Thursday, August 30, 2007

All the Tea in China -- Polluted?

The issue of serious pollution in the People's Republic of China has recently drawn more and more attention on the international stage. A piece in the San Francisco Chronicle got many American readers wondering about the safety of China exports of various sorts. And when a 4,000-word essay on environmental pollution appears in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, you can be sure that it is not just a matter of idle worry.

But is the issue a danger to the teas of China -- or/and, by extension, to those who drink them? CHA DAO recently asked several internationally-known internet authorities on tea to comment. Their responses follow.

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I. NIGEL MELICAN, Managing Director of TEACRAFT LTD and NOTHING BUT TEA LTD, sent this email:

I hadn't seen the SF Chronicle link before now. Reading it dispassionately, I cannot disagree too much with the underlying message (the elite look after themselves). But some of the examples are so laughable (e.g. eggs injected with dye) as to cast doubt on the whole. Working in China in the 1980s, I was impressed by how much the very successful administration of the country reflected the pattern established in Imperial times. Of course Soviet Russia also emulated in many ways (good and bad) the ways of the Tsars.

What the article did not touch on specifically was tea.

I recognize your concern that the record should be clear and honest about the effect (or lack of effect) of industrial pollution on China tea. However, my short time in China (a month each in 1984 and 1985, in Yunnan and Hainan) chasing an elusive tea development project does not really equip me to write with authority on current agronomic practices in their tea gardens. I am convinced (though without evidence) that the EU regulations on pesticides in imported teas have reduced the occasional excesses found 15 years ago. I chided a Chinese tea supplier with having included a very small mummified frog in a sample of silver needles and their horrified response and abject apology was assurance that 'foreign matter' in tea is taken seriously. In view of the stereotypical American belief that everything Chinese is polluted, one could silently be relieved that small frogs still thrive there sufficiently to hop into the tea dryers.

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II. STEPHANE ERLER, webmaster of the internationally renowned TEA MASTERS blog, writes:

Chinese tea has long been mass-marketed as a healthy, almost miraculous, drink, preventing heart disease, cancer etc ... However, in recent months, China is more and more associated with dangerous products (lead in toys, dangerous chemicals in toothpaste and even poisonous pet food) and with pollution due to its fast rate of industrialization. Now we are seeing some reports that question whether Chinese teas are in fact healthy. The way people now start to associate China with lax enforcement of quality controls is thus a real threat for the Chinese tea industry. This mostly concerns those teas that people drink 'for health benefits.' For the more advanced group of tea lovers who love tea for its taste and flavor, this is less of a problem. Our noses and taste buds have been trained by years of tasting to find good tea. And you can't have a good tea that is polluted or poisoned. High-quality tea doesn't grow in polluted soils. Good teas are not made by sloppy workers, but by careful professionals.

This is why it's so important for tea lovers to learn how to taste and test their tea. In this first step, you yourself are performing quality control. Chemical tests and certifications may be useful tools to get scientific evidence about a producer. But the lack of dangerous chemicals is just one side of the problem. A tea lover is more demanding: he also wants nice flavors and a sweet lingering taste.

The major problem we have with the awakening of China is that millions of Chinese tea lovers can now afford to purchase the best teas. These are not reserved for export or for the party leadership anymore. I recently drank a truly excellent Lapsang Souchong. The seller of that tea claims he's friends with Jiang Zemin (the former boss of the Communist Party). But he will sell to anybody (who understands tea) nowadays, provided you can pay the price. That means that high-quality tea prices are generally going up. From a short-sighted, egoistic point of view, this may seem bad for tea drinkers, but it also means that tea farmers have more and more incentives to make top quality teas for their increasingly affluent clientele.

For a single natural product like tea, our senses are really up to the task to select the best and safest leaves. I wouldn't worry about the quality of Chinese tea, as long as I control what goes into my mouth.

