Last week we went to Huangshan to film a small documentary. I have already written about my hilarious endeavor to find Huangshan’s most popular tea, sweets and something called Xiekehuang. If you haven’t read it yet, and want to find out what that Xiekehuang is, go back to last week’s post.
Today it is time to tell you the story of how my husband and I became tea farmers of Huangshan. After the scavenger hunt in Huangshan’s old city, our friends took us into the mountains to see where the real magic was happening.
A thrilling drive up the serpentine road
When they told us we would be visiting the plantations I thought it will be a relaxing walk up the mountain, enjoying the scenery.
All the way driving up the mountain the scenery was breathtaking: Pure natural, wild trees, leaping cliffs and running water. The Yellow Mountain is famous for its beautiful scenery, and even though, we were still an hour away from the actual Yellow Mountain, its foothills were already something to remember.
We were also lucky to have such amazing weather that day!
We stopped to take pictures several times on the way up.
Meet Mr. Xie Yiping 谢一平, the fifth generation successor of Xie Zhengan 谢正安
Before coming here I wasn’t really familiar with the who is who of China’s tea industry. At this point I wasn’t even aware that our friend, Xie Mingzhi (who had the idea of making me run through the old city and look for a crab like thing!), was in fact the son of Xie Yiping. Xie Who you might ask? Well, I will tell you what I have learned:
According to historical data, tea cultivation in Huang Shan originated in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and flourished in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).And even though teas have been consumed for centuries in that area, it was Xie Zhengan, who in 1875 during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), achieved international prominence surpassing all the others. It was around 1875, that Xie Zhengan (1838 – 1910) selected tea buds from a village in Fuxi and started growing the now famous Huangshan Maofeng tea. This tea became an instant success and after founding the Xie Yu Da Tea Company, Xie Zhengan became a well-respected, wealthy merchant and managed to build a foundation for his tea company which lasts until today.
So, Xie Yiping, our friend’s father, is his fifth generation successor. He explained everything to us, and how his family runs the tea business for generations. It was the first time for him to tell the story to a foreigner. You might not believe it, but the Xie Yu Da Tea Company is not very famous in Western countries. It is huge in China, and everyone knows Huangshan Maofeng tea, but not everyone knows who is behind producing this green gold.
I was really impressed with Mr. Xie. He seemed very modest and I would have never thought he is the head behind such a huge empire! No matter which tea shop in Huangshan City, most of them belong to him and sell his tea. I didn’t get a direct number of how many employees he has, just a polite smile, but we went to a few of his factories, and it really seems as if he is providing jobs for at least 60% of Huangshan City’s population.
Tea farmer is a tough job
After Mr. Xie had explained the history and the importance of his legacy, he showed us the tea plantations. We were guided to one of the smaller plantations located at the hillside next to a small river. Again the scenery was beautiful and we were lucky with the weather.
Like father, like son or in this case like son, like father, Mr. Xie decided that we should not simply enjoy the tea plantation but we should experience the tea harvest itself. Of course, the guys made a competition out of it.
Xie Mingzhi’s girlfriend Bao Fen and I were put into traditional tea farmers clothes and everyone got a big basket to put in the tea leaves. Thinking about it the competition was very unbalanced to start with. I mean us competing against the son of the tea empire, who has grown up in the tea plantations, is a bit unfair, no? Even though his girlfriend was as clueless as I was when it came to tea harvesting, I didn’t see a big chance for us to win.
We split up and started climbing up the hillside, carefully trying not to slip between the tea bushes. Jinlong started wildly pulling and grabbing the leaves, full Kung Fu power forward. I tried the slower approach, just pulling the smaller yellow green leaves on the tip of the bigger leaves.
After 30 minutes Mr. Xie called us back to check our harvest. Looking at quality, we lost, because Jinlong was so eager to randomly plug out any leave, some of which weren’t even tea leaves, but looking at quantity, we one! They had harvested better tea leaves, but we had more of them. Later that day, when we went to one of the gather places, where the tea farmers bring their harvest at the end of every day, we found out that we would have made about 10RMB in the 30 minutes harvest that day.
It really was a lot of fun, but I admire those tea farmers. They don’t just do it for half an hour but eight hours a day the whole season through. To harvest Huangshan Maofeng you have to sometimes climb up dangerous steep looking hillsides and work in uncomfortable positions. Adding the heat and the sun in the mountains during that time and you have a cocktail for exhaustion and heat stroke.
