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Over 250 Years Of Traditional Craft Turned On Its Head Anxi TieguanYin Blows In With A "Light" Breeze Its Delicate Fragrance Dominates Marketplace

Author,Photos: luo Ying Yin

Bring up Yunnan, and Pu-erh immediately comes to mind. Mention Wuyi, and we immediately think of Cliff tea. Speak of Anxi, and course it'sa Tieguanyin.

Anxi began producing tea at the end of the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). From then on, tea has been Anx's traditional backbone industry. According to the "Anxi County Gazetteer," 250 years ago Anxi people had already begun to put in place a complete framework for processing and sales of tea to Southeast Asia. In the past fifty years it has developed at an even more pronounced pace. In 1995, Anxi was given the title "Home of Chinese Oolong (famous tea)."

Today Anxi County tea gardens cover an area over 400,000 mu (1 mu = 1/6 acre) in size. They produce 42,000 tons of tea annually. Over 800,000 people make their living through tea or in tea-related industries. Anxi tea trade reached 4,520,000,000RMB ($565 million) in 2005. The tea industry completely dominates the Anxi economy. Until 1996, Anxi was one of the most impoverished counties in Fujian, with an average farming area of 0.37 mu (1 mu= 1/6 acrea) per person.

Today, relying entirely on tea, it has risen from poverty to become one of the hundred strongest counties in China. Anxi's recognition has increased in unison with that of Tieguanyin.

Anxi County has enjoyed this impressive economic growth in the brief span of only a decade thanks to a combination of internal and external factors. Its climate and geographic conditions supply a natural foundation for tea tree growth. It is home to the superior and pure "Tieguanyin" tea tree variety. It has accumulated over 200 years of tea production craft. These and other internal factors have combined with the large-scale increase in demand for tea brought on by China's rapid economic growth, giving new meaning to the saying "Famous Tieguanyin; its value exceeds that of gold."

Origin of the Tieguanyin Variety

Tiegyanyin is the name of a tea tree variety. It Is also the name of a finished tea product and a tea commodity. Originating in Xinping Township of Anxi County, Fujian Province, it has a history of over 200 years of cultivation. It is a first-rate Oolong tea, and its distinctive style is popular at home and abroad.

Two different stories regarding the origin of Tieguanyin have been passed down in Anxi. One says that a Xiping tea farmer Wei Yin had a dream in which the Bodhisattva Guanyin granted him a tea tree. He dug it up and replanted it. This is known as the "Wei Legend."

The other says that a man named Wang Shirang from Yaoyang, Anxi picked tea from a tree, which he presented to the emperor. The emperor gave the tea the name Tieguanyin. This is known as the "Wang Legend." Analyzing the "Anxi County Gazetteer" as well as local legends, experts have confirmed that Songyan village's Wei Yin did make such a discovery. Likewise, the Yaoyang village resident Wang Shirang did make a tribute of tea to the emperor Qianlong, who conferred the name Tieguanyin. The two stories both appear to have merit, but regardless of which legend is true, it is undisputed that Tieguanyin originated in Xiping. In 2002, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture conferred Xiping with the title "Birthplace of Tieguanyin."

Superiority of the Teaguanyin Variety

Anxi County contains the largest number of asexual tea tree varieties in China. According to a survey of the county's tea tree varieties, today Anxi contains more than 50 different varieties of tea trees. Commonly cultivated strains include: Tieguanyin, Benshan, Huangdan, Maoxie, Oolong, Meizhan, Qilan, etc. Among these, Tieguangyin, Maoxie, Meizhan, Huangdan, big leaf Oolong, and Benshan were judged in 1994 to be national level superior breeds. Beginning in the 1950's, in order to simplify classification, Anxi Oolong was divided into three categories: Tieguanyin, Sezhong, and Oolong. All of the tea varieties aside from Tieguanyin and Oolong were classed as Sezhong. Later Oolong was also classified as Sezhong.

