Small bamboo rafts carry Liubao tea down the winding Liubao river from tea growing areas including Buyi, Siliu, Tangping, Lichong, Wutong, and Gaojian. The tea travels along the Xijiang river system and finally arrives in Guangzhou for collection and distribution. From there it is carried to homes of overseas Chinese throughout the world.
Malaysia is the largest importer of Liubao tea. The status of Liubao tea in Malaysia has long been intertwined with the development of the country's mining industry and rising and failing economic fortunes over the past hundred years.
Local tea experts speculate on the production techniques of Liubao tea based on the color and mellowness of the tea in the cup. How has Liubao tea production changed over the past hundred years? Why has it changed? These puzzles often fill the conversations of tea drinkers tasting tea. Collectors are eager to determine the characteristics of a tea's age based on the I appearance of the bamboo basket holding the tea. How have the tea baskets changed over the 100 years? Wuzhou, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Dama each have a place in the history of Liubao tea baskets. How to decipher the written codes on these baskets? These terms are often the deciding factors in bargaining related to tea transactions. Furthermore, why is there more 1970's Liubao tea in Malaysia than 1980's? Why was there suddenly less tea in the 1980's but with more types?
The hundred year history of overseas sale of Liubao tea has inevitably been affected by the tremendous government changes in the Wuzhou production area. In addition, rising and falling fortunes of Malaysian consumers, as well as shipping industry factors in Hong Kong and Macau, have all had an impact as Liubao tea makes its way through unsteady trade routes.
Liubao dominates sales to overseas Chinese
Liubao tea is a post-fermentation black type tea. In Chinese medical terms, it is said to effectively remove heat, dispel dampness, and detoxify the body. These features made It an essential item carried by Chinese emigrants as they left their hometowns. Early overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia drank Liubao tea to relieve dysentery and cool the body. It is also said that when their children suffered from diarrhea, they would place Liubao tea and spring water in an earthen pot and bring it to a boil over a high flame. Once cooled slightly, they added a moderate amount of winter honey. When consumed, it provided instant benefit.
Aside from the above health factors, Liubao tea also greatly benefited from the portside location of its tea production area, which facilitated immediate export. Wuzhou is one of the starting points of China's maritime Silk Road. In the past, it was the great southwest's most convenient export route. In 1897, imperial Japan forced Wuzhou to become a treaty trading port, and tea became a significant resource in their economic plunder. This is another factor that greatly contributed to Liubao's status as the tea with the highest volume of exports to overseas Chinese.
Wuzhou Liubao tea is primarily shipped along the Xijiang river for sale abroad. Consequently, it is also known as "Oversea Compatriot Tea." As far back as the Qing Dynasty Jiaqing period (1796 - 1820), Liubao tea farmers shipped their tea out of the mountainous growing areas on bamboo rafts to Guangzhou. There it was put onto boats and shipped throughout the world. Records indicate that Liubao tea exports from Wuzhou exceeded 1100 tons in 1935. Consequently, Laobao tea has also been called Xijiang river basin "Boat Merchant Tea."
Liubao tea fermentation craft precipitated the development of ripe Puerhv
The quality and flavor of Liubao tea is uniquely characterized as red, rich, mellow, and pure. In addition, it is often sold as "aged Liubao" or "disregarding years," which shows the excellent quality of this tea. In terms of quality and trademark, "aged" or "old" are always used to emphasize the characteristics of Liubao tea. This factor has also contributed to the emphasis on fermentation in Liubao tea production.
The earliest detailed written record of Liubao tea production techniques is found in Tea Collection and Production Methods, published in June 1957 by the Guangxi province Supply and Marketing Cooperative. It states: "Liubao tea originated in Liubao township, Cangwu county. Its production craft is relatively unique. Neither black tea nor green tea, it is unique to this province, and so it is named Liubao tea after the production area. Its fermentation process sets it apart. Following heating (sha qing) and rolling (rou nian), it undergoes post-fermentation in piles for several hours before being dried." This text clearly specifies that the production technique involves post-fermentation in piles.
