Warren Peltier, our intrepid China correspondent, has recently moved from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to Fujian province. Via the miracle of email, we were able to cyber-interview him about tea life in China.
CHA DAO: you've recently relocated from guangxi to fujian. what sorts of differences have you noticed, tea-wise? what is it like living there?
WARREN PELTIER: So far, I’ve been in Fujian for 5 months now. And I've observed a lot in these 5 months, especially with regard to the local tea culture. Here in Longyan, which is southwestern Fujian, everyone seems to drink Tieguanyin. But that’s because Anxi is not very far from here. So the preference is more toward the local wulong teas – which is almost exclusively Tieguanyin. But that said, that’s just because it’s just fashionable now to drink Tieguanyin. A tea vendor just said, a few years back, Taiwan teas were all the rage in Fujian, very popular, like Alishan cha, and Gaoshan Cha. But no more. So these tea stores cut way back on stocking those kinds of teas, because the market just wasn’t there anymore.
Maybe after a few years, or maybe if the Tieguanyin crop is off, or bad, that kind of tea will go out of fashion, and some other type of tea will replace it. In fact, they said, this year's Autumn Tieguanyin crop is actually not very good, compared with other years. Here in Fujian, everyone drinks tea gongfu style. That means, it's just about all wulong tea -- no time for any other kinds. Pu'er is not in fashion here, and few of the tea stores have pu'er tea. But back in Guangxi, all of those tea stores had most of their shelf space devoted to pu'er bricks.
CD: isn't wulong tea actually said to have originated in fujian?
WP: Wulong tea did originate in Fujian province. But it's confusing. You know, Tieguanyin is supposed to be from Anxi county and surrounding area. Yet there are other areas of Fujian that are producing so-called Tieguanyin, and it's pretty good. I can't tell the difference between theirs and the original Anxi Tieguanyin.
Let me tell you a little more about Min Xi, or Western Fujian, as it’s called. Here, there are sort of 2 groups of Chinese – one is Hakka. There are lots of Hakka villages here – like Yongding, Liancheng, Xinquan, Sanhang, Changting – and many others. And each are has its distinct dialect of Hakka language – which makes mutual understanding from village to village very difficult. That’s pretty amazing actually. You can go to each community, and they all know about tea culture.
Then, to the east there are the southern Min Chinese. And their language is Min Nan hua, or maybe better known as Fukienese. They pronounce tea kind of like “day,” and that’s where the modern English word for tea came from – from the Min language.
CD: how do fujian chinese react to teas from other regions? like yunnan pu'er cha? do they mostly just ignore other types of tea? or is it seen as a kind of 'treason' to drink non-fujian teas?
WP: Because they are from Fujian, they are proud of Fujian teas, and they love to drink Fujian tea. Fujian teas are preferred here to any other kind. They do drink some Taiwan teas, like Gao Shan cha, and A Li shan Cha; but then, they also produce Gao Shan tea right here in Fujian too.
CD: given that wulong is so 'big' in fujian, how do they respond to taiwan wulongs? is that a form of treason too [for political reasons]? or do they just love those taiwan teas?
WP: Some of those Taiwan teas you just can't beat, so they love them here in Fujian. But at the same time, they say Taiwan is a part of China, and always will be. Actually, they don’t like Taiwanese people to refer to Mainland Chinese people as “you Chinese.” Like, what are the people in Taiwan? Aren’t they also Chinese? That’s just the view people here in Fujian have.
CD: tell me more about wulong and fujian. is the situation such that wulong is what folks mostly drink every day in fujian -- and that only the real tea aficionados get adventurous and branch out into other kinds of tea?
WP: It's pretty much the single favorite tea here - most people are drinking Tieguanyin here day in and day out. And you are right, the real tea aficionados would drink some of the other teas like longjing tea. But then, everyone here drinks bottled teas too - like iced green tea, and iced lemon tea. They all taste a lot better than anything you can buy in North America.
CD: are there regions in china where green tea is the 'default tea' every day, even more than wulong? or does more or less everyone drink some of both?
WP: In many areas of China, green tea is the default tea, simply because green tea has a longer history than wulong tea, and there are just so many more green teas produced than wulong teas. But those would be in the other tea-producing provinces, like Zhejiang, and Jiangsu, Anhui, and other places.
Also, the tea customs are different. Here in Fujian, it's all gongfu tea, using mostly porcelain tea sets. Porcelain gaiwan as a brewing vessel. Few people will use a zisha teapot to brew tea. They have porcelain ones here that will do the job if the gaiwan burns the fingers too much. But actually, burning fingers is not a problem if you know how to properly handle the gaiwan. There’s a trick to it. Maybe I will tell you later.