Tieguanyin was originally the name of a tea tree variety, which has also gone by the names Hongxin Guanyin and Hongyang Guanyin. These trees marily grow in the tea growing districts of Fujid.n^ The most lie in Anxi, which contains approximately 200,000mu, Trees of the Tieguanyin variety are also growing in Guangdong and Taiwan. Tieguanyin's most pronounced characteristics are its natural floral fragrance and its profound houyun ("throat resonance"). For over 200 years, Anxi Tieguanyin has held a unique position in the large family of Oolong teas. This is largely due to its inherited traits, which are related to the character-tic fragrance of Oolong tea. In addition to its unique qualities as a tea plant variety, Tieguanyin employs traditional "light sun dry, heavy shaking" processing. This is an important factor in maintaining Tieguanyin's unique appearance and flavor. It is composed of crimped strips of tea in substantial, evenly distributed round knots. It is sand-green and has a glossy luster. The brewed tea is golden-yellow and has a strong, refined fragrance. The flavor is rich and mellow with marked huigan and "after seven infusions, the fragrance remains."

From traditional to lightly fermented Tieguanyin

Why has 200 plus years of traditional tea craft been turned on its head in only a few years? Is it because traditional techniques are unprofitable, wasting time and labor? Or is it because tea drinkers tastes have changed? Don't young people prefer sweet flavors that are not bitter or astringent? Or is it because the traditional method of "producing tea by judging greenness" requires deep accumulated experience in order to make quality tea; whereas switching to an air-conditioned, climate-can-trolled environment allows for stable quality, benefiting large-scale production and expansion of the market?

Anxi tea elder Qingehang recalls that in 1992 people from Taiwan came to make "pearl tea." At the time this was a technique used to pick green tea. After picking the tea, they immediately dried it in woks without letting it oxidize. Then they used Taiwanese tight rubbing techniques (using rubbing/twisting machines brought from Taiwan), Over the next several years, a stream of people came to Anxi from Taiwan to grow, process, and then export tea back to Taiwan. By 1996. Anxi was using "light fermentation" techniques to produce dark-green, tightly balled, fresh, sweet Tieguanyin tea. From the moment it appeared on the market, new consumers praised the tea. Quanzhou people were especially enthusiastic.

From 1999 onward, Anxi tea farmers took another bold step in employing new technologies. Building on the foundation of light tea processing, they began using air-conditioned, low-temperature processing, This was the first step toward a complete process^ greatly transforming the traditional Tieguanyin tea production process. It is said that in 2001, Quanzhou relayed a message back to Anxi: "As long as it's green, at 1000RMB/catty we'll buy it all," In an instant, the production methods snowballed throughout Anxi, one location becoming ten and then ten becoming one hundred. "Lightly fermented" ,Tieguanyin engulfed the entire Anxi tea growing district.

This delicate style tea leaves people mesmerized. Traditional half-oxidized tea is savored for its aftertaste. But what is the difference between the two? Traditional half-oxidized "ripe yun type" is characterized by: three parts red to seven parts green; dark base, green midsection, and red along the edges; robust knots; heaviness; visibly red spots; and white frost on the surface of the leaves. "Delicately fragrant" Anxi Tieguanyin is characterized by: one part red to nine parts green; emerald green color and luster; pure, fresh flavor; light green at the bottom of the leaves; and few red edges or red spots.

The biggest difference between traditional and "lightly fermented" tea is that the first is half - oxidized and stresses the "shaking" technique, placing importance on warm baking over a slow fire; whereas the second uses light oxidation low temperature air conditioning, and emphasizes delicate fragrance. In the current Tieguanyin market, this "delicate fragrance style" is in high demand. It sells for a high price with production and marketing both booming. These new lightly—oxidized processing techniques, if not properly mastered, can easily lead to tea with a grassy aroma, weak flavor, bitterness, and no evident chayun (the rhyme or charm of tea).

Types of lightly fermented Tieguanyin

In recent years Anxi County, has used advertising and education to continuously change tea production techniques and equipment. Tea production has changed from weather - based to air - condition - base. The number of tea farmers using air-conditioning equipment to produce tea during the summer season has clearly increased. Tea production technology has also markedly improved. A rough survey by the Anxi County Bureau of Tea and Fruits found that over 90% of tea producing townships contain tea farmers who are using air-conditioned tea processing. Among them, approximately 80% of tea farmers always produce their tea this way. Normally air-condition processed Tieguanyin commands a price 8-10 times higher per kilogram. It is easy to see why traditional, half oxidize Tieguanyin is difficult to find in the market.