According to Zou Jiaju's Yunnan Ripe Tea, prior to 1948 only pressed Yunnan tea was shipped to Hong Kong. During the early 1950's, most Yunnan tea shipped to Hong Kong changed to loose leaf. That period happens to coincide with the communist revolution, when the popularity of loose leaf Liubao tea packed in bamboo baskets peaked in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, and Southeast Asia. Hong Kong tea sellers were inspired by the mellow fragrance of Liubao resulting from pile storage. Based on market demand, they began to experiment with processing methods using humid environments such as cellars and warehouses to accelerate the post-fermentation of Liubao and Puerh tea. The market continued to change, and, by the late 1950's, this type of "flood tea" gradually came to dominate Hong Kong tea houses. Consumers widely appreciated the mellow fragrance, red liquor, and brown base of this ripe tea.
Due to the above factors, the Native Produce & Animal Byproducts Import & Export Company (CNNP), Yunnan Branch initiated experimentation into post-fermentation of tea for export. It is said that Wuzhou tea factories still contain staff who were sent from Yunnan to learn post-fermentation techniques for ripe Puerh production. As the culmination of this study and investigation, CNNP Yunnan successfully produced ripe Puerh tea in 1974. In 1977, Kunming Tea Factory's Wu Qiying offered the first fermented Puerh tea to the public.
Traditional Liubao tea - red, rich, mellow, and pure
Liubao tea is primarily produced for export to overseas Chinese. It seems likely that its production techniques were gradually perfected over a long time period based on requirements of Cantonese or Hong Kong tea merchants, thus giving rise to its later tea making techniques.
The "corner pile fermentation" performed following heating and rolling is also known as "wet pile fermentation". This procedure is crucial to the unique quality of Liubao tea. Its goal is to hasten the transformation of the tea's internal substances through the warmth and humidity of the wet pile process, thereby reducing bitterness and causing the flavor to become pure and mild.
The unique character of Liubao tea is then catalyzed through the careful "cold fermentation" procedure. The so-called initial production tea material is first dried over a pine fire. Moisture is then added to the tea until it reaches a suitable level of wetness. It is then pile-fermented for seven to ten days to supplement deficiencies in the initial fermentation. In traditional production techniques, however, steamed tea is stored in piles for 20 to 30 days. The primary function of the wet fermentation is to accelerate changes to internal substances in the tea, thereby causing materials such as theaflavins and thearu-bigins to increase. The color and fragrance of the tea increases, which gives Liubao tea is characteristic style.
The Liubao tea produced in Wuzhou is distinguished by another important feature. That is, its aging process is unlike that of other teas. After fermentation, Liubao tea is generally stored in air raid shelters to age. The temperature, humidity, and microorganisms are extremely
beneficial in aging the tea. I he tea is stored in this environment for two to three years before being sold. This relatively long aging process is another characteristic of Liubao tea, which distinguishes it from the brief aging process of other types of black tea.
Another unique aspect of the aging process contributes to the special mellow purity of Liubao tea. This is due to the fact that early Liubao tea was transported by water, which further helped to shape the character of the tea. The tea was shipped along the Liubao river on bamboo rafts, which unintentionally helped contribute to its unique quality. The damp environment on the river with water constantly splashing onto the bamboo baskets, combined with the hot sun, caused the tea to continuously ferment and age. This shipping process further contributed to the mellow fragrance of the tea.
One hundred years of rise and fall of Liubao tea
Today it is still not clearly known when Liubao began to grow and produce tea. However, historical records indicate that Liubao tea was listed among the 24 great teas during the Qing Dynasty Jiaqing period (1796 - 1820).
Before World War II, Liubao tea was praised by Chinese in Hong Kong, Macau, and Southeast Asia and experienced brisk sales. Other factors contributed to the rapid development in Liubao tea, including low shipping costs and stable governments in major buying areas including Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Malaysia. In addition to Liubao, large growing areas sprang up in neighboring regions and production volumes increased.
At the height of Liubao tea, tea farmers brought their initially processed tea to Hekou Street. During the tea harvest, this street was filled with the sound of trading. To this day Liubao town still contains a tea collection place, Chating, which provides a glimpse at the spectacle of those days. According to local elders, many tea companies were established in those years. Large tea companies from all over set up branches in Liubao, These include famous tea companies such as Yingji, Wanshen, Guangyuantai, Xieji, Tianshunxiang, and Shenchang.
Major Hong Kong tea companies successively moved into Liubao and began buying tea. Of these, Guangyuantai is the most famous. At the time, the same trademarks were printed on the bamboo baskets used to ship the tea and on the pillars outside the buildings of the large tea companies.
