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The Chinese tea industry's ten world firsts.

by Keith Forster, Ph.D.

Asian Studies

University of New England--Northern Rivers


It is probably not as commonly known as it should be that China's tea industry stands alone among the tea industries of the world. It is unique in the range of clLmates in which the bush is grown, the variety of teas produced, and the close association which the bush and the beverage have held with various aspects of the country's tradition and culture.

Tea has a very special place in Chinese economic and political history. From the seventh century AD onward, Chinese feudal rulers implemented a policy of "controlling the border through tea." Tea, which was in great demand among the non-Han peoples living in these regions, was traded for horses, which successive Han Chinese dynasties, up until the time of Mongol invasion and the establishment of the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) required for their cavalries. This policy was called "the teahorse law."

Tea came under the control of the bureaucracy as an official monopoly, with strict laws giving the government control over sales and taxation. Tea was also part of the tribute system which regulated relations between the Chinese civilization within the Great Wall and the nomadic tribes outside. In remote regions and on trade routes, compressed tea cakes were often used as a form of currency.

Tea has also had a major influence on eating habits, social relationships, and cultural life in general. The yum-cha lunch of Guangdong province and Hong Kong in southern China, in which endless cups of tea lubricate the throat for the delicious range of dishes and excited conversation which characterize the meal, is one of the greatest culinary inventions of man. Tea has also spawned art forms in ceramics, and has been a subject for poets and a notable part of the social landscape of painters.

The Decline & Revival of

China's Tea Industry

The Chinese are very proud of the history and culture of tea. And rightly so. The rapid decline of the industry in the late 19th century has been the source of shame and righteous anger to many people associated with the tea industry. Chinese publications make constant reference to the national goal of re-establishing the industry to a position of world primacy.

It is clear that both domestic and external factors were responsible for the downfall of the Chinese tea industry. Backward technology, ignorance of marketing and consumption trends, poor extension services, and savage exploitation of small-scale farmers by rural landlords and urban merchants, and the burden of excessive charges and taxes levied by corrupt and exacting governments all contributed to the weakening of the industry during the 19th century.

Taking advantage of China's internal troubles and dynastic decline, Western interests, particularly British, established large-scale plantations with modem processing equipment in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There, black tea was produced.

Japan, which had studied and then borrowed Chinese tea production techniques and the graceful and refined tea ceremony (which was later modified into a Japanese version) moved into the largescale production of green tea. By the beginning of this century, China had lost its predominance in the world tea trade.

Fifty years later, after a series of wars, invasions, and natural disasters which devastated the Chinese economy, China's tea production had fallen to a fraction of what it had once been. The struggle since then has entailed reviving and developing the crop under a strong and fiercely nationalistic communist regime. In this endeavor, the Chinese have been spectacularly successful. Between 1949 and 1992 total tea area increased by seven times from 155,000 hectares to 1,100,000 ha. Over the same period, output increased by more than 13 times, from 41,000 tons to 540,000 tons, while exports increased 10 times, from 18,800 tons (in 1950) to 190,000 tons.

Modern China's Tea Economy From the mid 1950's until the 1980's, China was a planned economy modeled along Soviet lines. During this period, tea was grown and processed either on collective farms known as People's Communes, or on State Farms worked by either peasant laborers, prisoners undergoing labor reform, or soldiers in remote and inhospitable regions.

This production management system may not have resulted in high labor productivity or high yields. Nevertheless, the scale of farming, the degree of specialization involved, and the knowledge that ownership and use rights of the land were fixed did lead to respectable and sustained growth rates from 1962 until the late 1970's.

Under the planned economy, prices and standards for the wide range of teas produced in the country were specified and supervised by state agencies such as the Ministry of Commerce and the All-China Supply and Marketing Co-operative and their local branches. The enormity of the task certainly provided a major challenge to the bureaucracy.

For example, before the reform of marketing in the mid-1980's there were 38 sets (for black tea) and 408 grades (for other teas) of crude tea under the management of the Ministry of Commerce, and 112 sets and 1,033 grades under provincial level management. Each grade had its own price.

Now that tea marketing has been partially deregulated, the state has gradually withdrawn its control over some varieties, although varying degrees of government intervention characterize the export industry and domestic transfers from producing districts to minority nationalities living in the far-flung border regions of

China's 10 Tea Firsts

The Chinese take particular pride in the fact that in the cultivation, production, and consumption of tea, and the literature about it, they were the world's path breakers. An article in the overseas edition of the national newspaper Renmin Ribao (People's Daily), in May 1987, referred to 10 areas where China led or still leads the world.

First, the article claimed that China is the home of the tea bush. Recent evidence has tended to confirm this. Also, China was the first country where tea was developed and used. From 2737-960 BC, wild tea was used first as a herbal medicine, then later boiled as a potable soup, and dried and stored.

Second, the Chinese were the first to pant and drink tea. In the period of the spring and autumn annals (722481 BC), the process of sun-drying and storing tea was invented in present-day Yunnan province in southwest China. After the unification of China by the Qin in 221 BC, the cultivation of the tea bush spread from the south-west of China.

By the time of the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD), the handmanufacturing of brick tea was developed, which greatly facilitated the trade in the commodity and made tea a prized beverage for the ruling classes. In the Eastern Han dynasty, during the first and second centuries AD, tea had become a commodity beverage and had begun to become known outside the Chinese empire. In the Wei dynasty (220-264 AD) of the period known as the Three Kingdoms, tea was made into a cake, dried, pulverized, and then boiled before being consumed.

