What's the tea? Notes on Hokkien tea culture

Author: Yixuan Wu

People living in Southern Fujian have a long history of loving tea. “无茶不成礼” is a common saying among the Chinese, which translates to "No tea, no manners". Tea is indeed the most common way of greeting guests in the Chinese community. In most cases, before you enter someone’s home in China, the host would take out a box of tea leaves, boil it with hot water and brew it into a pot of tea. You will then be invited to drink it. Only after seeing you take the first sip will the actual conversation begin regardless of whether it's just chit-chat or talks about business.

The history of tea production in Southern Fujian began more than a thousand years ago, around the end of the Tang Dynasty. Southern Fujian is one of the three major tea-producing regions of Southern China. The region specializes in oolong tea, with 铁观音 (Tieguanyin) being the most famous variety. Oolong tea is a semi-fermented tea that is one of the six major tea species in China.

Tieguanyin was originally produced in Xiping Town, Anxi County in Fujian, Quanzhou. It was discovered at around 1720 AD. According to Wang Shirang, a native of Anxi, Fujian in the Qing Dynasty, described in his article titled <<饶阳乡南岩小引>>, after he discovered the Guanyin tea tree, he picked the leaves and discovered them to be very fragrant. After brewing the leaves, the liquid emanated a natural orchid aroma and had a very pure taste. Wang later collected and gave some of the leaves to Fang Wangxi, an attendant of the imperial capital, to taste it. Fang loved it. As an attendant of the capital, Fang sees the emperor pretty often. One time, Fang suggested for Emperor Qianlong of Qing to taste the tea. After Qianlong downed the cup, he discovered that it was like nothing that he’d had before. Subsequently, Anxi Tieguanyin's reputation grew rapidly in China.

Figure 1: Tea leaves of Tieguanyin

“水、火、茶具” or "Water, fire and tea set", are the three basic components of the Southern Fujianese tea culture. The tea kettle, cups, and plates come in different shapes and designs. The Southern Fujianese believe the precious and expensive tea set, after being used to make tea for many years, can produce fragrant tea even without adding in any additional tea leaves (“Minnan Culture”). Usually, soft water is used to make and brew the tea, that is, water containing less than 8 mg of calcium and magnesium per liter of water, preferably natural spring water or well water. "Fire" refers to the power and time of boiling the water. If you were to make tea with unboiled water, then the water-soluble substances in the tea such as caffeine, amino acids, vitamins, etc. cannot be extracted, making it less tasty and healthy. If the water is overheated, however, the tea soup becomes lacking in freshness (“Minnan Tea Culture”). When having tea, the Southern Fujianese indulge while engaging with their eyes, nose, and mouth in order to “feel” the color, aroma, and taste of the tea soup, respectively. While they drink, the Southern Fujianese might also supplement their drinking experience with sugar, fish skin, peanuts, jujubes, and fried dough sticks etc. (“Minnan Culture”).

Figure 2: Tea set made of porcelain

The Southern Fujianese not only grow and drink tea, but they have also spread their tea culture all over the world. During the Tang and Song dynasties, Quanzhou Port was an important port in China and was also the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road. The national economy therefore prospered from the tea trade. According to records, in the twenty-eighth year of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty at 1689 AD, 150 taels (1 tael = 50 grams) of boxed tea from Xiamen, Fujian were exported to the United Kingdom, and since then, the tea trade between China and Britain begun. The Qing Dynasty was a period of unprecedented prosperity for China’s tea foreign trade. Because of this, “Anxi, the birthplace of oolong tea, is famous overseas for Tieguanyin. In 1868, the net export of tea for the city of Xiamen was 35,721 dan (1 dan = 50 kilograms), and the following year increased to 85,967 dan. Shipment and export eventually reached 83,170 quintals (1 quintal = 100 kilograms) in 1872, and 90,000 quintals in 1877, the highest level of southern Fujian tea exports" (“Oolong tea from Southern Fujian”). Through the Chinese diaspora, the tea culture eventually spread even further, into different regions such as Southeast Asia.

Figure 3: Tea shipments


About the author

Yixuan Wu is currently a student at International School Manila in Taguig City who wishes to pursue his goal of going to the US for college. Although a full Chinese in blood, he has lived in the Philippines for most of his life and has interacted and befriended many people of the Lannang heritage. He has been entrenched with creative writing exploring topics such as culture, identity and heritage. He would like to help increase the awareness and interest in the preservation of the Lannang heritage by helping with the online publications, and also through creating content for videos that helps to inspire other people. When he is neither writing nor rushing school work, he would either explore different genres of music or just chat with friends. -----------------------

Works cited

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  4. “Explore Tea's Journey from Canton to London & Beyond.” Boston Tea Party Ships, 2 June 2020, www.bostonteapartyship.com/tea-blog/teas-journey-from-canton-to-london-and-beyond.

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