In addition, the mi fei (anti-counterfeiting mark) was imprinted with the tea company name, as well as the company icon and official seal, to allow identification of genuine products. This type of brand protection was imitated by all of the various competing tea companies at the time. When considering Liubao tea in Malaysia, we are drawn to the nei fei of Shen Chang Zhan tea company of Hakou, Guangxi, which states: "This company is established in first year of the Republic of China. Tender, spring Liubao tea leaves are steam processed sparing no expense and then packed into bamboo. This company guarantees absolutely no other tea leaves will be mixed in. The tea has pure flavor and rich red liquor and is shipped to Chen village in Eastern Guangdong. We appreciate your patronage and invite you to recognize the company's trademarks of two and four gold coins. This message is written respectfully by the owner of Hakou, Shen Chang Zhan." According to the veteran tea drinker who opened this tea, this nei fei was found in the center of the tea packed in bamboo and was written in black letters on red paper. From the text, we learn that Shen Chang tea company was founded in the first year of the Republic of China (1912). Its main office was located in Hakao, and its trademarks were two and four gold coins.
Two additional net were also found in the bamboo tea container and were written in green characters on white paper. One was inserted in the upper-middle part of the bamboo basket, while the other was inserted in the lower-middle part of the container. They state: "Over our 40-year history, this shop has studied Liubao tea with the utmost care. Each spring without fail, we travel to growing areas to select the best quality young buds from the year's new tea leaves. Sparing no expense, we produce superior grade tea that is stored and aged to produce the best flavor. Only tea with pure and mellow flavor and rich red liquor is presented to our customers. This tea has long been sold within China and abroad to widespread approval. Lately, certain shameless individuals have disregarded all professional ethics and produced inferior imitations of our tea. This year to counter these imitators, we introduce a new hexagonal registered trademark. Please carefully recognize us by our flavor and trademarks——Shen Chang Old Tea Company.11 Based on all three of these notes, we can surmise that this tea was most likely produced during the 1950's. From the fact that the tea is aged to bring out its pure and mellow flavor, it is clear that Liubao tea is valued for its age, and not for its newness.
Liubao tea's long period of prosperity came to an end in 1937 when Japan invaded China, and Guangzhou fell into enemy hands. During the ten years of great decline between 1937 and 1949, many of the tea companies stopped production or went bankrupt. A resurgence in the production of Liubao tea occurred after the revolution in 1951. Land reform returned land to farmers, and tea production was greatly expanded. In addition, the highway between Liubao and Guangdong opened in 1957, which also helped accelerate growth of Liubao tea.
This period of prosperity during the 1950 s did not last long. In 1958, communes were formed and the Three Red Banners (General Line for Socialist Construction, Great Leap Forward, and People's Communes) were initiated. The Liubao tea industry, having just emerged from the darkness, was once again pushed into a period of uncertainty. The Great Leap Forward was carried out on a grand scale for approximately three years. It gradually came to an end in late-1960, but Liubao tea production was greatly reduced.
Another significant factor contributed to the decline of Liubao tea. At the time, purchase prices for Liubao tea were low - often lower than those of green tea of the same grade. Green tea processing is easier than that of Liubao tea, however, cruising tea farmers to switch to green tea production. This severely damaged the traditional post - fermentation craft of Liubao An even more significant factor, however, came from the communal or collective tea farms and factories. Tea farmers no longer approached their work with the dynamism of the past. Tea plantation management, production, and quality gradually fell. Local elders recount with sadness that the traditional "age" and "red" of Liubao tea had changed. Traditional techniques were lost, and Liubao tea gradually disappeared from the Hong Kong and Macau markets.
Why did Liubao tea sales to Malaysia suddenly decline during the 1980's?
In 1982 China implemented the family responsibility system. That is, Liubao tea farmers no longer enjoyed the "iron rice bowl" of collective production units and began to take responsibility for their own production and operations, Liubao tea was dependent on export, but, as other market mechanism liberalized, tea export remained under the control of the foreign trade department. As a result, the price of tea leaves fell below the price of even fresh vegetables. Tea farmers followed the market and began growing other agricultural products on their tea plantations. Liubao tea production decreased drastically within a period of only six or seven year, falling by 80 to 90%. According to records, yearly output in 1989 reached a historical low of only 14 tons.
