Dragonwell village, praised by emperor Qianlong and even Mao Zedong, is considered by many to be the epicenter of Chinese tea culture.  You wouldn’t know it in the distant northern province of Shandong working with the tea farmers of Laoshan.  There, Dragonwell is the focus of many jokes about what is wrong with tea culture.  The farmers in Laoshan claim that Dragonwell tea isn’t even that green, and that it has nothing going for it but looks.

Considering the general attitude about Dragonwell village, I had to steel myself when I asked my colleagues at Qingdao University for leave to go down south and learn what I could about mainstream tea culture.  Many of them said that all the true tea culture a person could want was right in nearby Laoshan Village where I had been conducting research.  I was able to make more sympathizers to my cause by claiming that I needed a comparison to truly appreciate everything Laoshan had to offer.

Plane tickets in hand, I was finally on my way to Hangzhou and Dragonwell Village.  I had done my best to read up on the tea resources of the area, marking the Tea Culture Museum to check out, along with several great teahouses.  What I really wanted was access to the farmers themselves high up in the mountains above Hangzhou producing some of the most expensive and sought after tea in the world.

I flagged a taxi at the Hangzhou airport and struck up a conversation on the ride to the hotel.  I told the taxi driver about my research project to document modern Chinese tea culture, and told him that I was here from Qingdao.  I thought that I would be more likely to get information from him by telling him that I knew I had to go to Hangzhou to understand true tea culture.  “You came all the way here from Qingdao just to learn about how we drink tea?”  The taxi driver was incredulous.  “Let me save you some money and just take you back to the airport right now… Look- I have a glass, I put some leaves in it and pour boiling water over the top.  That’s tea.  Do you still want to see Hangzhou?  Should I show you again?”

Certainly not the findings I expected in the tea center of China, but intriguing nonetheless.  I have noticed that taxi drivers in China often have an unexpected wisdom and sense of irony.  Was this a modern day tea sage, explaining the inherent humility and simplicity of a cup of tea, or just a taxi driver having fun at the expense of a foreigner?  I thanked him for the demonstration and asked him what kind of leaves he had in his cup.  “Tea leaves,” he said.

“Well, since I am here in Hangzhou, maybe I will stay anyway to be a tourist if not to research tea.  You can still take me to my hotel.”

“Sure, sure.  Here we are.”  I thanked him for the enlightening ride and checked in before dinner.  I was still without a lead on meeting the farmers.  Since it was late enough, I sent an email to a Chinese professor back in America hoping that she might have some leads.  As luck would have it, one of her friends had visited Dragonwell recently and gave her the address of a farmer they talked to that I could go visit.

To celebrate the sudden turn of luck after such a bizarre experience with my first Hangzhou local, the flippant taxi driver, I decided to go out to a nice restaurant.  With a recommendation from the hotel in hand, I flagged another taxi, crossing my fingers that this one would be more of the get you from point A to point B type.

A silent ride was not fated to be so.  “What are you doing in Hangzhou?” the driver asked.  I told her that I was visiting a “friend” in Dragonwell Village to learn about tea.  “Who are you visiting?”  I would normally be a bit put off by such specific and prying questioning, but remembered that I was in China, and there seemed to be a certain openness to asking personal questions wherever I went.  I showed the driver the name and address I had picked up.  “This is your friend you say?”

“Well, not exactly a friend, but somebody a colleague knows.”

“I didn’t want to say anything, but if you don’t know them yet, I have to tell you not to visit them.  They are no good.”  I thought to myself, Hangzhou is not a little back-country town.  What are the chances of this driver knowing all the villagers in nearby Dragonwell.  “My good friend is a farmer in Dragonwell.  Mrs. Li.  She is who you want to talk to.  She will treat you well.  Just ask her about that name you wrote down and she can explain everything.”  The taxi driver actually gave me a name and address.  I thought that this sort of thing must be a typical scam.  The taxi driver sends you to a particular tourist trap, you are asked to spend loads of money and leave all the wiser.  “Thank you for the ride.  I will have to stop by your friend’s farm.”

In the morning I caught the bus up to Dragonwell village.  Even on the bus, people were all too eager to hear what I was doing.  One woman claimed to grow Dragonwell tea and told me that she could sell me the real thing.  I said that I was visiting Mrs. Li, and wasn’t in the village to buy tea.  She left me alone after that.

I had heard stories about all the people that try to sell fake Dragonwell.  It is usually made from bitter summer leaves from far away pressed flat to look like Dragonwell, and sometimes even dyed green.  Sure enough, as soon as the bus stopped in the center of the village, tea vendors swarmed around trying to push canisters of so-called Dragonwell on me.  Just my luck to be the only tourist on the bus that day.  I reapeated that I wasn’t here to buy Dragonwell.  One particularly pushy vendor asked, “then what are you here for?”

“To see my friend.”  I looked down at the napkin that the taxi driver scrawled the name address on, reading, “Mrs Li.”

“Oh, Mrs. Li.”  The vendors looked dejected and started to disperse.  It seemed that Mrs. Li’s name had some weight in town.  Looking down at the napkin to check for an address, I noticed that there was no street written down.  Just “#54, Dragonwell Village.”  I was staring to get nervous until I looked up to take in my surroundings.

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, and the vendors grew more scarce.  I looked for number fifty-four, realizing that none of the structures looked like tea businesses or plantation offices like I imagined. 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, sometimes worth more than their weight in gold.