The low temperature "lightly oxidize" processing method is not that different from traditional techniques in picking and drying the tea. The cooling portion of the process is slight different, however. The tea is laid out in a thin pile, and the air-conditioned low temperature process requires fewer cooling and shaking steps than traditional processing. Roasting and oxidation times vary depending on taste demands of the marketplace. In the Anxi tea district there are approximately four different production techniques:

1. Conventional method (roast the tea around noon on the second day)

2. "Return" method (roast the tea around 5pm on the second day) On the first pass, the tea changes from yellow-green to dark green.

3. ''Pull" method (roast the tea around 10pm on the second day) The tea sits out for an extended period of time. On the first pass, it changes from dark yellow-green to dark grey-green.

4. "Delayed" method (roast the tea the morning of the 3rd day) - on the third pass it changes from dark green to blackened green suffused with white. The stems are hard and the leaf blades are dry and wilted. They send out a dark green acidity.

Additionally, we should mention Tieguanyin's "sourness." Tieguanyin produced using new processing techniques characterized by lighly - oxidize may possess a sense of sourness and even a sour flavor. Many tea sellers claim that this sourness is a sign of superior quality Tieguanyin. This has brought about the appearance of many products with sour flavor. Today tea growing areas classify lightly fermented Tieguanyin tea as "true sour" and "crooked sour" (Fujian dialect terms). According to experts, this kind of "sour" in lightly-oxidize Tieguanyin comes about after drying by not promptly performing sha qing ("kill-green" to stop the oxidation), thus drawing out a sour flavor. "Crooked sour" results when tea is not processed correctly. The brewed tea carries a strange sourness, and drinking it causes unpleasant feelings. "Proper sour" is a light and fresh sourness, a type of "bright mouth sourness" (Fujian dialect term). The sourness in lightly-oxidize Tieguanyin is different from traditional Tieguanyin's concept of "sour with salivation, and long-lasting huigan."

Three different styles of Anxi Tieguanyin

Tea emphasizes harmony between "heaven, earth, and man." Anxi Tieguanyin is no different. Different mountains produce tea with different quality characteristics. Tea growing areas also developed at different times, leading to difference in tea production craft. Today Anxi is characterized by three different styles of Tieguanyin represented by the three towns of Xiping, Xianghua, and Gande.

Xiping Tieguanyin: Xiping is the birthplace of Anxi Tieguanyin. It uses relatively traditional processing techniques. Consequently, it is considered to be traditional type Tieguanyin. The degree of oxidation is relatively high. The brewed tea liquor is bright and attractive and a relatively deep, golden yellow color. It clearly possesses the or charm of" Tieguanyin. Today, however, most is produced using new air-conditioned, low temperature technology.

Xianghua Tieguanyin: Xianghua tea has long enjoyed a good reputation. The production area contains high mountains thick with fog. It produces tea of distinctive quality. The tea is moderately oxidize and is characterized by its strong, prominent huigan. Gande Tieguanyin: Tieguanyin produced in the town of Gande has taken its place at the forefront of the tea market due to its "special, clear flavor." Using innovative processing, its oxidation is lighter than that of Xiping or Xianghua. Some tea experts refer to Gande Tieguanyin as "reform tea" or "market tea." The tea liquor is dense and aromatic and carries a slight sourness. It creates a unique, slightly sour mouth feeling. As the tea enters the mouth, its sourness is aromatic. Likewise, its aroma carries sourness.

Flourishing Autumn Tea Market

Gande's ever-spreading reputation, is due to two factors. The first is that among Anxi's mountains it produces the highest quality tea. The second is its Huaizhi village tea night market. Merchants flock here during the season when new teas come onto the market.

Along the approximately three-kilometer Huaizhi village road under a bright mid-autumn moon, this small village in the deep and cloudy mountains is surprisingly ablaze with lights. An endless stream of tea merchants swarm here from all around. Several hundred tea shops are filled with the fragrance of tea. Cup after cup of golden yellow tea liquor are set out at the roadside tea stalls. The sweet scent of Tieguanyin draws tea buyers from all directions. Everywhere they are tasting, appraising, and bargaining over tea.