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III. SEBASTIEN LESEINE, co-founder and co-proprietor of JING TEA SHOP, had the following to say (these remarks are a revised and expanded version of notes he originally sent to the Teamail group at

Recently, in many media, including Internet fora, China has come under fire for polluting the environment -- and for its lack of intervention in the matter. There are two reasons for this. Contrary to what many people think, the Chinese news media do talk about pollution, and they do deserve some credit for taking the problem seriously. But the issue is a more personal one for me, as it touches on the topic of Chinese tea. Pollution, if not fought, will have effects on tea (and anything else); but for now tea growing areas are still well preserved and cases of tainted tea are related to wrongdoing in other respeccts -- not to ecological disasters.

Why is China having a hard time fighting pollution? The answer is simple: “It is caught between its response to outsourcing requests from Western nations (and their own industrial expansion), on one hand, and its inability to contain the harmful emissions all this activity generates, on the other.” All of this was very well put in an article recently published in Forbes Magazine.

In that same article ("America's Most Polluted Cities"), the top 10 most polluted cities in China are listed. I have added a few annotations of my own here:

1. Lin Fen, Shan Xi Province (Shan Xi province produces mainly coal and vinegar, but no tea)
2. Yang Quan, Shan Xi Province
3. Da Tong, Shan Xi Province
4. Shi Zui Shan, Ning Xia Hui (famous for Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM])
5. San Man Xia, He Nan Province (this region is mainly famous for their Shaolin Temple. There was one tea famous from there: Xin Yang Mao Jiang)
6. Jin Cheng, Gan Su Province (famous for their ramen)
7. Shi Jia Zhuang, He Bei Province
8. Xian Yyang, Shan Xi Province
9. Zhu Zhou, Hu Nan Province
10. Luo Yang, He Nan Province

In an article recently published in The Guardian, Urumqui gained the title for most polluted city in the country. Linfen, meanwhile, moved down the list due to measures taken by the government. Some of these were quite drastic, such as shutting down 160 out of their 196 iron foundries (as mentioned in an article published on It wouldn’t be giving enough credit to China to think that their government isn’t taking this environmental issue seriously, knowing that in 2004 alone, pollution has cost them 511.8 billion Yuan (approximately US$65 billion) -- 3.05% of China's total gross domestic product. Moreover, at least 2,000 lawsuits are filed against polluters in China each year.

For the environmental situation in China, absolutely nobody -- least of all the Chinese people -- is trying to deny that China is having ecological problems. Polluters appear on TV; cases of poor villages' crops destroyed by pollution appear on TV; illegal mining accidents appear on TV. And for those who are caught, there will only be few options: a long prison sentence, the death sentence, or suicide. Sentences are not commuted. I am confident that soon we will also see some changes in the law. The first one might very well be the fixed fine for pollution which is set to $US25,000 no matter the gravity of the act.

An article on the China Daily website, which includes the same list of 'worst cities' as the Forbes list cited above, offers a list of the top 5 most environmentally friendly cities in China (see below). From the same article is another list as well, this one of the cities with the most effective pollution control. The key word here is “control,” and it should be enough to restore anyone's hope. Cleaning a nation's environment is possible only by taking the right measures for everybody: the government, the economy, and the people.

Top five most environmentally friendly cities in China:

1. Hai Kou, Hai Nan Province
2. Zhu Hai, Guang Dong Province
3. Zhan Jiang, Guang Dong Province
4. Gui Lin, Guang Xi Zhuang Autonomous Region
5. Bei Hai, Guang Xi Zhuang Autonomous Region

Top five cities with most effective pollution control:

1. Nan Tong, Jiang Su Province
2. Lian Yun Gang, Jiang Su Province
3. Shen Yang, Liao Ning Province
4. Su Zhou, Jiang Su Province
5. Fu Zhou, Fu Jian Province

We should look at China like a big football (soccer) team at the start of a season, with brand-new players. It takes at least 2 years to build up a true good team, so let’s imagine how hard it can be to do this with a country of 1.3 billion people. Although central and local governments do not envision the whole concept of management identically, sometimes they can be on the same page. And when this happens, it truly shows that the Chinese, like any other people, do appreciate green over cement. This is the case with an environmentally friendly vision of "eco-cities" as noted in an article in USA Today. A 1.3 billion Yuan project consists in a city three-quarters the size of Manhattan, and powered by solar energy, wind, bio-fuels and recycled organic materials. The project is so appealing that London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who visited it, wants to build one on his own near the river Thames.

