oolongs: anxi (Minnan) varieties
Anxi oolongs is dominated by the presence of Tieguanyin (aka Iron Goddess of Mercy, Teguanyin, Tit-koon-yum), a highly aromatic variety with velvety texture and distinctive flavour. Almost all other varieties from this region of Anxi look somewhat like this tea although they taste a little differently.
This is the de facto gran cru tea range for most tea connoisseurs in Southern Fujian, Guangdong, and Southeast Asia. All people who practice gongfu tea infusion would use this tea at one point of time, if not forever. For this reason, it is also the most imitated and adultered tea from Fujian. A fine one is a worthwhile find.
Other popular varieties include Maoxie, and Huangjing Gui. These, together with various trade varieties, are grouped as Sezhongs. Sezhongs are often used to blend in more costly selections to either reduce cost or to add taste complexity. Unlike other oolongs with much longer tradition from older cultivars, fine Anxi oolongs are much easier to prepare with pleasing results.
exodus, economic tides, and the birth of a tea (1)
In 1644, warriors of the nomadic Manchu invaded Beijing to takeover the rule of China from the Ming dynasty. Ming generals and aristocrats in the southern part of China continued the resistance until they were driven to the coast. While the Chinese was experienced in naval warfare, the horseback aggressors hesitated on the pursuit. Rather than upgrading their own navy capability, the new Beijing court came up with a massive plan to rid the resistance: isolation. They forced coastal populations in the south to move inland to isolate the enemy forces. In 1660, survivors of over a decade of wars (2) who lived within 15 miles of the southern coasts undertook a massive exodus to inner counties (3). In Fujian, the people of Anxi, a coastal county immediately neighbouring the closed ports of Quanzhou and Amoy (aka Xiamen), could not be exempted from this exodus.
The monk and tea advocate Zhao Quan (aka Ruen Wen Xi) was 33 at that time (4). He was amongst the Anxi migrants bringing with them oolong production technique to Wuyi, a natural escape. He later wrote a poem about Wuyi tea production, “Recently tea processing has been influenced by that of the bouquet south Fujian (Anxi) style… achieving the fragrance of plum blossoms and orchids, baking to fix that aroma in a basket on a caldron over a red fire…” This maybe one of the first documented mentioning of something similar to the baking step of the oolong production process. No mentioning of tea with similarity of oolong characteristics appeared in any documentations prior to this.
The Driving Force: Export
Quite immediately after the West began to import green tea from China, they began to import a black tea by the name of Bohea. That should be before 1699, when John Ovington, Chaplain to King William III, wrote of its medicinal qualities (5). Half of the tea consumed in Britain was this “black tea” as the beverage began to be popularized at a staggering pace. By 1721, before there was mentioning of other “black teas” in English or Chinese documents, legal tea imports to England was 1.2 million pounds, and at least another that same amount was smuggled in. Plus an unknown amount for the Southeast Asian markets, which tea import activities took place even before that of Europe, though unsystematically documented (6). So a conservative estimation of an export need of 2.4 to 3 million pounds should have been the production amount.
Considering the oolong production capacity of Wuyi at 1.2 million pounds a year even in 1990 (7), there was no way that the “black tea” in 1721 was entirely from Wuyi. All other places that could produce oolongs had been recruited to produce to fill this dramatic gap (8).
What place could be better than the home villages of the people that brought oolong production to Wuyi? In 1682, Anxi people were allowed to return home, when Zhao wrote in a Wuyi Tea Song, “Bohea has always been made by south Fujianese… Ships from the West come here (Amoy) every year to buy this tea… so Anxi tea is made to the look of Wuyi tea, roasted before it is baked. The two teas become virtually the same.”(9)
from bloom to recession
Unlike the Wuyi area where oolong cultivars were migrant minorities, a large range of cultivars grew in south Fujian. However, different sayings about local oolongs referred to origins at around the mid 1700’s; that is after the south Fujianese returned home from Wuyi after the exodus. However, at the time of Zhao, local teas did not seem to sell well even at a fraction of the price of Wuyi. The major venue seemed to be export in the name of Wuyi tea.
All the while, it was happy because of ever increasing demands, despite wars and social unrests. By 1860’s, things had a sharp turn. Not only had red tea taken over oolongs to be the major “black tea”, but the successful production in India and Indonesia began to take over Chinese export dramatically. Tea merchants needed to find business elsewhere to survive — the market at home and that in Southeast Asia.
Productions in and around Anxi were inherently cost saving, compared to Wuyi, because vicinity to the seaports in Fujian, which were closed at that time only to trading with the West, but not to that with Hong Kong or Southeast Asia. The domestic distribution and re-finishing centre in Chaozhou was also only 200 kilometers away. In those days this meant at least two weeks less in labour intensive logistics.
a silver lining
The need to re-focus in other markets might have been a blessing for the long term development for Anxi oolongs. While before it had been the need to push for quantity, now the focus was the discerning drinkers who had grown up with the gongfu tea preparation style; quality was important to win them. Producers since gave up disguising as Wuyi teas and focused on local uniqueness. Famous names such as Tieguanyin and Huangjing Gui were marketed. Fables were devised to complement the mentality of the times, partly to justify the authenticity of the origin, partly to convince a market impoverished by unstable political and social conditions. Goddess helping a poor farmer with a precious tea tree; a poor woman working her way to prosper her husband’s village with a new cultivar that was her only dowry, etc, etc began to appear. Later, as noveau riche came about in early 20th century, legends such as monkeys being sent to pick the leaves on rare tea trees growing on cliffs appeared to elevate the status symbol of finer Anxi oolongs.
Nevertheless, somehow the refocus in quality and uniqueness gradually gained momentum and a tradition of Anxi oolong was formed towards the 20th century. Read on»
7 Chen Zhong Mao, Zhongguo Chajing, Shanghai Wenhua, 1992. Wuyi production dwindled during the decades of wars and social turmoils that followed. It was only after the 1970s that production and development began again. Even so, the total producible land was increased to 6000 acres in all of Wuyi in the 1990’s, and an efficiency of 150 kg/acre, the total still could not meet the export demand for UK alone in 1799! The total is converted to the British tons in the text to match historical units quoted.
9 This original translation is abridged for easy comprehension. The original poem hides more hints to the conditions of the time. We have avoided also the poetic form in order to render the meaning as faithfully as possible.
TeaGuardian.com (Tea Guardian) is a self-financed, independent reference guide created with the initiative to promote the better understanding of tea, the daily beverage that so many have come to misunderstand. By sharing with the readers unbiased and in-depth information, we aim at empowering them with the ability to find and enjoy better quality tea for taste and for health. A lot of the information included can be helpful to people of the tea trade and the academics.
While we gladly receive any forms of support, including advertisements and other sponsorships, no such actions will in anyway affect our editorial direction or its independence.
This website is designed for smooth, non-obstructive reading. It is therefore recommended that it be viewed using modern browsers such as Opera, FireFox, Chrome or Safari. If you need to use IE, please update it to the latest version.