CD: i'll look forward to that! meanwhile -- on another topic -- here are three things that i have heard said about hong cha. are any of them true?
[a] its consumption is largely confined to the northern regions of china;
[b] in china it is principally drunk in cold weather;
[c] in china it is principally drunk by older people.
WP: I'm not sure that those are true.
[a] In the north, they drink flower teas, like jasmine tea, rose tea, and other types. And jasmine often has a green tea base. When I went to Beijing last, and they served tea, it was jasmine with a green tea base. But it was very weak tea, almost no taste at all. In the north, in the tea shops, they sell all kinds of dried flowers to be used in tea. One of the most famous is Jin An flower. It's said to fight infections, like from viruses, etc.
Also, you have to know, in the north, they drink tea from big porcelain cups, and use big, clunky porcelain teapots. They don’t use anything dainty like gongfu tea cups. Northerners find it strange that Fujian people drink from such small cups. But then, Fujian people find it funny when northerners come to Fujian and try to brew tea gongfu-style. I have a good friend from Jinan, Shandong province that says, when it comes to brewing tea, her hand is dumber than her foot. Basically, she just means she’s all thumbs when it comes to brewing gongfu-tea. There’s a special skill to it.
[b] Red tea, principally drunk in cold weather -- that may be true. It's best to drink green tea in the hot weather, because green tea's properties are cold. Not sure though if red tea is classed as hot or cold [[in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)]]. I should look it up.
[c] Red tea, principally drunk by older people: not so true. A lot of young people drink red tea -- but as a beverage, not as a tea. They usually like to drink red tea as milk tea, or pearl milk tea. These could be either hot or iced. I like hot Earl Grey milk tea myself. I drank a lot of it in Guangxi. But so far, I can't find it in Fujian.
CD: recently you visited a tea farm in west fujian. what was that experience like?
WP: A friend has a tea operation in Baisha – pretty far from Anxi, but they grow and produce Tieguanyin. It’s not in the traditional Tieguanyin producing area. That was my first visit to a tea farm, but it was only brief. They had whole mountainsides under cultivation there. But the trees I saw were only 1 year old. Most of the operation seemed brand new – new processing factory, all new buildings, new roads, etc. What’s impressive is how fast development can take place here. A lot of things seem to be done almost overnight here.
CD: what did you learn during that visit about tea processing specifically?
WP: I didn’t learn much, because I visited the place in August, and no teas were being processed at that time. But I did see the tea processing equipment, and the drying rooms, etc. Man, it’s really fragrant in there. When I have the time, I can always take a trip to Anxi, or the villages around Anxi, and see tea processing.
CD: tell us about shopping for tea in the cities and towns of fujian. what is that like? what are you likely to see in the typical tea shop? are they different than the ones in guangxi?
WP: Teashops here in Fujian are quite different than those in Guangxi. Teashops in Guangxi are well stocked with a variety of teas, and tea wares. They have all kinds of nice tea wares in Guangxi. In Fujian, tea shops don’t stock much in terms of teawares – because most people buy their teawares from the supermarket – not from a teashop. They mostly only buy teas from the teashops here in Fujian. In Fujian, you won’t see any teas on display. Instead, you will see a bunch of cardboard and plastic tea canisters lining the shelves, neatly stacked. And maybe you will see a bunch of stacks of empty packets used for packing the teas in. Then, they have the vacuum suction packaging thingy, and a big fridge or freezer where they store all their teas in. They always have to fetch a batch of tea out of the fridge before they can show it to you. They keep the tea refrigerated to preserve the freshness.
CD: how available to the average chinese citizen is what north americans would think of as 'really high-quality tea'? is it beyond the financial reach of the ordinary person, say a laborer earning a modest wage?
WP: Yes, it’s beyond the reach of the ordinary person, like a laborer. They could only afford a cheaper grade of tea. But here in Fujian, they all make sure they have money to buy tea when they need it. And occasionally they might get some good tea. Fujian people are always giving giving tea as presents.
CD: how available is what north americans would think of as 'really high-quality tea' to visitors to china?
WP: Really high-quality tea – what North Americans think of – you could get that anywhere in Fujian. While the tea is pretty good here – what we would think of as good tea, Fujian people say it’s only middle-quality; or not very good. One tea vendor said, really good tea is too expensive, and most people can’t afford it. It’s beyond the reach of most tea drinkers. So they don’t have it. Instead, they carry only cheaper teas, but that are still pretty good to drink.