Non-local tea merchants arrive every year in spring and autumn when new teas come on the market. They come early in order to purchase the best tea, staying In the homes of local farmers and waiting to "snatch up" the tea. Very early in the morning when the tea has just finished drying, they compete with one another to buy it (this scene is reminiscent of the situation twenty years ago in Taiwan with Dongding tea). In the past several years, Gande has gotten new tea trees and new technology. Tea drinkers increasingly seek out its tea. Tea merchants "waiting at night to snatch up tea" have also increased in number. In this way, the night tea market in Huaizhi village has taken form.

When I mentioned the Huaizhi village night tea market, Anxi Tea and Fruit Bureau head Cai Jianming told me: "Anxi's main tea market is really a sight to behold."

The height of autumn in October is the season for new fall teas in mainland China's Oolong capital of Anxi. At 7am, the main hall of the Chadu tea market is already filled with activity and the smell of tea. Over 3000 booths are filled with newly produced fall tea, and bag upon bag of tea is spread out in sequence. looking down from the third floor, we see people's heads staggered among piles of tea. Tea farmers and tea buyers are busy bargaining and appraising the tea. They drink from simple cast iron tea cups to judge the tea. Workers are weighing and delivering tea. It is a scene of flourishing trade and booming circulation of goods.

Bureau director Cai tells us that not only locals are here to collect tea. Many have come from Xiamen, Hong Kong, Quanzhou, Beijing, and other parts of China. Starting at the beginning of October, approximately 35,000 kg of tea is traded every day.

Anxi's China Chadu tea market was established in 2002 under the guidance of the Bureau of Tea and Fruit. The wholesale tea market, occupying over 250mu, currently serves as the principle trading platform for Anxi tea farmers and tea sellers. It is also the largest center of Oolong tea sales in mainland China, In 2005, trading at the Chadu market exceeded 1 billion RMB (approx. $125 million), Apart from the main tea trading hal, Chadu also contains 1200 shops engaged in wholesale tea business.

Major markets for Anxi Tieguanyin

In the age of market economics, it is the market that guides products. Different styles of teas target different groups of consumers. Residents of Fujian province and young mainland Chinese are the primary consumers of lightly oxidized Tieguanyin. Middle aged and older mainland Chinese, as well as people oversees in places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, still tend to prefer traditional types of Tieguanyin.

For as long as it has existed, Tieguanyin has been famous far and wide for its excellent quality. Many people from the birthplace of Tieguanyin, Yaoyang Township, run tea houses in Taiwan, Hong Kong, as well as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore.

Tieguanyin has long been a favorite of Fujianese, Taiwanese,Cantonese, and overseas Chinese tea drinkers. Who can try it and not be won over by its unique " Guanyin yun (Guanyin charm)? Since the 1950's the market for Tieguanyin in mainland China has gradually grown and consumption has continuously increased. Tieguanyin enjoys similar popularity overseas. In 1979 and 1984, the Japanese market has twice experienced "Oolong fever." Anxi Tieguanyin, with its intoxicating aroma, is particularly fashionable throughout Japan. In Japan, Tieguanyin has already become a blanket term for Oolong tea.

Today Tieguanyin tea tightly embraces two enormous markets. In addition to the greater worldwide market, it enjoys tremendous internal demand within China. Experts forecast a potential tenfold increase in demand for tea within mainland China. Continuous growth of internal consumption has already created four large internal markets in Fujian, Guangdong, the Yangtze river delta, and Northern China. The overseas market has spread from Southeast Asia to Japan, Europe, North America, and as far as Russia and 60 other countries and locales. Yearly exports are over 7000 tons.

In order to supply ever-growing consumer markets, Anxi Tieguanyun is caking the same path as other industries, moving in the direction of a more pronounced divided system of production. Tea personally grown and produced by small farmers is increasingly difficult to find. Large, specialized farms are gradually growing in number. Tea processing factories are also growing larger and larger. Three different types of large business have developed: large tea growers involved in selling unprocessed tea, companies primarily devoted to processing tea,and large tea sellers and duction is gradually changing the appearance of the small towns of Anxi.