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.

Mrs. Li cleared off the table and heaved out the 10lb foil bag containing the remaining tea of her best harvest of the year.  The leaves were much more perfect, grouped into leaf and bud spears, with a more healthy light green color that my friends in Laoshan would have approved of.  The cup of tea was unlike any I had ever had.  There were the intriguing mineral and stone notes that I was understanding Dragonwell to posses, but also a grassy green quality tempered by an unexpected savoriness.  After I had finished about two thirds of the cup, Mrs. Li told me to stop drinking. “You never want to let the wet leaves touch the air.  Keep them covered in water at all times.”  She filled my glass up again with boiling water and the leaves swirled about.

Even though I had been introduced to the tea of Laoshan first, I had to admit, drinking that glass of Dragonwell tea, just harvested recently from high up the mountain, steeped in water drawn from the legendary Dragon Well in the center of the old town, was one of the best cups of tea I had ever experienced.

The Li Family spends 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 had spread out the tea leaves to wilt so that they could be shaped and pressed in a large wok over low and controlled heat.  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 Dragonwell 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 Mrs Li, “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?”

She smiled, “Unlike the vendors further down the road, we don’t care too much about 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.

Mr. Li started rummaging through a set of drawers to pull out a faded picture and spread it out on the table.  This black and white photograph looked like a picture of their farm with a younger man that looked very much like Mr. Li smiling and standing next to Chairman Mao Zedong himself.  “When everyone was picking tea, Chairman Mao would sometimes visit to try the first spring harvest.”  The Li family was more humble than I could have imagined.  They were essentially running a farm with the most influential celebrity endorsement behind it that you could imagine.  It would be like having your book endorsed by Oprah.

I was humbled by the quality of their tea and the fame of their craft.  I had just wandered into their courtyard, and they treated me with absolute respect.  Never once did they try to sell me tea.  In fact, they constantly reinforced that the tea we were drinking together was not for sale.  I told them that I had originally been given their address by a taxi driver because she didn’t want me to visit another farmer in the village.  “Oh, it’s true.  Have you heard about that family?”  I pressed them for more information.

It turned out that the family I had intended to visit just months ago forbid their daughter to marry the son of another family in Dragonwell Village because his family had a less prominent plot of land and therefore less money.  The whole village was divided over the issue, with most of the wealthier farmers supporting them, and the less wealthy farmers opposed to such classist behavior.  The Li family was the only “name” in town to support the marriage.

This goes to show what a small place Dragonwell Village is.  Everybody knows everybody, and after the spring harvest there is plenty of time to sit around and gossip.

When it was time for me to go down to the Village and catch the last bus into Hangzhou, Mrs Li insisted on walking with me and showing me the well, “Dragon Well,” famous for some of the best water in China.

The next day, I yielded to curiosity and took the bus back to Dragonwell Village to visit the original family I had intended to see.  The Zhang household was closer to the bus stop, a beautiful three story stone house with a large porch and open floor plan.  Mr. Zhang was out on the porch smoking a cigarette.  I introduced myself and explained why I had come.  Mrs. Zhang came out, “Don’t bother talking to my husband, you won’t understand a word he says with that thick accent of his.”  It was true, his accent was pretty intense, but not impossible to decode.

We sat down and chatted about Dragonwell history, picking tea, and business.  Mrs. Zhang brewed up an excellent cup of Dragonwell.  It was grassy and sweet, though not quite as complex as the Li family’s leaves.  It seemed to me that the Li family had exaggerated the cold welcome I was sure to get with the Zhangs.  They were very happy to talk, and very proud of their tea.  I decided to see what would happen if I mentioned my visit to the Li family farm.  Mrs. Zhang was quite civil about it, “ah yes, the Li family.  They don’t come down to town much.”

My overall impression is that perhaps in a village so small, with so much free time after the spring harvest, such rivalries are unavoidable.  Gossip seemed to spread like wildfire in Dragonwell.  There was clearly a divide between the farmers stuck with lesser plots in the foothills, and farmers who had choice plots of land near the top of the mountain.  The Li family had one of the best plots in Dragonwell, while the Zhangs were stuck working with less desirable land.  Despite the challenges, Mr. and Mrs. Zhang managed to run one of the most successful businesses in town, and certainly had an air of nobility for it.  The Li family could say whatever they wanted without worrying.  Their position was and still is quite secure.  Even Mao Zedong has vouched for them.

In the end, Dragonwell village is a completely different world from rustic Laoshan.  People are more secure in knowing what makes for the best Dragonwell, and content to keep it that way.  While in Laoshan, farmers are still innovating to make better tea, in Dragonwell, they are working their hardest to preserve the same flavor year after year.  The culture of Dragonwell is a better reflection of tea standards in China overall.  As an importer, I need to be aware of China’s domestic trends and preferences.  The ideal green tea in China, and the one that fetches the highest price is usually conforming to the Dragonwell standard of perfect smoothness, and long lingering sweet aftertaste.

I capped off my visit to Hangzhou with a trip to the Tea Culture museum, and paid my respects to the shrine of Luyu the tea sage.  This trip to the center of tea culture gave me a much better frame of reference to understand the more rustic simplicity of  tea in Laoshan Village where I was focusing most of my efforts.  While all my tea friends in the north were nervous when I got back that I wouldn’t think they were as cultured as Hangzhou, I assured them that the case was quite the contrary.