Tea production of other areas under the same supply and marketing management system including Heng county and Guilin experienced the same decline as Liubao. By 1987 the supply of tea from Liubao township to Wuzhou Tea Factory was completely cut off. In 1989, Liubao Tea Factory closed. Soon afterward, tea production stopped in other Liubao tea production areas such as Heng county and Guilin. In 1981, 500 tons of Puerh from Yunnan was sold to Hong Kong and 650 tons of Puerh from Sichuan was sold to Hong Kang. However, the entirety of Liubao tea shipped from Guangxi, which once measured around 1500 tons, plummeted to 444 tons.
Based on the above data, we can see that by the end of the 1980's Liubao tea production slowed and even stopped. Sales of Puerh tea from Yunnan and Sichuan exceeded sales of Liubao tea. When Malaysian tea sellers became unable to purchase Liubao raw materials From Wuzhou, they gradually shifted to buying from Hong Kong. According to general manager Liu Junguang of Kong Wooi Fong Tea Merchants in Kuala Lumpur, as the tea became unavailable, Kuala Lumpur tea importers began importing large leaf varieties of loose leaf tea from Thailand and Myanmar, or they shifted to purchasing Puerh tea from Hong Kong. At that time, Puerh tea cakes were often sold as Liubao tea. Early on Malaysian tea sellers did not distinguish between Puerh and Liubao tea, so selling Puerh as Liubao tea was a common occurrence.
I returned to Ipoh, Malaysia in mid-July to continue the search for Liubao tea I had left off in early-June, and arrived at the home of an influential mining family. I was treated very well by my hostess Ms, Wu Taiming, who graciously allowed me to share in tasting a genuine 1950's Shen Chang Four Gold Coins tea. She pulled out the two antique nei fei wrappers mentioned above, which further proved the age of this tea. The special "red, rich, mellow, and pure" character of Liubao tea was vividly apparent when tasting the tea. She then presented a 1990's Liubao tea pressed in Shui Xian style, which tasted like an old Shui Xian Oolong. Spread out, the tea leaves had the frog-skin-like appearance of an Oolong tea. During my previous trip in June, I also photographed a number of large leaf 1990's Liubao teas. All of these teas may have resulted from the Liubao tea factory closing in 1989, as tea sellers from Hong Kong and Malaysia began importing pressed "Liubao tea" from other production areas. This answered a number of my questions regarding Liubao tea.
Decoding the labels on bamboo containers of Liubao Tea Of the old Liubao tea stored in Malaysia, most can be said to have originated in the 1970's, which is primarily due to the strong Malaysian economy during that period. Economic prosperity spurs consumption, and so tea imports increased. Another factor is the gradual closing of mines during the 1970's, causing Liubao tea to be hoarded. This tea left behind in mining areas was largely the valued tea of the proprietors of the mines. More common tea was consumed by the mine workers. This explains yet another mystery of Liubao tea.
Based on the complex historical background described above as well as the intricate economic and political factors of the two countries, we can generally characterize Liubao tea as follows:
1. Differences in raw materials: During the 1958 Great Leap Forward and the 1989 closing of the Wuzhou tea factory, teas from other production areas including Yunnan, Sichuan, and Myanmar were used to meet demand for Liubao tea.
2. Differences in production techniques: We can infer that the quality and production techniques of the tea exported from Wuzhou vary in different time periods.Additionally, tea exported from Hong Kong was imported as raw materials and processed by Hong Kong companies.The quality of this tea is relatively uniform, and its character varies by tea company. This tea, however, is likely to have been directly exported after production, unlike the early Wuzhou tea that was stored for one to two years before being sold.
3. Differences in grade labels on bamboo baskets: During the early 1960's, the Liubao Peopled Commune established the combined Liubao tea factory. According to national regulations, unprocessed Liubao tea leaves were divided into the following grades: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (below grade), and 7 (coarse tea). Each grade was further subdivided into upper, middle, and lower grades. Prior to the early 1960s, tea companies purchased Liubao tea based on four grades: fine tea, original grade, coarse tea, and shop tea. Tea imported from Wuzhou was designated by numbers, but Hong Kong tea companies continued to use the older four-grade classifications to purchase raw materials. The bamboo containers continued to use the original grade classifications. Consequently, the old four-grade labels can be found on much of the Liubao tea in Malaysia.
Liubao tea has always been sold as "aged Liubao" or "disregarding years" and described as "red, rich, mellow, and pure." The mystery of Liubao tea is the result of its complex history. The flavor of old Liubao tea found in Malaysia contains not only the rich and aged flavor of its birthplace, but also the mystery of time, as dark and mysterious as the tea liquor itself.