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How Much Do You Know About Da Hong Pao?

Author: Zeng Zhixian

A type of tea can speak endlessly.
A type of tea can be filled with so much myth.
In a single type of tea,
we can find a thousand different flavors.
Da Hong Pao is one such tea.

In the twenty-first year of the Republic of China (1932) the commander of the Eastern counterrevolutionary forces Jiang Dingwen learned of the reputation of Da Hong Pao. Wishing to experience its true flavor, he built a small wooden shack beside a Da Hong Pao tree and sent troops to keep watch day and night during tea harvest season. They waited until the tea was picked and processed and then spent a large sum of money to purchase and it bring it back to him. In the end, though, he learned he had not purchased genuine Da Hong Pao. This wooden shack was still standing until a few years ago when it burned to the ground, an event that was seemingly not a coincidence, The mystery and wonder of Da Hong Pao persists to this day,

Today Wuyi Yancha (Stone tea) has exploded in popularity and can be found everywhere. Da Hong Pao can be found in your house and he found in mine as well. Who knows just how many people have been infatuated with Da Hong Pao throughout the ages within China and abroad. Driven to seek out this tea, they do not rest until they have acquired it. Modern tea lovers cannot be so different, can we?

But how much do you know about Da Hong Pao?

The legend of Da Hong Pao drives visitors to Wuyi Mountain to seek out this mysterious tea. After undergoing the hardships of travel to arrive at this beautiful mountain wonderland, they do not wish to return home in vain. These thoughts occupy the minds of each tourist. Of course local merchants and are eager to give visitors what they want. But upon returning home, they are often disappointed, There is actually no need for regret. Any true not Da Hong Pao provides the profound experience of "stone-based floral fragrance." They are masterpieces of tea. Why regret that?

Up to the 1980's, mainland China had not yet opened up to visitors from abroad. However, a small number of experienced tea drinkers learned of this tea quite early. Through various channels, they managed to visit and bring home small boxes of Da Hong Pao. It was packaged in cardboard boxes in portions of 20 grams. These travelers returned home with many stories. They described the rarity of this tea and said it was difficult to acquire, because less than a pound is produced each year. They said it could only be obtained through secret channels. After tasting the tea, they may have declared theirs to be second generation Da Hong Pao. Perhaps others had similar products, which was merely third generation tea. After all, production quantities of second generation Da Hong Pao were also extremely limited.

These types of stories continuously spread during the early years of divided government across the Strait of Taiwan. They were told and retold and became legend. Those telling the stories often did not understand their significance, however, and those listening were also incapable of judging. They considered it their good fortune to be able to sample the tea in these small boxes of Da Hong Pao. Even if the quality was uneven, it provided a sort of consolation. The story of Nixon s visit to China and "half the country" may be improbable, but it illustrates the rarity of Da Hong Pao. According to the story, when Nixon visited China Chairman Mao gave him 50 grams of Da Hong Pao as a gift. In the eyes of the Chinese, this was an extremely valuable gift. Nixon seemed ungrateful, however, and silently blamed Mao for being stingy. Upon finding out, Premier Zhou Enlai smilingly told Nixon: "Only 100 grams of Da Hong Pao are produced each year. Chairman Mao gave you 50 grams, or half the country. Are you still unsatisfied?" The American president suddenly realized the value of the gift.

All tea lovers who come to Wuyi Mountain are drawn here by the great reputation of Da Hong Pao. Occupying its status as "emperor," it can be found growing on the rocky cliffs of Tian Xian Yan at Jiulongke, a valley on the north side of Wuyi. High cliffs stand on both sides, ensuring limited sunlight. A tiny spring flows from the top of the cliff providing moisture to the tea throughout the year. This exceptional environment gives Da Hong Pao its extraordinary nature.

The three Chinese characters for Da Hong Pao are engraved in the cliff next to the Da Hong Pao "mother" trees. There are two different explanations regarding who carved these characters into the stone. The first explains that a monk from Tianxin temple carved the characters in 1927, while the second states that the mayor of Chong'an, Wu Shixian, carved the characters into the cliff in 1930.

There are also a number of different stories about the origin of Da Hong Pao. One says that Da Hong Pao sprouts new buds in the early spring. The entire tree is flaming red, which makes it appear as though it is draped in a red robe (Da Hong Pao literally means "large red robe" in Chinese). This explanation is likely to have been derived based on inference from biology. Other more colorful stories involve the emperor or empress bestowing robes on the trees or, especially, a scholar rushing to the capital to take the civil service exam. These stories are more likely to be told by tour guides today as they guide visitors through the area.

The legend of the scholar tells of how a monk from Tianxin temple used magical tea to cure the illness of a scholar rushing to the capital for the imperial civil service exam. After passing the exam and becoming a government official, he returned to give thanks to the magical tea that saved his life. He took off his red robe and draped it over the tea bush. From then on, the tea was known as Da Hong Pao.

These folk stories make for good after dinner conversation but should not be taken as historical fact. In mainland China, some have made serious attempts to verify them, however, going so far as to seek out the name and date of the scholar's actions.

"The mountains and waters of Wuyi are a wonder of the world. Thirty-six connected peaks are circled by the flowing waters of Jiuqn Stream. The light of the mountains is reflected in the clear water." This provides a rough sketch of Wuyi Mountain, This great mountain with extraordinary scenery gave birth to the natural spirit of Yancha.