What we had harvested that day (about 1,5kg) was just enough for maybe two cups of tea. But, contrary to my belief you couldn’t just through the leaves as they were into hot water and start drinking. After the harvest they had to go through a very complicated process of roasting and rolling and toasting.
Green tea production: From tea leave to a cup of tea
After plucking the tea leave, or in Jinlong’s case a few other leaves as well, we all went up to Mr. Xie’s old family house. That house was built in the Qing dynasty and hasn’t lost its charm. We were told that back than several families have lived there and Xie Zhenan even invited the neighbor kids into his home to teach them.
The house was really old but still beautiful. You could feel the history in its wooden doors. The Xie family doesn’t really use it anymore, except for gardening, as there is small garden behind the house and a small river. It also still had all the traditional old equipment you would need to process the tea leaves to prepare them for brewing.
Again the whole learning experience turned into a competition. It was decided, again without my consent, that the girls should compete in the first tea processing step, which is roasting the tea leaves 炒茶叶! Yeah right! The old wok like pan was heated by fire and was supposed to stay at about 80 degree to quickly roast and dry the leaves.
I really tried, we both tried Bao Fen and me, but it was just too hot! I was so afraid to burn my hand. So, we girls decided that this is more men’s work and of course, our men our always up for a competition to show their girls who’s the man…
During the roasting process the leaves give up a fragrant smell, a bit like fresh mowed grass and lemon tea.
We lost again. However, it should be fair to say that if we would have won it would have been very embarrassing for Mr. Xie’s son. Yes, we let him win. To give face, you know. Unfortunately, my man wasn’t very happy, so in order to safe his manhood we decided on a small game of arm wrestling. And who would have thought, this time Jinlong won! Sorry, but even if he sucks at roasting tea, he can still wrestle every one down.
But tea processing needs a few more steps. After roasting the leaves, they need to be rolled out 揉茶叶 in a small ball in order red rid of whatever moisture is left. Luckily the rolling didn’t turn out to be a competition. Xie Zhiming did it all by himself and made his dad proud.
The last step is baking the tea leaves 烘茶叶, which is particular important for green teas in general. This baking process took up to one to two hours, depending on the amount of tea leaves. After the leaves have gone through this three stages, you should still wait about two weeks before you can drink them. It is said that if you drink this just dried leaves you will 上火 shanghuo, a term in Chinese medicine which means to suffer from excessive internal heat (with such symptoms as constipation or inflammation).
Also I should add that this tea leave processing is specific for green tea. Black tea and other tea’s have a few more steps in the process.
We still spent another few ours in that old house. I was imagining myself living here during the Qing dynasty: Sitting in the garden, sipping a freshly brewed cup of tea and watching the river flowing smoothly. Today the river is only half of what it was before. Many rivers in the region have already dried out. But, even though life must have been hard back then, it must also have been very relaxing and close to nature.
From Qing dynasty tea production to modern times tea factories
That day we seemed to travel through time. After we spent the afternoon processing tea the traditional way in an old house from the Qing dynasty, Mr. Xie also decided to show us how it is done in modern times.
He has several huge factories in the region which all process the harvested tea leaves 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Before going into the factories we were all put into proper uniforms. They didn’t have any in my size, so I looked like a polar bear.
I have never visited a large-scale tea production factory before, and was absolutely blown away by the level of complexity, and sophistication that goes into the manufacturing of tea. Personally I thought producing tea in a factory is more complicated than doing it the traditional way. Our friend explained the steps back to back, and we walked through the full gamut of tea factory equipment, diving into as much detail as we were possibly able to remember, and then some.
Green tea overdose
I really like drinking tea, and I definitely had enjoyed my time as a tea farmer in Huangshan, but at the end of the day I was glad to go back to the hotel and have a cup of coffee.
I admire the tea farmers, and the sophistication of modern tea processing. It’s amazing what the humans have achieved. I will definitely to back again to visit our friends and enjoy the natural scenery of Huangshan City and the close by Yellow Mountains.
It was an amazing experience, which you can see on Chinese TV next month. I will keep you posted on the broadcasting times.
Have you ever been to a tea plantation? If you are interested I can recommend those Huangshan tea plantations and give you the contact of our friends.
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