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.

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