Drink Magazine

History of Tea: Wuyi Mountain

By Dchew78 @peonyts

Wuyishan or Wuyi Mountain, one of the major oolong producing regions, has one of the most storied and illustrious history of the tea mountains in China. While Wuyi Yancha only emerged during the Qing dynasty, tea production in Wuyishan has been in existence for much longer, albeit in different forms.

Tang Dynasty and Earlier

Scholars are divided in dating the beginning of tea production in Wuyishan. Famed tea scholar Professor Chen Yuan believed that the ‘Wan Gan Hou’, referred in various writings that are dated to be during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (479-501), was the early incarnation of Wuyi tea. This view is also echoed by Taiwanese writer Chi Zong Xian (known online as Tea Parker) in his book “Wuyi Tea”.

Most scholars though, would that agree by the Tang Dynasty, it is certain that Wuyishan not only produced tea, but was a thriving area as well. At that time, Wuyi tea, together with  areas on both side of Jian River including Cong An, Jian Ou and Jian Yang, were collectively known as ‘Jian Tea’ and ample documentation of Jian Tea was found in Tang Dynasty writings.

The Jian Tea of the Tang Dynasty, much like tea of that era, was nothing like the Wuyi Yancha of today. The common style of that era was the ‘La Mian Cha’ or literally translated as ‘Wax Face Tea’, which is a form of ‘tribute cake’. Some of these cakes even made its way into the Imperial Courts, even boosting their status further.

Song Dynasty

After the Tang Dynasty collapsed, there was a tumultuous period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. During the reign of a minor dynasty known as Southern Tang, the ‘Dragon Oven’ was established in modern day Jian Ou. This was meant to facilitate production of the ‘Northern Garden’ (Beiyuan) teas, which included Wuyi Tea.

After the Song Dynasty was established (976), Beiyuan teas rose to prominence and the ‘Dragon Phoenix Cakes’ (Long Feng Tuan) of Beiyuan became one of the foremost choice of royalty. The Song Dynasty proved to be a glorious period for Wuyishan as one of the earliest ‘Tea Competitions’ was established then. Each year, tea farmers around the ‘Jian region’ would bring their finest harvest to Wuyishan and compete for the rights to supply the leaves used in the royal tribute tea.

The tribute teas of Wuyishan were truly exquisite and some of the molds used can be found in Chinese museums. Be it the innovative ‘little dragon cakes’ to the ‘dragon phoenix cakes’, the producers of Wuyishan brought artisan teas to new heights.

With royal backing, Wuyishan began to distinguish itself from the pack. Famous poets and luminaries including Su Shi (Su Dong Po) and Fan Zong Yan wrote poems lauding Wuyi teas as its fame spread throughout China.

Decline and Rebirth

It was not smooth sailing for Wuyi teas though it was dealt a crushing blow during the Ming Dynasty. The founder of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Zhu Yuan Zhang, came from a peasant background, and was all too familiar with the rigors the farmers faced.

In 1392, he decreed that instead of fanciful tribute cakes that required much effort to create what he viewed as ostentatious, ornamental results, the more practical loose leaf tea, which up to then was only consumed by poorer folks, would be the tribute tea of choice for royalty. That decree proved devastating for the tea gardens of Wuyishan who have for centuries thrived in their tribute cakes. Wuyishan tea industry was thrown into disarray and eventually fell into a state of decline.

In 1557, calamity struck Wuyishan once more. Wuyishan was officially removed from the list of tribute tea regions. For a region that had enjoyed centuries of acclaim, this was the ultimate insult. Fortunately, for them as well as us tea lovers, that proved to be rock bottom. That catastrophe sparked revival in the Wuyishan farmers once more. Knowing that they could no longer rest on their laurels or live on past glory, the efforts of the farmers would eventually pay off as their innovation literally spread to the entire world.

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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