The Chinese have been cultivating tea for some 5,000 years—and exporting it for over 2,000. In fact, the world’s oldest tea leaves (at this date) have been found in a NON-tea-growing region!
Those leaves—in Emperor Liu Qi’s tomb in Xi’an—confirm that tea reached western China in the first century BCE, while leaves found in Tibet’s Gurgyam Cemetery show that tea was “being imported . . . westwards into Tibet by the second century CE” (Lu et al. 2016).
Eventually the famed Silk Routes—both over land and by sea—conveyed tea and other luxury goods even farther afield. China’s Fujian Province, with its prime location on the East China Sea, played a leading role.
The Original Silk Routes (The Tea Leaves of Fujian Leave Fujian)
Fujian, which became part of the Chinese empire during the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC), was trading with Arabs and Persians by 618 CE.
By the Song Dynasty (907–1279), Fujian was growing and producing tea in the Wuyi Mountain region, and by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) was sending silk, sugar, paper, and tea out of its ports as part of the maritime shipping routes into South East Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.
Tea also took 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!
By this time, Europeans were also coming into the Fujian port of Xiamen; the Americans would eventually follow.
Today’s Routes (Some Tea Leaves Arrive in Fujian, and Then Leave)
Today the Belt and Road Initiative replaces the ancient (more-elegant-sounding) Silk Routes, and although tea is still a component, its role has changed.
For instance, many countries grow tea these days, and some of them, such as Sri Lanka and India, have cheaper labor costs than China.
Fujian, then, is using its tea expertise in new ways.
For example, using raw tea from other countries, Fujian tea producer Zheng Shan Tang “processes and exports about 230 tonnes of tea per year for foreign brands” (Yilei 2018), thus fostering international cooperation while building on China’s deep knowledge of tea and production techniques.
Other producers seek niche markets, introduce innovative products to meet consumer needs, and work on better promoting Fujian’s specialty teas that include:
- Milk Oolongs. Early in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Fujian producers began a new process, resulting in wulong—or oolong—teas. For milk oolong, lightly oxidized leaves are placed over a gentle steam bath of milk and water, which retains the leaves’ bright green color while giving them a creamy aroma and flavor.
- Gunpowder tea (below), with a hint of smokiness, and intensely smoky Lapsang Souchong, traditionally smoke-dried over a pinewood fire.
- White teas, both “new style,” which means that the bud and first leaf have been plucked, and traditional, consisting only of buds.
- Jasmine teas. After tea leaves have been lightly processed, they are layered with jasmine blossoms so that they pick up the flowers’ delicate aroma and flavor.
As another way to foster cooperation between countries and to increase the demand for Chinese tea, there is a renewed emphasis on education. After all, China’s history and culture intertwine with tea production and consumption.
From those first caravans and ships out of Fujian to modern modes of communication and transportation, the product—tea—remains relevant.
And whether your tea was shipped directly to you right from China;
or whether it traveled first to Fujian, where it was processed, and then back to its country of origin before traveling to you;
or whether it went from China to a distributor in another country and then to you,
your tea has followed trading routes of old.
–”Belt and Road Initiative,” The World Bank, 3/29/18.
–Lu, H., et al. “Earliest tea as evidence for one branch of the silk road across the Tibetan plateau,” Scientific Reports 6(18955). January 7, 2016.
–Xinhua News Agency. “Ballad sheds light on historical tea trade,” China Economic Information Service, 4/8/15.
–Yilei, F. “The Fujian tea industry looks to go global under the Belt and Road Initiative,” CGTN, 9/16/18.
Teas shown here are are available at TeaHaus.