Yang Kai designs the lenses for microscopes and telescopes. In his free time, he is a great scholar of many things, especially history. He has been studying the history of Yunnan tea since 1990. In 2004, he published two books in Mainland China on Puerh and Yunnan. He is currently researching a new book on the early history of Menghai Tea Factory.
On November 16, 2006 the long-awaited Xiaguan Tuo Cha Museum finally had its grand opening in Dali, Yunnan. With all the attention the Puerh market has received recently, the museum couldn’t have come at a more auspicious time. The museum is an exquisite, yet small, 3-storey building in the typical style of Bai aboriginal dwellings – the added ethnicity a nice touch. In light of Xiaguan’s long history, I wouldn’t say that the exhibits are numerous enough, though what is there is nice, and there are even a few that are top drawer. Scholars of Puerh tea can only hope that the added interest in Puerh history that this museum can inspire, and the discussions – like this one – that follow, will lead to a better and more prolific understanding amongst scholars, collectors and casual Puerh drinkers everywhere.
The museum includes several authentic letters that help corroborate and clarify the history of Xiaguan and other older factories. One Letter is from Zheng Hechun (郑鹤春), the manager of the Yunnan China Tea Trading Co. Ltd. (YCTT ) to Feng Shaoqiu (冯绍裘)and Zhou Gengchang (周庚昌), the president and auditor of the Shunning (顺宁) Experimental Tea Factory (now Fengqing “凤庆” Tea Factory) respectively. In December of 1938, the YCTT was founded. The next yearthe Shunning Experimental Tea Factory and Fuxing (复兴) ）Tea Factory (now Kunming Tea Factory), as well as the Yiliang (宜良) ）Experimental Tea Workshop were all established. At that time, the Fohai (佛海) ）Experimental Tea Factory, that would later become Menghai Tea Factory, was just in the planning and development stage. The letter discusses this historic time. Anyone who Loves the history of Puerh tea will find themselves captivated by this and other information the exhibits offer.
From their formation, these tea factories were all on the right track and YCTT’s business was booming. In 1940, the Premier of Xikang (西康) Province, Liu Wenhui (刘文辉) – also known as “The Warlord” – was interested in setting up a tea factory exclusively for the Tibetan market. Letters and documents in the museum record that the authorities of Yunnan Province sent Li Zulian (李祖廉) and others to do a survey on the production, transportation and distribution of mushroom-shaped tea (or “Tibet Tea”, Chinese “Jincha” 紧茶). They completed a detailed report of the raw material, processing, packaging, and expenses involved in transporting either mushroom-shaped tea or tea cakes to Tibet. Based on the results of this report, The China Tea Corporation decided to set up a new factory. Originally, they intended to begin in Mianning (缅宁) (Now Lincang “临枪”). However, since the entire purpose of the factory was to produce mushroom-shaped tea and tea bricks, during the preliminary stage of setting up the new factory, they realized that since the packaging of mushroom-shaped tea would come to a total of 126 old catty (app. 63kg) (or tea bricks of 100 old catty “app. 50kg”), and be carried on horseback, then the transportation from Mianning became an issue. (Anecdotally, the museum has an exhibit that shows the packaging and weights of each of these teas, using traditional Chinese
measurements. The mushroom-shaped tea, for example, is 8 taels per piece; 7 pieces packaged into a stack; 18 stacks then made up a basket, and 2 baskets made up one “Tuo (佗)”, which was the maximum load on a horse.) anyway, after considering these transportation problems, the officers of the new tea factory decided to move the location to Xiaguan, an important town situated on the Dian Mian Public Road. This then led to the formation of the Kangzang (康藏) Tea Factory, which would later become Xiaguan, and began the 70-year journey that would lead to one amazed historian standing agape before an exhibit in a museum.
Moving on I found that the factory originally planned to manufacture tea bricks as well. However, the tea bricka were never produced because of marketing problems, The factory, in those early days, was therefore only producing two kinds of tea: one was mushroom-shaped tea, and the other was “mini round tea cakes”. Both of these teas were artificially fermented, though not using the same methods as are used today. They were also different from those Fohai (Later Menghai) produced in its earliest days.
