Of All the Tea in China, One Place Rules…

The sweat of migrant workers is essential to bring the famous West Lake Dragon-Well Tea (西湖龙井茶) to tea mugs around the world.  It is in the village of Meijiawu, the heart of Longjing tea production, where the workers proudly offer us these roasted green tea leaves, and do so with smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts.

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Today, as I sit back and watch the dancing tea leaves swirl in rhythm with the spring water in my mug, my mind drifts back to the hills surrounding a village outside of Hangzhou city, the origin of the green tea I am enjoying.  This tea is commonly known as Longjing tea, the most famous green tea in China and therefore, I believe, the most famous in the world: a true delicacy among tea connoisseurs.

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The West Lake Longjing green tea I am now enjoying is special: one of the first lots of Longjing tea picked in the West Lake area this year, and with only 168 square kilometers making up the West Lake Longjing tea area there is a limited supply.  Through a farmer (Mr. Yang) in the village of Meijiawu (梅家坞), I was able to explore and experience this region for a few days and accompany a group of migrant workers into the hills.  Every morning, after a breakfast of steamed buns and pickled vegetables, we would make our way into the hills and pick the highest quality tea leaves available (or in my case, just photographing the picking…a much easier task!). 

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For me, this trip was completion of a decade long dream and one I almost failed to make as both exhaustion of travel and travel delays left me stranded elsewhere.  The small harvest window for these special tea leaves (perhaps a week or so depending on the weather), made getting to Meijiawu a priority and I ended up putting together a 48-hour trek to arrive in time.

Arrival at my room at Mr. Yang’s guesthouse was pleasant enough, a place to lay down and hot water is all I need, but one surprise my first night was that Mrs. Yang was also hosting a small group of Shanghainese women for the night… and there was only a paper-thin wall separating me from a very energetic mahjong game that went strong until 3am. The ladies were very polite and hoped that I would play, but I have had many expensive mahjong lessons in China, so while it is a beautiful game, it is best to stay away from the pros!

The long night did make the 5 a.m. start a bit difficult, but the hilarious and upbeat group of peasant ladies that took me in during my time there made the mornings wonderful.  One of the women, Ms. Li, provided many of the details: they were all from the same town in Anhui and have an annual contract with Mr. Yang.  Every year they return to work his fields for they admire his tea (they describe it as more beautiful than the rest) and since his tea is known to be one of the best, it gives them face as well as better pay.  Laughter did erupt after this explanation, as the other ladies joked “she put pay last, but actually it is our first reason!”

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I have found that the migrant tea leaf pickers come to Meijiawu and the surrounding area for about one month for the tea harvest season, generally Mid-March thru Mid-April.  And as in the States, when harvest season arrives all available sunlight means time in the fields.  The premium tea is picked the first week, followed by later picks (and lesser quality tea leaves).

The first evening I arrived, I took a long walk up through the hills to check out the area so I could have an idea of what to shoot, with some apprehension on how open the workers would be with me photographing them.  As some of the workers were preparing to return home I politely asked them if I could take a few photos of them, expecting a shake of the head or wave of the hand…but was met with laughter and teasing among the women about their future stardom. Every group I talked with enjoyed discussing their work, explaining their ideas about tea and their history in harvesting the famous Longjing.  Seamlessly, photography would work into our discussions and, without a pause, the words would continue to flow as the shutter started clicking.  Extreme pride in their work and their role in the industry.

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The group of ladies from Anhui on my first morning were no different. After our morning introduction at breakfast there was endless joking and laughter with not too many hints of shyness or discomfort that many migrant workers have.  It surprised me.  Perhaps this is linked to the knowledge that:

1. They are here for only a month, and while the work is hard, they are all here with a family member or friend from their home town.
2. They know their contribution to this fascinating niche of the 龙井茶 tea industry is invaluable… A billion RMB industry annually, and without experienced migrant workers – the local plantation owners could not efficiently harvest more than a fraction of what they do now.

The spirit of these women is absolutely inspiring.  The commitment to their work and the harvest reminds me of the farmers in Eastern Oregon, breaking their backs to make a living and provide for the rest of the country (and world).  Being reflective and considering my work and salary (quite a bit higher than these great ladies), and I am not just humbled, but a little embarrassed… especially when after a couple hours of shooting the first small plot of land, I excused myself to go back to the guesthouse to get a few more zzzzzz’s.

