes years of careful attention and a precisely controlled storage system.

I asked him about snobbery and disrespect for tea among his customers. He sighed, “Of course. This is China. People buy tea for face, not for its flavors. They will pay extraordinary amounts for the rarest teas like the one we are drinking. But, what can we do? Without the money from such people, nobody would take the time to make teas like this, and if they were made, they would be reserved for politicians. With a market for expensive teas, people like me can devote their lives to tasting the finest tea in China and bringing it here to sell. This is what I love. This tea is the legacy of years of labor. How else can we continue to promote tea culture if not for the money of those who reject it?”

Of course, this proprietor is correct. If there is no market for the commodities that embody tea culture, then tea culture would recede to an elect few. Money brings tea ceremony, and the finest teas to every major city in China. While culture itself is not contained within the commodity or the ritual, Confucius knew that even the loftiest of men need ritual to remember the ideal that such ritual embodies.

In discussion with Qingdao university professor, expert on tea culture and ancient China Qu Jiangchuan, I have come to understand the abstract foundation for humbleness among tea sellers. Tea’s historical beginning is simply its use as a medicinal herb, and later for its caffeine. There is a legend of Shen Nong, the mythic founder of Chinese medicine. One day he went into the mountains to try different herbs and record their effects, but consumed a deadly poison by accident. He lay dying on the ground until tea leaves blew in the wind to him. He took it as divine inspiration and tried the leaves. Soon, he was completely recovered.

At the Northern edge of Yunnan province, the land of the famous Pu’er tea, I came across an increasingly Tibetan landscape; Prayer flags hung between mountain peaks, and yak grazing along the road. Here, I had the opportunity to sit with a Buddhist lama and sip Tibet’s unique butter tea. Tea did not spread from China proper to this region until the marriage of Han Chinese princess Wen Cheng to the Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo. The tea brought over was compressed into bricks for the journey, then ground to a powder and mixed with hot water to drink. The Tibetans found this beverage an excellent compliment to their diet of predominantly meat since it seemed to aid digestion. Butter tea was born with the realization that yak butter and salt could be mixed with the tea to create a highly sustaining drink for journeys through the cold.

This lama explained that he woke up at four every morning and prayed until noon. A lama cannot stop meditation to eat, but drinking tea prepared by the young apprentice monks was an excellent way to stay awake and undistracted.

It doesn’t take a trip all the way to the Tibetan hinterlands to understand tea’s role as a medicine instead of the object f connoisseurship. On my first week in Qingdao I took a trip to the largest bookstore in the city, Xinhua Book City to search for Lu Yu’s Book of Tea. I first assumed it would be with ancient literature, and searched the entire basement floor with no luck. After an inquiry, I was sent to the fifth floor tea section, home to over two hundred titles related to tea. Displayed prominently as the best-seller was “Tea Doctor” an instructional book on using tea to cure various physical ailments.

After searching through piles of texts on “Cooking with Tea for Better Health,” and “All of China’s Teas, a Connoisseur’s Guide to Tea Buying” I realized that my beloved text was simply not a match in profit potential. This bookstore is a good indicator of cultural trends; Tea, as always, is being used for its health benefits with no consideration for flavor. It is also being bought up by the very wealthy, and in the case of Pu’er, often stored and resold at higher prices. Two hundred titles, and nothing on the history of tea, the philosophy of tea, or the specifics of the tea ceremony.

I walked back to Qingdao university that evening wondering if what I wanted to understand about tea culture had been pushed out of the mainstream and left to dusty libraries and villages like Longjing. Luckily, I had the chance to talk with tea expert Jiangchuan Qu the next morning. “Do you know white tea?”

I responded, “Of course, the Fujian non-oxidized budset tea, Silver Needle and the new bud and leaf clump mixture, White Peony.”

“No, I mean true white tea.” I thought my research into the types of Chinese tea must have skipped over something quite important.

“What is true white tea?”

“The Chinese have a system of labels for teas based on the color of the tea water. Black is Pu’er, red is your ‘black tea,’ blue is oolong; Green and yellow are the same as the English. Now if you had to pick a color for just water?”

“White?”

“Yes. During hard times, guests were presented with a steaming glass of ‘white tea.’ The peasant hosts were too poor to buy tea leaves, but they still went through the ceremony of heating the water and pouring it through a tea pot and into cups for guests. The guests would accept the ‘white tea’ without question, letting the host save face.”