China, which has a lot more to offer to the world than just cheap labor, and which has been under the most severe scrutiny for the last two years now, does deserve to be treated with fairness -- if not by governments, then at least by us. Pollution is a global problem that needs global solutions, which the main actors are not so interested in pursuing, as they will hurt their short-term goals. It may take a long time before real change happens as the majority of us, the victims, spend our time pointing the finger at each other -- while people holding the key to a better life “use statistics as drunken men uses lampposts -- for support rather than illumination” (Andrew Lang).

As a tea seller living in China and exclusively dedicated to Chinese tea, I fear for this most important part of Chinese culture, which at first blush seems set to disappear in the “meanderings” of big consumption and environmental destruction. Is the future of Chinese tea lovers encapsulated in either bottled tea or potentially harmful loose leaves? I do not pretend to know everything about the production of tea in China. But I do see things moving on the environmental issues in China. And, thanks to my master, whose family was one of the first to set up a tea shop in Guang Dong province during the Qing Dynasty, I am well situated to look at the history of tea -- past and present.

For the tea to be sold in Guangzhou's Fang Cun Tea Market (which currently includes over 3,000 shops for tea and tea-related items, and is still building), the tea must be taste-tested. There is a lab for this. In addition, tea buyers can also bring the tea they have bought there to be tested. This is offered as a public service.

On the private side, vendors (if they know where to go) can buy tea from "tea sellers" who buy from tea makers that will have the tea tasted by foreign companies. You can even choose your standards: USA, Japan, Germany. One of our suppliers at Jing Tea Shop is a tea company that meets the standards of both Germany and the USA.

As mentioned above, tea-growing areas in China are still very much in good shape. In these growing areas there are a few families that have been farmers/makers/sellers for decades, indeed for generations. These are the people that you can only approach if you know someone -- and it is always best to know someone when navigating a market of thousands of potential suppliers, and knowing that the best productions are reserved (often a year in advance) for good clients/friends. If you can make the connection and get in touch with these people, go to their location, and see with what love they do their job, then you will know that they are serious about the environment.

It is ironic that I now find myself defending China the same way I defended the USA when I was in Europe.


Anonymous said...

it was a simple question
it deserved a simple answer

All the Tea in China -- Polluted?

even tho im nowhere near the land, and have no real info on the matter:

that answer is obviously NO, not all. some. which/where/how to tell thats what the detail should have been about.

ex: does the high elevation of plantations mean less polution or more? does the groundwater go up to the plantation or do they use trucked in water, do they use additives, etc.

more interest and money spent towards tea doesnt mean better incentive for quality for all.
some producers will be greedy and push the workers/process towards quantity, foregoing quality.
the detail should have been: who/where/how to tell.

Michel said...

This is an interesting debate! On the french blogs recently there was some friction about organic vs pesticides. sadly, due to partisan exess and intimidation in retaliation, we can't have it out.

Stéphane and Sebastien both say that you don't get good tea from bad soil.
What I forsee with tea consumption going up so will the 'high quality tea gardens grow' as well as the 'pesticide rich ones'.Some soil will depleat some will stay good.

We aficionados will not be affected by polluted tea, when I bought grade AA tieguan yin for cheaps it tasted so foul i threw it away. .

Then comes the 'organic' question. Surely a tea with no pesticide is better for you than one with loads in.
Yes I think we should be worried about the state of soil depletion not just in china but in the world.
The slow slide into malnutrition and ill health from over use of growth hormones, habitat and soil transformation that is happening also in the US and europe .

If one wants to go for empty sweeping statements, here is one answer:
Is not our overproducted soya and wheat doing more harm to the chinese than their tea is doing to us?

milk and tomatoes don't taste like in the 50's some old folks say!
However some growers hide behind the organic banner, 'organic faschists' I call them,
They imply that because their produce is 'organic' it's a better product, safer maybe -but 'better' that's certainly an overstatement. I tend to try for a 50/50 mix. organic to high quality fresh produce.