CD: what is the average north american going in to a fujian tea shop likely to experience? will it be difficult to make oneself understood without a knowledge of mandarin? if one is obviously a tourist, is one likely to have to pay a higher price? is haggling expected? is it considered an impropriety?
WP: Haggling in a tea store is not really expected. If you’re good friends with the teashop owner, then they might give you a nice discount, or give you a couple free samples of tea. And if you’re a foreigner going to China, then teashops will be very honored to serve you tea, and answer any questions you have. The service here is fantastic, much better than in North America, that’s for sure. But on the other side, you have to know - workers here are worked to death. Out of politeness, they will go out of their way to serve you, and smile all the time. But keep in mind, these workers get tired too. Here, you can sit in a tea store, and sip tea all afternoon if you wanted – for free. Just chat with the host all afternoon. That’s expected, and part of the business here. In most teashops, the people might know only basic, limited English – stuff they picked up in school. So it’s really really useful if you can speak some Mandarin.
CD: you speak, read, and write fluent chinese, but the average north american speaks only english, french, and/or spanish. would they find it helpful to try and make 'flash cards,' maybe a list of chinese tea terms, written out in chinese characters [simplified characters for the mainland], and also labeled in their own language and maybe pinyin, so they can simply point to the item and show the shopkeeper what they want to buy?
WP: Yes, that would be very helpful. It might also be a good idea to think of some questions, ones that require little communication, and write them down. When the time comes, you can use them, and have the teashop owners non-verbally show you what you want to know.
CD: on the subject of tea-terminology: tell us about the infamous word 'gaiwan.' one reads all the time that north americans cannot make shopkeepers in their chinatowns understand what they are shopping for: the shopkeeper is more likely either to call this a gaibei or chabei, or just to use the cantonese word zhong]. if one is shopping for such a covered tea-bowl in fujian, can one in fact say gaiwan and be readily understood?
WP: Actually, no. Common folks here also call it a “chabei.” Only people with intimate knowledge of tea culture will know it as a “gaiwan.” Just call it a “chabei,” for brewing tea. Then, they will understand.
CD: historically, one of the most famous kilns was in jingdezhen. some of the most beautiful porcelain teaware available today is still made there. but in the USA we also see extraordinarily cheap [and correspondingly low-quality] export porcelain that is marked 'jingdezhen.' where teaware is sold in fujian, do you see the whole spectrum of quality sold? are only the wealthy likely to own the really high-quality porcelain?
WP: Actually, I was quite surprised when I came to China, and I saw the quality of porcelain here. Just about anywhere, you can buy really beautiful, excellent quality porcelain – in supermarkets. You don’t see any cheap-quality, mis-shapen porcelain here. It’s all really good quality, and really cheap here. So it’s affordable to everyone. And that’s what everyone uses. Of course, I’m talking about mass-produced items. But really good, hand-crafted porcelain is also available. I bought some on the street once in Nanning. And it was fairly cheap too. It’s only in North America, in Chinatowns and elsewhere that you find that really low-quality stuff.
CD: in north-american chinatown tea houses, which are again largely run by people of cantonese extraction, if food is encountered served with tea, it is likely to be dim sum. how [if at all] is this comparable to the dian xin that one is liable to encounter in parts of china besides guangdong or hong kong? what kinds of food [if any] does the term 'dian xin' refer to in fujian, for instance? how would one go about asking for food or snacks [melon seeds, etc] in a fujian cha guan?
WP: If you went to a teahouse in Fujian, they would wheel the snacks in on a cart, for you to choose which ones you want. You just point to them, and then they will prepare some, and bring them in for you. But it’s nothing to get excited about – just some dried fruits, melon seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, maybe some fresh fruit. If you want good dianxin, you would go to a few certain places at night, and you could have some really excellent snacks – but no tea though, unless you bring your own of the bottled kind. Every town or city has their own special food, by the way, and in other places, it may not available. The area where I am is famous for dried tofu, dried dried di gua (a kind of root), and dried rat meat! You can buy these in packages in any supermarket. We love ‘em. Can’t get enough of that dried Lao Shu Gan!
CD: any other tea-related advice you would give to the first-time traveler heading to the mainland of china?
WP: The first thing you should probably do is to bring a big empty suitcase – get one that’s sturdy. (Think about damage/breakage issues). Then, use it only for teaware you want to bring home with you. Make a list of must-haves. Then, visit a bunch of tea shops – but just look and inquire about prices. Once you have a good idea of what’s generally available, and the general prices, then you will feel more comfortable about buying something. But if you see something that’s just to die for, then, go ahead and buy it - quickly. Chances are, another store may not have the exact same thing.
CD: xie xie, warren! have a good time in fujian. we hope to catch up with you again before too long.