Farmers brew up wealth with na
Local economy benefits from boom in demand for a taste of Dahongpao, report He Na and Hu Meidong in Wuyishan, Fujian province
Peng Longfu, 72, never imagined that he would own a five- story house and that each member of his sevenstrong family would have their own bedroom. Nor did he ever dream of owning two sedans costing more than 300,000 yuan ($49,000) each. A few hundred meters from Peng’s home, his daughter-in-law has been busy hiring workers to build another five-story house.
While memories of hard times remain vivid, many of Peng’s fellow villagers, tea farmers in Tianxin village close to the north entrance of Wuyi Mountain National Nature Reserve, are still attempting to adjust to the dramatic rise in wealth that has come in just a few years.
Their cramped, shabby bungalows have been replaced by four- and five- story houses and, rather than carts or tricycles, Mercedes-Benz and BMWs are parked in the shade of trees.
The villagers attribute the change in fortune to the sudden popularity of Dahongpao tea, which means “Big Red Robe” and is one of the most famous brands in China.
With huge signs displaying the characters for Dahongpao hanging outside almost every building, the village resembles a tea market rather than a residential community. The importance of the local brand is reflected in the names of the companies, which are often based on poems dedicated to Dahongpao tea. While the signs vary in size, color and font, they all have one thing in common; every one contains the word Zhengyan, which signifies that the village tea plantation is located in the key growing area of the Wuyi Mountain National Nature Reserve.
The limited yield means tea grown in Tianxin village is very expensive. The wholesale price of this year’s newly blended Dahongpao is at least 1,600 yuan per kilogram unpackaged. That price will more than double once the tea has been packaged by one of the large local businesses, with each bag bearing the company’s logo.
“In 2007, our family had debts of more than 100,000 yuan. However, just six years later, the family’s annual net income is more than 600,000 yuan. Our plantation is just two hectares, but families with larger plots of land can make much more money,” said Yin Qi’an, a local producer.
The Yin family’s workshop opened in 1993. “It’s called a tea plant, but it’s really just a family workshop and we only hire outside workers in the busy seasons, when the leaves are being picked or blended,” he said.
“Thanks to the recent rise in demand for Dahongpao tea and my father-in-law’s excellent blending skills, our tea always sells out every year, even before the leaves are picked,” added Yin.
Peng’s 20- year- old granddaughter is majoring in management at a college in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, and the elderly grower hopes she will return to the village after graduation to help him develop their brand and expand the family business.
“Combining her modern management methods with my tea blending skills is not just a dream,” Peng said.
Dahongpao tea makes high demands on the environment and mainly grows in Wuyi Mountain, according to Huang Xiangeng, director of the Wuyishan Shengdong Tea Culture Institute.
Wuyi Mountain is known for its danxia landform, a geological term describing a continental red bed landform with many escarpments. The multi-hued land is full of minerals and features high mountains and deep valleys and a good covering of countless varieties of plants.
In addition to the geology, abundant water vapor and moderate sunshine are major factors in producing the unique taste of Dahongpao, Huang Xiangeng said.
The blending process, the procedure for making Dahongpao tea, is complicated and each of the separate 18 steps is crucial to the taste.
Only experienced blenders with more than five or six years experience ever have the opportunity to practice these skills because the yield of Dahongpao is comparatively low.
“We have many diligent tea farmers, but working hard is just one of the requirements for making good tea; a good understanding of the tea-making method and tea culture plays a much more important role. And there are still very few people who meet all the requirements,” said Huang.
Demand for Dahongpao was low before 2010, when the price was between 600 to 1,000 yuan per kg. Even tea from Tianxin village only cost around 2,000 yuan per kg.
“To guarantee the quality of the tea, we used organic fertilizers and weeding machines instead of pesticides, which greatly increased the cost. So, despite the family’s hard work over the course of the year, the income was very low. Many young people went away to work because the income was so low,” said Huang Xianyi, a villager of Tianxin.
However, at the beginning of 2010, money began to flow into the Dahongpao tea industry and Impression Dahongpao was launched. The show was China’s first teathemed open-air live performance. It combined tea culture with visual highlights and was the brainchild of cinematic maestro Zhang Yimou, director of Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. The market reaction was swift and the price of Dahongpao more than tripled.