Even though Kangzang was far away from tea farms like Mengku (勐库), Sunning and Jinggu (景谷), Kangzang had to submit to the distribution of tea leaves happening far away. Kangzang found their own niche, using unwanted, rough and old tea leaves for their mushroom-shaped teas. Since other factories like Sunning favored buds and tender leaves to produce the region’s green and black teas, the factories complimented each other in sourcing, reducing the waste of the entire industry.
In April of 1941, Kangzang created the trademark that has become so famous since: the Baoyan Brand (宝焰牌), and had it registered in Chongqing City (重慶市) at the end of that same year. As I was looking at the very first trademark, I took out my notes and compared it to the modern one, produced after the Cultural Revolution. I found the antique one much more lovely, down-to-earth and elegant.
Venturing on, when the state-owned factories and private businesses merged, the factory changed its name to Xiaguan. this new state-owned factory then took over not only the Baoyan Brand trademark of Kangzang Tea Factory, but also the ownership of Sunghe (松鹤), which had previously belonged to two prestigious private enterprises, Maoheng (茂恒) and Yuan Changxiang (永昌祥).
The headquarters of Maoheng was in distant Kunming city. Their official businesses included import and export of tea leaves, currency exchange, motor repair, etc. Yong Changxiang had similar businesses, and they had also invested in oil, insurance and a bookstore (Joint Publishing “HK”, Company).
Yong Changxiang had invented the “bowl tea” (Tuo Cha, 沱茶). At that time, it was producing two kinds of bowl teas: one was called simply “Primary Brand Bowl Tea” and the other “Secondary”. They shared the same shape and weight, but they tasted different because the raw material came from two distinct regions, and blending formulas.
During the time of the China Tea Corporation, the division of tea production was strictly controlled amongst all the factories. All the bowl teas of China Tea Corporation, for example, initially had to be produced by Kunming Fuxing Tea Factory (昆明复兴茶厂) under the trademark of the Fxxing Brand. In 1951, Xiaguan Tea Factory got permission to start producing its own bowl tea using the “Eight-zhong” logo. They also used the Fuxing Trademark because of its established reputation. After the merging of state and private businesses mentioned above, the Songhe brand trademark was no longer used.
Xiaguan later changed their name to Dali (大理) Tea Factory in December 1958. Then, in 1959, they produced the famous Canger Bowl Tea (苍铒茶厂) ）to commemorate the nation’s tenth birthday, and to implement their new policy of creating more and varied products. Another landmark exhibit in the museum was the sample of an “iron discus tea cake” that was made in the 1950’s and is believed to be the first Xiaguan iron discus tea cake. According to the documents shown: “In December of 1953, the factory made some breakthroughs in experimental processing. Instead of steaming and then compressing the leaves using a normal mold, they placed the bag of leaves under an 18-kilogram metal compression device” – and thus created the first ever Xiaguan iron discus tea cake. However, some scholars see this cake, and its story, as a fable since no mold for making iron discus tea cakes was ever found from the time. Furthermore, some senior employees have reported that Xiaguan didn’t start making iron discus tea cakes until the 1970’s. Regrettably, the large, sample tea cake in the exhibit was heavily wrapped in plastic and sealed in a glass cabinet. All you can see is the neat edges and not the back, I would love to be able to compare the compression marks on the back to the modern ones. I looked over the illustrations of the tea cake and other products made by some private tea companies in 1953, like De Xiangchang (德兴昌), and compared them to the sample and modern cakes in my notes. The illustration of the cakes from the private sector really seem to show taht those cakes inspired Xiaguan to reform its compressing methods. Though there is no evidence to support whether or not Xiaguan did in fact make the sample tea cake in the exhibit, it was clear to me that they were competing with these private companies in technique and technology, based on the products that are known to exist. Also, the tea cake does exist, so it just remains to prove who, in fact, created it.
The exhibits in the Xiaguan Tuocha Museum carried me back through the criss-crossing roads of a history I enjoy so much. Xiaguan has always been one of my favorite factories to study, and a few of the exhibits definitely cleared up some of the disputes going on in my mind. I think casual Puerh drinkers and collectors would enjoy a quick stroll through the museum, perhaps bored by all the minute details. For quirky historians such as myself, however, museums like this are a kind of indescribable bliss.