How many original Da Hong Pao tea trees currently exist? On this point, opinions vary from three or four to six trees. If you have visited the site of these trees yourself, how many do you think there really are?

According to the survey conducted by Lin Euquan in "Wuyi Tea Production and Sale" published in 1941, only three genuine Da Hong Pao trees remain.

Former head of the Wuyi Mountain Comprehensive Farm and director of the Wuyi Agricultural Bureau Luo Shengcai wrote "Famous Groves of Wuyi Yancha." In this book and during interviews, he describes Da Hong Pao as a shrub type, small leaf, late budding tea variety. Four mother trees were originally planted atop the stone precipice at Jiulongke and are indicated by the "Da Hong Pao" characters engraved into the side of the cliff. In 1980, two additional mother Da Hong Pao tea trees were planted on a lower level of the stone terrace connected to the original growing area, which explains the six Da Hong Pao tea trees mentioned today,

Luo Shengcan further points out that Da Hong Pao is divided into original and duplicates, Today, tree number two and number six and their clones arc representative of Da Hong Pao (see page 64 of Famous Groves of Wuyi Yancha").

Since the 1980, Da Hong Pao cultivation has grown to include a significant area of Wuyi. A number of mainland Chinese research and educational institutions have also introduced new varieties. Consequently, opportunities to taste pure Da Hong Pao continue to increase.

Tender leafed, arbor type, small leaf, and late budding, Da Hong Pao originated in Jiulongke. During the early 1980's, Da Hong Pao was cloned from the original grove. Many local tea farmers now grow introduced varieties and the tea is grown over a substantial area. The name Da Hong Pao is now synonymous with this tea.

Former head of Fujian's Tea Research Institute, Chen Dehua is among those working to preserve the tradition of Wuyi Yancha tea production. He recalls that in 1958, when he was in Changle, Fujian, he saw a sketch drawn by art teacher Chen Li of Jiulongke's Da Hong Pao. It also depicted three tea trees.

In spring 1962 China National Tea Corporation planted Da Hong Pao cuttings in Hangzhou, which were also taken from those three Jiulongke Da Hong Pao trees. In addition, Chen Dehua accompanied the Fujian Tea Institute's Xie Qingzi to Wuyi in the spring of 1964 to take cuttings from the three Jiulongke mother trees, which were then brought back to Shekouzhen, Fu'an.

In those early days, it was accurate to speak of three Da Hong Pao trees. More were planted, however, which accounts for today's nearly universal mention of six Da Hong Pao trees.

Chen Dehua describes the appearance of commercial Da Hong Pao tea products. The earliest was produced in August, 1985. In 1986, professor Chen Chuan was invited to write about Da Hong Pao. In 1998, he was again invited to describe 91 Wuyi Yancha. Today's 83 Old Man Tea refers to that which was described at 83 years old, that is, in 1990, while 91 tea is from 1998. The small boxes of Da Hong Pao were produced during this period.

The introduction of Da Hong Pao products into the marketplace is highly related to the widespread cultivation at that time of pure Da Hong Pao tea trees.

Cuttings of Da Hong Pao were planted in various locations for research. However, Wuyi Mountain, Da Hong Pao's birthplace, was neglected. Chen Dehua took advantage of his participation in the Fujian Tea Research Institute's 50th Anniversary Conference to request cuttings from the Jiulongke Da Hong Pao mother trees taken in 1962 and 1964, which he brought back to Wuyi Mountain for cultivation.

On the 17th of November, 1985, Chen De Hua replanted five Da Hong Pao trees in today's the garden of the Yu Tea Plantation Tea Science Institute. This is a date that should be commemorated for its role in placing pure Da Hong Pao back on the tea drinking stage.

Prior to Chen Dehua, Yao Yueming was a preeminent authority in the field of Yancha and devoted his career to Da Hong Pao investigation and research. He once worked with well-known tea experts Chen Shuxing and Ye Minggao to investigate the previous assertion that Da Hong Pao grows in three places. One was said to be at the foot of Jiulongke and has faded into relative decline. The second was at Huoyan Peak and has completely declined. The third was said to be at Beidou Peak and is also in relative decline. In 1960 Yao Yueming returned to these three locations to seek the roots of Da Hong Pao and took more than a dozen cuttings, His work suffered a setback due to the Cultural Revolution, but following China's reform and opening the results of his research, Beidou Peak's Beidou No, 1 and Jiulongke's Beidou No. 2, have become synonymous with Da Hong Pao. In particular, Beidou No. 1 was very successfully produced over many years of experimentation, and its fragrance and flavor are highly admired. It is grown over large areas of the mountain be growers including the well-established Rui Quan Yancha Factory.

Today it seems that, in order to promote Wuyi Yancha, the majority of Wuyi Mountain teas aside from Shui Xian and Rou Gui are sold as Da Hong Pao. It seems as if Da Hong Pao is everywhere, and the tea has become a symbol of Wuyi. The tea Hong Pao consumed by tea drinkers today, however, is nearly all blended. Blending of tea is an advanced craft of its own and is used in many different types of tea to produce teas of even quality and flavor. Regardless of whether you are drinking pure Da Hong Pao or commercial Da Hong Pao, carefully savor its fragrance, sweetness, clarity, and vitality. This is one of life's true pleasures.