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Above photo: preparing the leaves prior to roasting (Longjing tea does not “ferment” as other types of teas such as Oolong, Black Tea and Pu’er).

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Above photo: roasting of the tea leaves is done after picking, and while there are electronic roasters most of the high quality tea leaves are done by hand.

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Above photo: sorting after roasting is an important step, making sure that only the top quality leaves are kept especially since the tea culture in China is so advanced that buyers (large tea companies or individuals) will look at the leaves presented in front of them and immediately be able to tell the quality.  This makes presentation of the tea outside individual stores important as well (below photo).

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There is always something special about drinking or eating a product fresh from the source, at the source. A Guinness at St. James Gate outside of Dublin, fresh oysters or salmon while sitting along side the shore on Hood Canal in the Puget Sound, or sitting in the fresh air with a glass of fresh 龙井茶 (LongJing tea) brewed with local spring water…nothing, it seems, could ever taste better.

One of the first lessons anyone will ever learn about drinking tea: water quality can be just as important as the tea itself.  This is why, as it was explained to me, that almost 400 years ago, Longjing tea was declared an Imperial Tea for its exquisite flavor and appearance, and because it was brewed with the sweet Meijiawu spring water, it became historic.  It is great to see how much pride there is with the locals and their tea.

Over my first cup of this year’s harvest, Mr. Yang made clear that from the tea pickers to the roasting and sorting (which him and his wife control), there is a pride knowing they are contributing to a very ancient and important craft that remains vibrant both culturally and economically in China.  Along with this cultural significance, he added, the long friendships and camaraderie that is created and shared every season makes this a wonderful life.  Pretty cool.

The final day ended on a fun note.  As we were returning to the house, we ran into a good friend of the ladies who for the past three days was too shy to have her photo taken…but finally through the determination of the team we got the shot. I told them I would e-mail them a copy of the photo, and Ms. Li said “no, we have decided that you must also come next year and you give us all a copy of your photos…and this time, you will actually pick your own tea leaves” which ended up in laughter as we learned earlier in the day that my tea leaf picking skills are atrocious.

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The immediate impact this trip has had on me is pretty obvious, and that is I have a huge affair going on with my Longjing tea right now. Granted, nothing will replace that first cup of coffee in the morning (the influence of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest), but recently putting a couple healthy pinches of those roasted tea leaves into my mug after lunch has been invigorating.  Endlessly refilling my tea mug throughout the afternoon, as Longjing tea holds its flavor for a very long time, I not only get to enjoy the dancing tea leaves but I also get to reminisce about the wonderful journey of my tea from the hills of Meijiawu to my glass.

30 Comments on “Of All the Tea in China, One Place Rules…

  1. Beautiful photographs of the grounds and the processes. I love tea, and Longjingcha is one of my favorites. I love its delicate texture, light flavor, and almost-nutty, earthy smell. I appreciate the stories. I learned a lot and it sound like an uplifting trip.

    • The Longjing tea growing valley is a great place, and now you know a little more about your Longjing tea. Thanks for the comments Brett, and very happy you enjoyed the photos and story. Cheers.

  2. Unnnnn, if only I could be there – stand among those endless green green fields of tea and take a deep breath-it would be so great!

    I showed your post to my dad, Dalo ,and he loves it,he is always a big fan of Chinese tea ^ – ^ ! He told me abt the story of Longjing tea , how the king brought this kind of tea back to his mom when she was sick, and the legend of Hupao spring (the running-tiger spring) , they say we can only have the best taste of Longjing tea using the water from this spring! ^ ^

    I really adore you photos – as always ^ – ^ esp #2, #3 and #14 !

    Have a pure and beautiful coming weekend then,Dalo! Thanks so much for your sharing!

    • You would be in heaven in the Longjing hills of Meijiawu. It is refreshing, and most important once you come down from the hills – there is a nice glass of fresh tea waiting for you!

      It is great to hear that your Dad knows about the story of Longjing and Chinese tea…it is such a good story. And the tea really is a special tea to drink. Thank you again for your nice words about my photos – I too like 2, 3 and 14! You have a great day and week Yinyin. Cheers!