Not only have the tea farmers benefited from the boom in demand for Dahongpao, the local economy has also flourished.
Wuyishan city is home to some 9,300 hectares of tea plantations, of which 8,000 hectares are grown from cuttings from six “mother” trees, according to the local tea bureau. In 2012, the yield of Dahongpao tea reached 6,200 metric tons, with an market value of 1.55 billion yuan.
With more than 1,800 registered tea companies in the area, approximately 80,000 people are employed in tea-related jobs. That’s boosted the employment prospects of the large, rural labor force, but also promoted the development of related industries, such as packaging, logistics and tertiary industries, particularly services.
The per capita net income of tea farmers in Wuyishan city reached 2,486 yuan in 2012, an increase of 78 percent from 2009, according to the local tea bureau. That saw the city’s tax income soar to 51.19 million yuan, a jump of almost 110 percent jump from 2009.
The city of tea
Wuyishan can be regarded as a large tea-themed tourist park. The shops sport different decorations, but every one contains a large wooden table, complete with a teapot and a set of cups ready for brewing the beverage.
Hailed as the “King of Chinese Tea”, Dahongpao has been grown for centuries on the rugged Wuyi Mountain and was offered as a tribute or gift to the imperial courts in ancient times.
According to Ye Qitong, a well-known tea expert and master blender, many fascinating stories about Dahongpao add to the charm of this prestigious tea.
“One popular legend has it that during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a young scholar on his way to the imperial civil examinations was laid low by abdominal pain and fainted in front of a temple on Wuyi Mountain. A monk treated him with tea grown on the mountainside,” explained Ye.
Cured by the tea, the scholar continued his journey and took first place in the exam.
Returning to the mountain as a highranking official, he expressed his gratitude by covering the tea tree with his new, flamboyant red court robe, and since then the tea has been called Dahongpao, explained Ye.
Another anecdote that highlights the value of Dahongpao occurred in 1972, when then-US president Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China.
During the visit, Nixon was presented with 200 grams of Dahongpao tea by Chairman Mao Zedong. However, the amount was so small that Nixon thought the gift trivial.
Sensing Nixon’s doubt, Zhou Enlai, China’s premier at the time, explained that the total annual yield of the six mother trees, which have survived for hundreds of years, was a mere 400 grams and joked that the chairman had already given him “half of the country”.
Retaining its status as a premium gift, the tea boasts a high market price. In 2002, 20 grams sold for a record 180,000 yuan at an auction in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.
The promising market for Dahongpao in recent years has resulted in tea companies springing up all over the city.
“Competition is the engine that has driven the industry to upgrade technologically and pursue a higher level of quality. However, disorderly competition could ruin the industry, especially in terms of the environmental toll,” said Huang Shenghui, chairman of the Ruiquan Tea Co.
“The high quality of Wuyi rock cliff tea mainly lies in the well-preserved natural environment and ecological chain,” he said.
The Ruiquan brand is more than 300 years old. Although the company owns more than 67 hectares of tea plantations, the annual yield is restricted to just 20,000 kg to ensure the quality remains as high as possible. Ruiquan is one of the very few tea companies in Wuyishan that conducts business overseas, with 20 percent of its products exported.
“Tea plantations make high demands on a place. It needs the right environment and the correct amount of sunshine, which means not every place is suitable to be a tea plantation. Blind expansion will destroy the ecological balance and that could deal a devastating blow to the local industry.”
Huang’s comments were echoed by Yu Daihua, president of Jiulongpao Tea Co, one of Wuyishan’s top 10 tea businesses.
“Wuyi Mountain is the best advertisement for the city’s tea industry and to protect our own interests, we need to safeguard our best asset,” said Yu, referring to the fact that unrestricted competition has caused confusion in the market for Dahongpao tea, because the high-quality leaves are now being mixed with
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Clockwise: The tea-themed open-air live show Impression Dahongpao
has boosted Wuyishan’s tea industry. Women are picking tea leaves in Xiamei vil