Fujian Tea and How Tea Got Its Name

We may be able to readily conceive of a world without silk, and in this electronic age, possibly consider a world without paper—but to do without TEA? Unthinkable!!

And pretty much most of the ancient world agreed, as evidenced by the extensive Silk Roads and the recently confirmed 2,100-year-old tea leaves found at Xi’en in western China (see my previous post). Tea, along with silk and paper, was being transported far distances, both by overland routes and by sea. China’s Fujian Province, with its prime location on the East China Sea, played a leading role in trade.

The Tea Leaves of Fujian, or, The Tea Leaves Fujian

Fujian became part of the Chinese empire during the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC), and the region was trading with Arabs and Persians by 618 CE. During the Song Dynasty (907–1279), tea was being grown and produced in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian.

By the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), silk, sugar, paper, and tea were all leaving Fujian’s ports as part of the maritime shipping routes into South East Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Tea was also taking the months-long journey from Fujian into Russia via Mongolia. According to historians (Xinhua News Agency 2015), the largest China-Mongolia trade company at one time employed 7,000 workers and used 20,000 camels. With each camel capable of shouldering over 400 pounds of tea, that amounted to a whole lot of tea!

By this time, Europeans were also coming into the Fujian port of Xiamen.

Its Name Leaves with It, or, “Tea” vs “Cha”

As tea was sent out from China, its Chinese name traveled with it—unlike paper and silk, whose Chinese names did not stick with the items. According to Jerry Norman (2015):

English “tea” comes via Spanish from a Southern Miin form [te.sup.2]. . . . Another form exemplified by Mongolian cai, travelled westward through Inner Asia. Some have surmised that this form comes from Northern Chinese charyeh “tea leaves.” So we have two basic words for “tea,” the first of which spread through maritime trade and the second by overland transmission. Both of these basic terms for “tea” are from the same etymon, being no more than dialectal variants. Forms related to English “tea” are used throughout Western Europe (with the exception of Portuguese cha, which is probably based on a Cantonese original). The Inner Asian term spread far and wide—into Mongolian, Manchu, the Turkic languages, Persian, and the languages of the Indian subcontinent.

Thus, “tea” traveled by sea whereas “cha” traveled by land!

Along with the Idea of Teapots if Not the Teapots Themselves

Some believe that by the time the Europeans began to import tea, teapots were being used in China and so that practice was emulated in Europe. However, there is some disagreement on this point. According to the Hampshire Cultural Trust, at this time period tea was still being brewed in open pans or in cups in China—but since Chinese wine ewers were exported with the tea, the ewers may have been understood as being meant for tea brewing.

Regardless, in 1694, “the British East India Company directed that teapots made for them in China must have ‘a grate . . . before the spout'” (Hampshire Cultural Trust) to catch the tea leaves.

And, Happily, Oolong Arrives on the Scene

Early in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Fujian tea producers in Wuyi began a new tea process, resulting in wulong—or oolong—teas. Rather than heating the tea leaves immediately after they were plucked, they were instead allowed to wilt, were partially oxidized, and then were heated. By the mid-1800s, the Anxi area of Fujian was devoted predominately to the oolongs.

And Stays!

milky jade leavesToday, Fujian produces green tea, including exquisite jasmine tea (jasmine blossoms are layered with tea so that the tea leaves pick up the jasmine aroma and flavor); black tea, including the smoky and pungent lapsang souchong; white tea; and of course oolongs.

My personal favorites of the Fujian offerings are the extraordinary China Milky Jade Oolong (pictured here after brewing) and China Royal Jasmine Curls, both available (along with other teas from Fujian Province) at TeaHaus.*

Whether cha or tea, it’s time to brew a cup!

*Because oolongs and the hand-rolled curls are handled so extensively during their labor-intensive production, it is crucial to screen them for purity. TeaHaus’ German suppliers test all the teas, both in the garden and after production, ensuring that they contain NO heavy metals or pesticide residue.

–Ceresa, M. “Tea: A very short history,” China Heritage Quarterly 29. March 2012.
–Hampshire Cultural Trust. “A brief history of the teapot.” https://hampshireculturaltrust.org.uk/content/brief-history-teapot.
–Norman, J. “Inner Asian words for paper and silk,”  Journal of the American Oriental Society 135(2):309. April–June 2015.
–Xinhua News Agency. “Ballad sheds light on historical tea trade,” China Economic Information Service. April 8, 2015.


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