  3. This reminded me of my trip to Darjeeling (West Bengal, India) when I was young… the tea gardens that seemed endless and the greenery!
    If my memory serves me right it was the season of picking tea leaves and my sister and I joined the women on the fields, although, like you, we were no good! And then, of course, came the (extra sweet, for me) cup of Darjeeling Tea… So fresh! Even though I’m a fan of coffee, I crave a cup of black tea, sometimes two and so I still remember having enjoyed that tea thoroughly.

    A lovely post! 🙂

    • One thing I look forward to every morning is waking up and having my morning coffee…I really love it (2-3 cups in the morning). But in the afternoon, if I am at my desk, there is nothing better than a mug of Longjing green tea. I love it for the flavor, light smell, and also just for the memories…it makes me feel good and every time I fill the glass, the leaves dance.

      There is always something special about drinking tea at the source…especially using the local spring water. One day, I will have to write a similar post about Darjeeling tea! That would be something special. Until then, though, I must keep my loyalty to the Longjing green tea 🙂 Thank you for the great reply!

      • I’ve never tried Longjing tea but I hope I will… someday!
        Haha! You do that 🙂 While I will look forward to your post about Darjeeling tea because your photos and your article will make a wonderful part of my nostalgia.

      • Thanks Meghna, that is a deal…nostalgia is a wonderful complement with tea or coffee!

  4. Wonderful post, nice to see where the dragons well tea comes from, and yes do write about the darjeeling, another yummy tea. Maybe you have some nice photos of the darjeeling mist?

    • Thank you Karina. I would love to visit and write about the Darjeeling tea, hope to do so if I can make the time to visit India…that would be a great dream 🙂

  5. What an interesting trip and photoshoot opportunity, especially after a decade of desiring it! I love the photo of the lady who didn’t want to be photographed for 3 days 🙂 (I assume it is her). I agree that photographing must be easier than all the picking 😉 So you can play majong?! I can’t, which is embarrassing to say so because I my mum plays it with her friends, maybe since I was young they just considered I was too young to play it and I never got around to trying nor learning. Should we meet up one day you;ll have to tell me a few basics.

    • HI Sofia, this was such a great trip…hope to shoot it again if I can get back to Hangzhou by the end of March. It was really a great time, and I would see the same group of pickers from Anhui again too. My mahjong skills are horrible (every city in China has different rules, etc…), but it would be nice to teach you a bit about the game when we meet 🙂

  6. A beautiful report with great photos and a great text, both of which could have gone as a story straight into National Geographic. I don’t know much about tea, except knowing there is a difference between black and green, so this was not only a trip for eyes, but very educational for me.

    • Thanks Otto, you would definitely enjoy the Longjing tea area. To see the area, but mainly to sit back with their great tea, food and enjoy the people around you.

  7. Pingback: The Dragon Well Tea Fields – Hangzhou (China) | World for Travel

  8. I love tea, especially green and white tea. What a beautiful and fascinating look into this incredibly beautiful and special place. I loved reading about your fun tea-picker ladies—I could picture the whole scene and hear their peals of laughter in my head. I imagine they enjoyed having you around as much as you enjoyed them. I’ve never tasted Longjing tea, but will now make a special point of getting some to try. I’m sure that whatever I get will never be as delicious as the tea you had, but when I do sit down to savour it, I shall close my eyes and imagine the great scene you painted. I’m quite sure I shall hear lots of laughter too. Thanks, Randall, for taking me to a magical place I shall probably never visit. But who knows, right? One thing I’ve learned is “never say never!”. As always, exquisite photography and a great bit of writing. Are you putting your travel book together yet? ~ Jeannie :))

    • It was such a great scene…where I thought they would feel uncomfortable with me around, I could not be more wrong. It showed how much pride and confidence they have in their work and skill as pickers, just very cool to see it. Please let me know if you ever get the chance to try the Longjin tea…you are making me crave some right now 🙂 Wishing you a great autumn!

  9. Ah, the power of good tea. It is beautiful to see behind-the-scenes of where our favorite foods come from and meet those whose hard working fingers bring it to us. Longjin is a delicious tea indeed and now I am craving some! Have a very wonderful end of the year and thank you for your inspiring photos.

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