“Would it be rude to serve water simply as water?”

“Tea is more than just a beverage for the Chinese. You must remember there is a ceremony attached to it. The act of pouring tea carries much baggage. Tea is first and foremost a humbling experience in China. Even the particularities of the tea ceremony itself are meant to preserve not obscure this humble quality. Everyone must sit at the same level as the tea is prepared. When the tea is poured into cups, they are lined up with the rims touching and the stream of water travels up and down the line in swift motions toy ensure that the flavor of each cup is exactly the same. If each cup was filled individually, the first one would be too light and the last too bitter.”

Professor Qu’s words were the first that seemed to draw a steady line from the humble tea farmer to the final recipient of the tea. This ‘white tea’ he spoke of gives neither taste nor health benefits, but it was received with the same gratitude that a cup of first picking Lion’s Peak Dragonwell tea is received. Perhaps tea’s true benefits lie not in the leaf but in the very act of preparing the tea.

The following weekend I went to the tea market to discuss the idea of tea as a social connection with nature and instrument of humility. One proprietor, Ms. Wang, had an interesting idea. “Tea should be served to students in kindergarten and primary school. Making the students sit together and watch tea being prepared in the traditional way would build community and foster patience.” This proposal might not have sat well with children’s aversion to bitter flavors, but I admired Ms. Wang’s devotion to tea ceremony as an act with significance in itself, an act with the ability to raise even children’s awareness to an abstract level.

Ms. Wang poured me some of her family’s Anxi Tieguanyin and she brought up the term, gongfu. This is the name for tea to be used in tea ceremony. Literally it means free time. “Tea,” she explained “is the act of creating leisure in a chaotic world. If we do not stop for a few minutes every day we just eat, work, sleep and repeat until death. Tea is a ritual that enforces leisure. When I drink tea my mind is free to wander, to contemplate my life and whether or not I am happy on the path I have chosen. Without tea, who would stop every day to think?” There must be something to her words, for we spent the remaining afternoon chatting about Daoist philosophy.

Ms. Wang and Professor Qu have a true conception of the role of tea culture in modern China. While the tea growing villages have remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years except for the introduction of machines to dry tea leaves, and a brief attempt at commune-style land reform, the cities have undergone profound and sweeping changes. The pace of life has accelerated, the workday lengthened. Salaries have gone up, international cultural influence has exerted itself, bringing with it Coca-cola and Korean soap operas. Tea is humility, leisure, and contemplation. Of course there are those who only use tea to impress company and boost their social standing, but they are in fact the minority. Tea was first used as a medicine for the body; It has come full circle, providing an antidote for the mind, a medicine to treat stress and anxiety.

Were this not the case, tea would have long ago lost its status as revered. There are connoisseurs of everything under the sun, but tea is still an act of ceremony. Tea is saturated with history, with the humility that is brought out by the ceremony, and with the grandeur of the mountains that it grows upon,

1. Heiss, Mary Lou and Robert, The Story Of Tea. Ten Speed Press, (Berkely, 2007) 316.

2. <http://english.zjol.com.cn/05english/system/2005/04/20/006095721.shtml> 04/20/2005

3. http://www.goldprice.org/

Teas Relevant To This Article

Published on by David Duckler

Tea is first and foremost a humbling experience in China. Even the particularities of the tea ceremony itself are meant to preserve not obscure this humble quality....

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Laoshan GreenLaoshan Green
Brewing Jingshan GreenBrewing Jingshan Green
Laoshan Tea FieldsLaoshan Tea Fields
Mr. He showing off his cropMr. He showing off his crop
Isolated Village in YunnanIsolated Village in Yunnan
Wang HuimingWang Huiming
The finest teahouse in QingdaoThe finest teahouse in Qingdao
Yunnan Golden Buds BlackYunnan Golden Buds Black

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Posted Comments

  1. Drew

    Someday I hope I can visit China to really get a chance to delve into tea!

  2. JD

    I truly love that you include as much culture and history on your website as you do tea!

  3. Jim

    I’ve been trying to find one of the “tea holders” that you have in the second picture. I can’t find anything. What are they called?

  4. High

    I wish I could afford to give all my young students a taste of good tea and the opportunity to see tea ceremoniously prepared. Their only connection to it is my deep enjoyment of my daily cups of tea.

  5. Sarah

    Very cool!

  6. Scott

    Wonderful article, it’s so great to get a better understanding of the culture behind the drink!