Drink Magazine

Minnan and Its Importance to Oolong Tea

By Dchew78 @peonyts

Minnan: the World’s Export Port

The importance of Minnan, specifically Xiamen (commonly known as Amoy), in the international tea trade cannot be overstated.

For starters, the word ‘tea’ comes from the Minnan dialect for ‘茶’ which is ‘te’. At that time, the bulk of the Chinese tea exports were routed either via Guangdong (Anglicized as Canton) or Xiamen. While that occurred in the 17th century, the influence of Minnan on the export continues right into the 20th and 21st century.

The 19th and 20th century saw tumultuous times for China, especially in the South. Over that period, civil wars, foreign aggression and invasion plagued China. Many Southern Chinese, who have historically been alienated from the ruling north, amidst death and famine fled en masse and settled in Nanyang (Southern Ocean) which is South East Asia.

Xiamen was the departure port of choice for many. As a result, the majority of the immigrants came from surrounding areas such as Anxi, Chaozhou, Fuzhou and Yongchun come to mind. Despite the harsh conditions where they fled, these immigrants often pined for their hometown or at least a taste of it. Among the means they satisfied their pining for home was with their hometown tea.

The hurdle was lower considering the geographical proximity of the Xiamen to their hometown tea producing areas.

This table shows the distance of the above mentioned areas and Xiamen. For comparative purposes I added Wuyishan and Hangzhou.

Location Distance to Xiamen (km) Notable Teas Produced

Anxi 96.1 Tieguanyin, Huangjingui

Yongchun 141.9 Yongchun Foshou

Chaozhou (Guangdong Province) 248.3 Dancong

Fuzhou 260.4 Jasmine Tea

Wuyishan 572.8 Wuyi Yancha

Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province) 881.3 Xihu Longjing

  • Based on Google Maps, all towns/counties in Fujian province unless otherwise indicated

Anxi tea merchants in particular thrived in their new homes. According to Anxi Tea History Chronicles[1]  there were over 100 tea merchants of Anxi descent in South East Asia. In Singapore alone, Anxi tea merchants made up 17 of the 30 registered members of the Tea Importers Association in 1928, many of whom remain dominant players in the local market today.

The dominance of Minnan migrants and merchants directly affected the export market in South East Asia, most of which continues to be felt today. In fact up till the 80s, the majority of Minnan Oolong was exported to Hong Kong and South East Asia, testifying of its influence on tea consumption in this part of the world.

As for what happened after the 80s, Minnan had an important role to play as well.

The 80s: The Rise of Anxi and Minnan

Up till the 80’s, Oolong tea was more widely consumed outside of China than it was in China. In fact, it was given the moniker of ‘侨销茶’ which is loosely translated as ‘tea that is sold to overseas Chinese’.

Thereafter, the trend reversed. There are a number of factors, first is the economic liberalization during the Deng Xiaoping era.

Here is a quick look at the China’s GDP per capita[2]

Year GDP per capita ($US)

1978 226

1988 367

1998 827

2008 3,414

In simple terms, the average Chinese citizen had a lot more money to spend than they did in the past. While you could argue in terms of wealth disparity, inflation and others economic considerations, mitigating the impact, the simple fact is that the average Chinese could afford to buy more.

Among the items this newfound wealth trickled down into was tea. Many of the teas that chased overseas money now remained home as the nouveau riche searched for things to spend on.

The second factor was the new style of processing Minnan Oolong. Influenced by their Taiwanese counterparts right across the straits, Minnan Oolong producers started to produce the ‘modern style’ or ‘green style’ oolongs, lower levels of oxidation and un-roasted.

The fragrance and light taste prove a hit among non-traditional oolong tea drinkers. While formerly Oolong did not gain much popularity outside of Fujian and Guangdong, the ‘green style’ Minnan Oolong proved accessible for those weaned on green tea.

Anxi was at the forefront of it. Aided by overseas tea merchant who brought with them modern marketing savvy and cash, the previously poverty stricken Anxi eventually gained national recognition. Winners of the much-trumpeted annual “King of Teas Competition” (茶王赛) were immediately sold at astronomically prices.

Anxi, especially Anxi Tieguanyin, thrust Oolong Tea into the mainstream. To give an illustration of the seismic shifts, take a look at the following figures:

Period

Green Tea

Black Tea

Oolong Tea

Others

1980-1986

59.1%

20.1%

3.8%

17.0%

1991-1997

69.6%

11.4%

8.0%

11.0%

2000-2006

73.7%

5.6%

10.5%

10.2%

Table extracted from 2011中国茶经 edited by陈宗懋 et al page 59

This table above shows how the composition of the production of tea evolved through the years. While oolong tea was largely an overseas and southern Chinese novelty in the 80s, production increased steadily to overtake black tea as the second most produced tea in China.

This should also be viewed against the backdrop that total production of tea increased by more than 300% over the same period- i.e. from 1980 to 2008.



[1] 安溪茶叶史话 edited by 凌文彬 published in 2000

[2] the preliminary revisional Data of GDP in 2012 is according to China NBS Bulletin on the Preliminary Verification Data of GDP in 2012 (September 2, 2013); the Final revisional Data of GDP in 2011 is according to China NBS Bulletin on the Final revisional Data of GDP in 2011 (January 7, 2013); Data of GDP 1952-2010 is according to China Statistical Database, also see China Statistical Yearbook 2012 (ISBN 978-7-5037-6693-0/C•2752). Purchasing power parity (PPP) is estimate according to IMF WEO DATA (Apr. 16, 2013). the exchange rate of CN¥ to US$ is according to State Administration of Foreign Exchange, official DATA for the historical annual average exchange rates of CN¥ to US$ 1981-2011 pubulished on China Statistical Yearbook 2012, and the exchange rate for 2012 is CN¥ 6.3125 per US dollar.

Extract and citation above from Wikipedia

Author’s Note

Above is an extract from an (as yet) unfinished draft of an upcoming book on Oolong Tea where we would cover more than 30 varieties of oolong tea, history (not legends, history), production, brewing and appreciation, the 4 main geographical areas, and a whole lot more.

If you are an interested agent/publisher, feel free to get in touch.


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