Stéphane is right It's our responsability to keep refining our taste buds, It's the safest and most enjoyable way to go.

Matt said...

I think one often makes the mistake of confusing purity with taste quality. Have you ever meet someone that could tell the difference between an organic apple and a normal, off the shelf, sprayed with pesisides apple. I haven't. I once read (sorry no source) that they put this this theory to the test in a double blind study with expert taste testers and they couldn't tell the difference either.

But, with that said, I still truely believe that all those chemicals couldn't possiably be healthy for anyone. Weither I can taste it or not!

corax said...

thanks to those who have commented [or will comment] on this very sensitive topic. and, of course, to the three tea mavens who contributed to the post itself.

the people's republic is not ignoring the issue, as an article in the ny times today shows. [i will continue to post relevant links as i find them.]

Warren said...

Everyone in China knows there is pollution in China. No one denies it. And here in Fujian, people are very discerning tea drinkers. Just about everyone here has a general knowledge about how tea is produced. They know for instance, that tea produced in low-lying areas will be more polluted than tea grown on high mountains.

You only need to look around and you can see pollution. Part of the problem is ignorance, poor education. I saw people throw bags of garbage into the river! And in the same river others are washing their clothes. Driving down the road, you then see the river strewn with garbage. It's a terrible sight.

Then, there are many who dispose of garbage in any convenient spot - throwing it down a valley or gulley. That kind of spoils nature.

It's only in the high-up places (mountains) that are more preserved from the ravages of pollution.

Here, if tea were polluted, no one would drink it. No one wants to pay a high price for something polluted.

As a general rule, they say here, if it's low-quality tea, it's probably heavily farmed, and therefore may have pesticides or pollutants. But if it's high-quality tea, it won't have pollutants. But that's nothing really scientific. Just peoples' opinion here.

corax said...

> As a general rule, they say
> here, if it's low-quality tea,
> it's probably heavily farmed,
> and therefore may have pesticides
> or pollutants. But if it's high-quality
> tea, it won't have pollutants. But
> that's nothing really scientific. Just
> peoples' opinion here.

warren, if that were a scientific index of purity, it would be very consoling to the non-chinese i know who pay lots of money for high-end imported tea. the other worry -- besides pesticides and environmental pollutants during the growing period -- is that the tea may be exposed to pollutants after the growing period, i.e. during processing and/or packaging. do you have any ideas or information about this?

TeaMasters said...


Teaparker told us that one shipment of puerh to France in the 80s got tested positive for chemicals. But when they investigated the problem, they found out that the tea itself was OK in China. What had happened is that they sprayed DDT and/or anti rat chemicals in the ship that transported the tea to France. So the tea got 'polluted' by those chemicals during the long ship transportation...

corax said...

stéphane, that's an amazing fact. thanks for sharing it here. it is cause for chagrin ... i hope they are not still doing that!

as for the anecdote about tea being withered in the carbon monoxide exhaust from a motor vehicle: i told this to a professor of biology who grew up in anhui province. she scoffed and declared it quite impossible: in china, she pointed out, they use tea leaves as americans use baking soda -- to absorb odors in refrigerators. if tea leaves were being exposed to motor exhaust during processing, she maintained, they would inevitably absorb the odor, and their flavor would be brutally damaged.

i mention her response to this anecdote here because, as with the tea-shipment to france, china may have been the victim of unjust accusations in that regard.

which is not to dismiss the urgency of the environmental issues which are manifestly a problem in china at this time. and if they are not addressed quickly, -- never mind the export market! -- the chinese themselves will be the ones to suffer first and foremost.

corax said...

as promised, i will continue to add relevant web links here in the comments section.

last month [070826] the ny times began a series of articles entitled 'Choking on Growth: A series of articles and multimedia examining the human toll, global impact and political challenge of China’s epic pollution crisis.' the first instalment -- 'As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes' -- laid the groundwork for the series. yesterday's times [070928] published part 2 of the series: 'Beneath Booming Cities, China’s Future Is Drying Up' [focusing on the looming water crisis across the PRC].