Like all the best parts of history, the origins of tea begin in legend. Around 5000 years ago, so it goes, the mythical Chinese emperor Shennong was resting beneath a tree while his servants boiled water for him to drink.
As Shennong lazed and the water simmered, a leaf floated down from an overhead tree, landing serendipitously in the water below. Enticed by the fragrant aroma, Shennong took a sip. The rest really is history.
The tree from whence fell that fateful leaf would come to be known as camellia sinensis, the species from which all tea is now derived. As the centuries passed, this humble plant would emerge from the haze of myth to become an important medicinal herb, an expensive indulgence of the Chinese elite and the most widely consumed drink in the world save for water.
As China sipped, tea rode the historical waves of trade and empire beyond her borders to reach every continent on Earth. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to Antarctica was fueled by tea from Typhoo, an English company whose name comes from a Chinese word for doctor, daifu. Wherever tea is involved, China is never far away.
Even today, China remains the world’s largest producer and consumer of tea, drinking 1.4 billion pounds every year. Yet despite this industrial scale, cultivation and consumption in China are still governed by the age-old constants of tradition, geography and climate.
These elements vary across four tea-producing regions in the country, which make them the perfect place to dive into the curious and complex world of Chinese tea:
Where better to start than Xinan, the oldest tea-producing region in China. This southwestern area covers Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and parts of southern Tibet, and is the original home of camellia sinensis,which was discovered and domesticated here millennia ago.
It is no coincidence that the Tea Horse Road, an ancient network of trade routes and caravan trails, once crisscrossed this part of China, distributing silk, Buddhism and tea between the humid jungles and mountain valleys of China, Myanmar and India beyond.
Today, Xinan isn’t the most prolific tea-producing region in the country, but it nonetheless offers many heralded black and green teas thanks to a moderate and stable climate across altitudes, especially in Yunnan.
Among Xinan’s most famous offerings is Pu’er, a fermented and compressed tea that excites connoisseurs with its unpredictable and varied profile that evolves over time. Pu’er is a black tea, or heicha, in the Chinese sense, whereas the black teas used for English breakfast or American iced are actually known as red tea, or hongcha, in China.
Southern China is hot and humid for most of the year, which makes the Huanan region well suited for the cultivation of tea. The warm weather and rainfall across the provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, Fujian and Hainan also allows for a longer growing season than in other parts of the country at up to ten months per year.
The red soil of the region lends itself to the production of highly-oxidized varieties like black and oolong, although white and jasmine tea is also produced here, the latter primarily destined for tourist tea houses and the export market.
Liu Bao, a black tea from Guangxi, and Tieguanyin, an oolong from Fujian, are two celebrated varieties from Huanan, but perhaps the most legendary is Da Hongpao. Grown in Wuyishan, a misty, riverine landscape in the mountains of Fujian, Da Hongpao is another oolong and possibly the most revered of Chinese teas.
Leaves from the original Da Hongpao trees are worth 30 times their weight in gold – over $10,000 a pot – and were once the center of a British agro-espionage plot that sought to steal cuttings to grow in India. Fortunately, younger plants descended from the mother trees yield a much more affordable, but nonetheless costly, brew.
North of Huanan is Jiangnan, a region whose name means south of the river Chinese. The river in question is the interminable Yangtze, and this area specifically refers to its middle and lower reaches in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Hunan, as well as southern parts of Jiangsu, Hubei and Anhui.
Jiangnan is the powerhouse of China’s tea industry, producing around two thirds of the country’s total output thanks to an agreeable climate with four distinct seasons and plenty of precipitation. Sweltering summer temperatures mean that tea farms are often scenically located at elevation in hills and mountains where temperatures are more forgiving.
The region is known for exceptional green, black and oolong teas, some of which are considered best in class, yet what sets Jiangnan apart is that many of the most prized teas come from some truly spectacular locations. The village of Qimen, from which the smoky black Keemun takes its name, lies in the shadow of the Yellow Mountain, while Longjing green tea hails from the hills around Hangzhou’s West Lake.
The most northerly of China’s tea-growing regions, Jiangbei is named for its position north of the Yangtze river. These areas of Shandong, Gansu, Shaanxi and Henan, as well as the northern parts of Jiangsu, Anhui and Hubei, are as far north as you can go in China before the climate becomes too cold and dry to grow tea.
These conditions make small-leaf varieties the only viable option and green teas predominate here, yet Jiangbei’s climatic weakness is also its strength. The region’s low temperatures prompt leaves to grow at a slower rate, developing a distinct, sweeter flavor than their southern counterparts and producing some of the country’s oldest and most renowned teas.
Lu’an Melon Seed, named for the shape of its processed leaves, differs from other green varieties by using the second leaf on the branch rather than the buds, yet it appears in every list of China’s best teas. Henan’s Xinyang Maojian is another classic from Jiangbei, named for the slender leaves which resemble small furry tips when dried.
Listen to The China Travel Podcast
Tea in China with Jeff Fuchs
For our sixth episode, we talk with Jeff Fuchs, a long-time WildChina friend, and a globally-recognized expert on tea. Jeff is also a pioneering explorer, being the first Westerner to walk the 6000 some miles of the ancient tea horse road through the Himalayas. Today we’ll be talking with him about tea in China.