Some of the tea in China

Andrew Jefford – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
July 28 2007
China is an education. Learning about the country can seem as difficult as learning Chinese. The business visitor is said to be swiftly engulfed in the soupy embrace of China’s cities, with their mushrooming tower blocks, television-illuminated meals in private restaurant rooms and visits to karaoke bars. Those who classify themselves as tourists rather than travellers, meanwhile, will walk a famous wall and meet an army of model warriors, cruise a large river, eat some mystifying meals, go shopping and go home. Either way, the new, open China can sometimes seem as elusive as the old, forbidden one.
Unlocking its intricacies requires either the courage to sally out in the face of incomprehension (tough but rewarding – problem-solving, good humour and honesty are far more common in China than their opposites) or it requires a special interest – in birds, gardens, railway trains, art – which will lead you to stranger, more educative places than nightclubs and cruiseboats. Tea can do this, too. Grown throughout southern China and loved nationwide, it will not only draw you towards some of the country’s most remarkable landscapes but it also provides a glimpse, in the drinking, of a China far sweeter and more gracious than the nation’s brash public image.
My own Chinese education was defective in that I had assumed that the vast, sparely rugged landscapes of classical Chinese painting were more spiritual lesson than a faithful rendering of place. Those tiny figures moving, insect-like, between indolent river and abrupt peak were there to teach modesty, instil calm and underline impermanence, surely, rather than reflect reality. No landscape could open like that, could it? It could and it does. Travel in China’s tea country, and those same scenes will unfold before you, their pines seemingly placed at the summit of crags by some great artificer and their quiet valleys broken only by the soft race of falling water. Even the lenses of mist, mobile and intermittent, are accurate. Tea bushes thirst for more than twice London’s annual rainfall, and cloud cover combined with high humidity is perfect for keeping their vivid green leaves pliant.
A good bit of China is mountainous. Lowland areas are commandeered for the productive agriculture required to feed 1.3bn people, so that any crop that can migrate upwards will do so. Tea is ideal for this task – indeed you can create a small tea garden in many areas by doing no more than clearing the scrub to leave the wild, native bushes to enjoy the light and warmth on their own. “Garden” is exact: the small, shaped bushes grafted on to stone terraces and rock ledges look, at first sight, like effusions of the privet so cherished in suburban horticulture or like some vegetable sculptor’s audacious installation. In the Da Hong Pao (Great Red Cloak) valley of Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province, this is an installation dating back to Tang times. At the same moment as the first Viking raiders were descending on Lindisfarne, in other words, the bamboos were being parted to make way for Camellia sinensis in this almost secret valley where water cuts its way through soaring planes of sandstone and conglomerate as sheerly as gin through ice.
In addition to Great Red Cloak, an oolong that is said to taste both of rocks and of sweet apples, Wuyi is also home to the greatest of all Lapsang Souchongs (or Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, as it is known locally): that of Bohea Farm. This farm, where great smoked tea from wild bushes has been produced continuously since the 15th century, is sited at the village of Tongmu within the Long Chuan (Floating Dragon) gorge, in a protected zone of such environmental value that public access is restricted to the lower parts of the valley.
In springtime, smoke from logs of Taiwan red pine seeps from the wooden kiln roofs like the steam rising from a horse’s back after a canter in the rain; under the eaves, the rolled and withered leaves rest on giant bamboo trays while the fragrant, almost peat-like fumes riffle through them. The subtlety of Bohea Lapsang makes cheaper versions taste like burnt toast. Within China, Bohea is considered the origin of black tea. The fact that it was the source of the first tea imported to Britain meant that the name became, in the 17th century, a metonym for tea itself (the two words rhyme), and is thus used by Pope (in “The Rape of the Lock”) and Byron (in “Don Juan”). The great Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune, who ended China’s tea monopoly by planting Darjeeling on behalf of the British East India Company, visited Bohea during a three-year voyage in the mid-19th century. “Never in my life,” he wrote later, “have I seen a view such as this, so grand, so sublime. High ranges of mountains were towering on my right and on my left, while before me as far as the eye could reach, the whole country seemed broken up into mountains and hills of all heights, with peaks of every form.”
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