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Visits to the Chinese countryside.

Visits to the Chinese Countryside

Mei Valley Village--Longjing tea is one of the most famous and expensive of China's green teas. The prime area of production is in the hills around Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province. Production involves very fine plucking--only buds and two very young leaves. The leaf is spread out and aired for a couple of hours before roasting. A couple of handfuls at a time are roasted twice using carefully applied hand pressure.

The main road ends in the village square of concrete paving surrounded by two and three story houses ranging from modern to very old. The new primary school is the only single story structure. The small playground is surrounded by a wall with broken glass. It is the only such defensive wall in the village--why there?

The narrow paved road from the square takes cautious one-way traffic of hand carts and motorbikes across the humpbacked bridge and over the brook twenty feet below. This leads through the "strip" development of the village along the narrow valley floor. Houses tier up on either side of the stream where women wash clothes in the chill clear water. Beside the road, every nook and cranny is piled high with large rocks, faggots of teabush prunings and stacks of red-baked bricks. These piles tell there own stories. The rocks and brooks are for houses to be built or improved upon because this is the one form of investment which a peasant can pass on to the next generation. The saved prunings are an important source of fuel for cooking and warmth in winter.

As foreigners, we were subjected to kindly curious stares but nobody challenged our progress. After about 500 metres we stopped to speak with a man roasting tea leaf over a wood-fired "wok" in a 2m x 2m room that jutted out from the house. The large window shutter and door were wide open. We were interested in the continued use of wood for tea roasting in a village that had electricity.

"The price of electricity," we were told "(19 fen [US 10.05]/kwh) is far too high and wood is cheaper, quicker and easier to control."

"Doesn't the smoke affect the quality of the tea?" we asked.

The man chuckled as he continued to apply pressure to the leaves with a circular motion of the heel of his hand.

"So, you know something about tea! Yes, smoke is a serious problem if it gets into the leaf, but I have plenty of ventilation here. Also, my fireplace has a good tall chimney so that most of the smoke is drawn away. Smell my finished tea and you will find no trace of smoke."

Before each new handful of leaf is roasted, a small amount of lard is wiped over the inside of the wok to keep it smooth so that the leaf does not stick to the surface. With a continuous circular motion, the leaf is pressed with the heel of the hand against the side in an upwards motion which is finished as the leaf escapes and falls again to the bottom of the pan, turning and mixing. Considerable pressure is used so hands are alternated regularly. The free hand is used to add or take away a stick of wood from the fire. The real skill seems to be in producing an even roast without scorching either the tea leaves or the palm of the hand--no mean feat, the pan is hot!.

A neighbor, seeing our interest invited us over to his roasting site on the other side of the stream. A radio was blaring out loudly a news broadcast in English! "Do you understand English?" we asked in surprise. "No, but the best music comes from this Hong Kong station!" He turned it off and lit a cigarette.

A morning's plucking, done by the women in the household, was airing in a large round woven tray.

"This leaf took five hours to pick." he informed us.

"The 10 kg of leaf will be roasted in half kilo lots. Once I have finished the first roasting, which gets out half the moisture, I immediately start on the second roasting which should get the moisture down to six-eight percent. It will take me about five hours to roast this batch and I will then have about two and a half kilos of crude tea to sell to one of the four refiners or traders in the village."

"Like my neighbor, you can see that my roasting pans are very well aired--I only have three walls here so I have no smoke problems."

"Does everybody here use wood fires?" we asked.

"Yes and no! We all have wood fired woks but we don't necessarily use them all the time. We also all have electric woks. Mine is in my house and I use it at night or when the weather is bad. It is a matter of choice and cost. Some farmers use the electric wok most of the time but have the wood fired bowls as an insurance in case there is a power failure."

"How much electricity does it take to roast a kilo of tea?!

"You ask a lot of questions!! Well, the woks have two sets of elements each of 2,000 watts and it takes about two hours per kilo of made tea. But both sets of elements are not on all the time. So you could say that the maximum is 8 kwh per kilo of made tea. In fact, it may be somewhat below that.

"Next, you will be asking me what I get for my tea!! Well, this year has been very special for me because my Spring tea was so good and I roasted it very well. I sold ten kilos for Y2,400 [about US$65/kg]--this is double the official recommended price for the top grade! So you can see what a difference care and skill can make. Last year my total income from tea was Y14,000 [about US$3,750] which was above the village average of about Y10,000. This year, with the very high prices I have just received, I might do even better."

We were suitably impressed and then beat around the bush while he lit up another cigarette. We didn't want to put him off with too many questions at once. Gently we came back on course:

"Are your tea fields close by? Could we go and see them?"

"I am sorry, but they are half an hour's walk away up the valley. It would be better if you just take any path up the hills and see the nearby gardens."

"Can you tell us something about your garden?"

"Certainly. Under the household responsibility system the brigade land here was reallocated to individual families with one Mu(1) per adult and between .25 and .5 Mu per child, depending on their ages. Because my field is far away I have four Mu in one block although I only have one daughter and a son. The land is allocated to us to look after for five years and then will be reallocated again."

"What yields do you get from your tea field, and do you have enough family labor to do all the work?"

"Yields in this village vary quite a lot--between about 100 to 170 jin of roasted tea per Mu.(2) Fifty percent of this tea comes in during the Spring plucking season which lasts one month. This is a very busy time for us and I spend 18 hours a day roasting tea to keep up with the pluckers. The only reason I can spend this time talking to you now is because the Spring flush is over--we are officially into the Summer tea season."

"At the end of each Winter I travel to Jinhua district in central Zhejiang to recruit pluckers. I bring back four with me and they live with my family in this house. This year they were all here for 35 days. Two are still here and two have returned home. In addition to fares, food and accomodation I pay them 5 Yuan per day.(3) Next year, come back in the Spring season and you will see how hard we work--in fact why don't you come and work for me for a week or two?!"

We were not too sure whether this was an offer, a joke or a threat so while he lit up another cigarette, we thanked him most profusely and retreated across his narrow bridge and back onto the main street. We had learnt a lot from these very open, forthright farmers.

PHOTO : Two farmers are roasting tea. The one on the left is using wood as fuel while the man on

PHOTO : the right electricity for his wok.

PHOTO : A tea garden outside Hangzhou.

(1)The "Mu" is the standard unit of area measurement in China. There are 15 Mu in one Hecatare--or about 6 Mu to an Acre. (2)This is about 750 to 1,275 kg/ha. (3)This is somewhat less then US$1.50 per day.

Dr. Dan Ethington and Keith Forster Contemporary China Centre & Economics Dept., Research School of Pacific Studies Australian National University Canberra, Australia
COPYRIGHT 1989 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:Mei Valley Village
Author:Ethington, Dan; Forster, Keith
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Previous Article:Internal and export tea demand outstripping supply in India.
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