Fuding, Fujian Province is known for some of the finest white tea in the world. Intrigued to see how the modern climate of a market economy was affecting this region, I hopped on a bullet train from Hangzhou and shot down to Fuding. Flying through the Chinese countryside at several hundred km/hour, I gazed out at the verdant green and orange rock-covered mountains as they whirled by; the same mountains that the great Chinese painters Shitao and Bada Shanren painted centuries ago. Riding on the back of one of man’s modern muscle machines, while watching farmers plow their land via water buffalo, I was reminded of the vast disparities separating modern China.
Stepping off the train in Fuding, I found myself surrounded by sun-covered, little tea mountains stretching as far as the eye could see. My host informed me that their tea growing region was located 45 minutes away, up in the high mountains of Bai Lin (白琳), which literally means “white gem,” a suitable name for the home of China’s most glorified white tea (keep in mind that Fuding white tea is white tea in the processing sense).
The next day, winding up through Bai Lin’s misty mountains, I caught my first glimpse of Fuding’s famous Taimushan Mountain (太姆山). When we reached my host’s tea mountain, I stepped out of the car and gazed at the beautiful mountain vista surrounding me.
My first observation in Bailin was the abundance of birds, insects, and lizards, which meant that pesticide use must be absent or less than many tea farms that I’ve seen. My host was certified organic by the Chinese Tea Research Institute (TRI), but his operation also bought fresh tea leaves from farmers in the surrounding area, and one professor from the TRI told me that much of that tea was not organic.
My second observation was that the tea trees in this area were very densely cultivated. I was unable to discern one tree from another and sometimes could not discern between roots! The same monoculture mentality that has taken over the majority of Chinese tea farms has also taken over here. The tops of the tea trees had a thin layer of foliage and their sides were all twigs. The teas, or rather hedges, were planted so densely and harvested so frequently that their foliage had been reduced to a thin layer. This is the result of high-yield production with short-term gain in mind.
Moving along, I came to a field of stumps. I later found out that every seven-to-eight years, most Bailin farmers chop down their trees (known as Dabaihao and Xiaobaihao) because they yield more leaves between years two and seven. Never mind the quality of the leaf that is being sold, quantity seems to be king in China’s modern tea market, even for one of China’s most famous teas (名茶).
A bit disillusioned, I returned to the processing facility to compare teas. There I heard from behind me talk of wild tea trees (野茶). Excited to see tea trees that had sustained themselves for over 100 years, as I was told, I immediately went with one of the interns to find them (the Fujian University of Agriculture had an intern program with this tea processor).
Into the thick brush we went, finding signs of wild hogs and other animals. Indications of a strong, well balanced eco-system are also indications of good, healthy tea.
After an hour of searching, we finally found our first signs of wild tea. Standing high and tall we found a bed of wild tea next to its over-cultivated, small, and weak counterpart. It looked like the young dreadlocked hippy standing next to an overworked businessman. Only the main difference is that this wild, unkempt, self-sustaining tree was much older than this new little monoculture mop.
Trained strictly to follow a set code for evaluating tea, my companion focused on the flaws of the wild tea, pointing out its lower yield and its older bug bitten leaves. Nonetheless, the wild trees were producing very healthy, fresh leaves and there were no insects in sight except for a bee and a grasshopper. With its roots and leaves allowed to grow freely, the self-sustaining tree in its diverse, natural garden looked much healthier and fuller than the one pruned regularly and planted in dense, monoculture rows with no room to grow.