By the time of the magnificent Tang dynasty (624-907 AD), tea was being widely sold in northern China, and the consumption of tea had become popularized. By 728 AD, tea markets, tea peddlers, and tea stalls had all made their appearance in the thriving economy of the time. It was during the Tang dynasty that the method of steaming bundles of fresh leaves was developed, after which the tea was pounded up, made into a perforated cake and then dried. In this way, the unpleasant smell of brick tea was dispersed, greatly improving tea's aroma.

The steaming process was passed on to Japan and India and, in the 9th century, tea was taken from China to Japan, Indonesia, Ceylon, and Russia. In the period of the Song (960-1280 AD) and Yuan dynasties, the present method of roasting loose leaves was developed. In the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the varieties of teas expanded from steamed and roasted green teas to include post-fermented tea, white, Oolong, black, and scented teas.

Third, China possesses the richest source of tea bush varieties. It is claimed that there are more than 350, of which 60 are still in use. Since 1949, 17 new varieties have been discovered in Yunnan including a bisexual plant.

Fourth, the science of bush selection commenced in the Jill dynasty (260-420 AD) and has a continuous history of almost 1,000 years.

Tea Varieties

Fifth, China has the greatest range of tea in different grades and varieties. Unlike other major producers such as India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, which concentrate almost entirely on the production of black tea, China produces the full gamut of teas from light non-fermented green teas, which must be refrigerated to retain their freshness and aroma, all the way through to post-fermented compressed brick teas which can be stored for lengthy periods of time.

In between, we find scented green teas, semi-fermented Oolong teas, and black teas of both the traditional variety (where the leaves are fermented but not crushed) and the more modern broken varieties, including some production of CTC (curl, tear, and crush) black tea.

Sixth, the country has the greatest number of famous teas. Famous teas receive such classification because the micro-climate or soil of a particular district is particularly conducive to tea growing. Many famous teas come from mountain areas where the humidity and cloud combine to intensify flavor. One such tea is Maofeng (a green tea) from Yellow Mountain in Anhui province. Another is Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea from the hills surrounding the beautiful eastern provincial capital of Hangzhou.

Education and Literature

Seventh, China possesses the world's most complete tea scientific research and education system. China has the greatest number of students studying the tea industry in the world. They are located in 10 tertiary colleges and institutes across the country, as well as in two national tea research institutes (both in Hangzhou) and 13 provincial or regional institutes. In 1987, there was a national tea society and 14 provincial or regional societies.

Eighth, Lu Yu's Cha Jing (Tea Classic), written in 780 AD during the Tang dynasty, is the world's first work of literature on tea, and the first comprehensive account of the industry. In this book, which was based on travels throughout the tea-growing and manufacturing areas of the country, the author described the origins, history, cultivation, plucking and manufacture, consumption, and drinking of tea in China. By the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD), 118 monographs on the tea industry had been published.

The tradition of tea publication has been very much kept alive in modern China, with a wealth of books and specialist journals devoted to the topic, in particular the areas of culture and natural science. Recently, the Chinese have published what is presumably a contemporary successor to Lu Yu's work entitled Zhongguo Chajing (China's Tea Classic).

Tea Production

Ninth, China possesses the largest tea growing area in the world. As early as the Tang dynasty, tea was being grown in 14 provinces, particularly along the Yangtze and Pearl rivers, and as far north as Shaanxi and Henan. The tea'growing area gradually expanded and, in 1162 during the Song dynasty, tea production in 242 counties in the south-east of the country was reported to have totalled over 7,950 tons, with a further 10,510 tons in the south-west of China.

Today the bush is grown in 18 provinces and 900 counties. Total area in 1987 equalled 45% of the world's tea growing area. Tea is grown in a wide range of climactic and topographical environments, from the moist, rich slopes of temperate Yunnan province and tropical Hainan island to the lower hillsides of eastern China and the more severe climates in the north. This covers a latitude range from 18 degreees to 33 degrees North and a longitudinal variation from 100 degrees to 122 degrees East.

Beginning in the late 1950's and the early 1960's, tea was grown to almost 35 degrees North, in Yuntaishan, Jiangsu province in East China, and to 99 degrees East in Changning, Yunnan. Since the late 1970's, tea has been successfully grown at elevations of between 1,100 meters and 2,500 meters in the south-east of Tibet as well as at low elevation in districts up to 92* East in western Tibet.

Finally, China is the world's greatest producer and exporter of green tea. In 1987, it produced 66% of world output and contributed 72% of world trade in the commodity. It has been a constant source of bewilderment to my colleague Dan Etherington and I, in our five-year research into the Chinese tea industry, that China has not tried harder to promote its green teas in the international market.

In green tea, China has greater experrise, holds a near monopoly on the world market, and gains a much higher price than it does for some very indifferent black teas. We can only conclude that factors other than economic ones drive the decisionmakers in China, and that the pursuit of black tea markets is related to the drive to regain world supremacy in an industry which was born in China, and whose story continues to be both fascinating and instructive.

* Some material in this article comes from the joint research on the Chinese tea industry I have conducted with Dr Dan Etheringtonfrom the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Our book entitled "Green Gold: The Political Economy of China's Post-1949 Tea Industry" will be published by Oxford University Press in September 1993.
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Author:Forster, Keith
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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