The notion "elite" came from Gallic. It means "the best", "the choicest", "carrying precious inherited qualities" and is used to describe people, animals and plants in terms of genetic selection. Recently the word has been actively used in numerous advertising campaigns but its meaning was imperceptibly substituted for "up-market (product)", "meant for elite customers". Its usage gradually increased to mass circulation, with the idea that anybody who has enough money can now make a purchase and enter the elite circle, while the original meaning was rather depreciated. Elite schools, elite holiday offers, elite furniture and elite sanitary ware surround us everywhere.
The presence of elite products and services per capita has been dramatically increasing while the quality conforming characteristics have been going down the other way round.
The field of tea trade was not an exception. In the late 90-s, the first tea club appeared in Moscow: one could have some exposure to exotic tea ceremony there. It was then, when expensive Chinese tea came into fashion. The first tea club was a place with great ambience, serving really good tea in the context of Chinese tea culture, and it was filled with creative people who were true enthusiasts. The effect of best vintage tea par excellence, the feature of novelty and gathering of interesting people in the club made it extremely popular. In a couple of years the place couldn't contain all those who wished to visit. Seats were booked several days in advance notwithstanding unusually high prices: a couple of hours of drinking tea in the club without any snacks would cost more than a proper dinner in a restaurant.
The new business phenomena with all its seeming simplicity attracted attention of business people. However, left under the surface were: genuine interest of the personnel to Chinese culture, their enthusiasm and devotion, as well as extraordinary talents of the administrators to keep it all together - the foundation for success. De facto, elite tea business doesn't yield super profits and it never did. As any business it requires efforts, knowledge and experience, and a lot of investment. In this age of globalization of the world market, profit depends on sales volume first and foremost. "Hand-made" is just an eye-catching decoration of a brand while its success is defined by efficient mass production.
Nevertheless, tea clubs started to multiply like clones. Tearooms appeared in restaurants, tea stalls sprang up in supermarkets, and mass media brought up the subject of healthy properties of Chinese tea. Soon after that a true "tea boom" emerged, and a tsunami of cheap low quality Chinese tea flooded the market. Many tea traders were after some easy money and didn't even try to elaborate on cultural details. Some of them didn't have a slightest idea of what a good tea was - far from Chinese tea culture subtleties! - themselves preferring a cup of instant coffee for their breakfast.
The matters were made even worse by a lack of interpreters capable to properly translate communictions with Chinese suppliers; while numerous agents were pushing forward most plain tea produced by their relatives and friends. To catch the interest, traders traditionally marked their product "elite", exploiting the circumstance that nobody knew what elite tea actually was. It seems there is some magic power in the word which delights the ear of a Russian consumer, so despite of all absurdity of this situation it has been sparking stable interest ever since.
But what "elite tea" actually is? First to mention, there are famous "Imperial" grades with several centuries history. They are made from leaves and buds of tea plants which have been subjected to selective breeding for hundreds of years. Preparation processes require high mastery as well. At different times, these grades earned the title "gun cha" (贡茶 ) - "tea rent" or "Emperor's tea". Tribes conquered by the Chinese were placed under the obligation to pay 9 kinds of rent, ever since the Chinese Empire came to existence. Those were agricultural and handicraft products including tea. According to the Chronicles of Qin Dynasty, ruler U (IV century B.C.E.) from region Ba (modern Sìchuān) was getting 1000 jin (appr. 500 kg) of tea as a part of his rent every year.
Over time tea became a product of first necessity in China. The demand for tea grew year after year, and new tea gardens were set up everywhere. During the reign of Tan Dynasty (VII century) tea was grown in 14 provinces. 10 of them (in modern times - Sìchuān, Anhui, Shanxi, Hubei, Húnán, Jiāngxī, Fújiàn, Zhèjiāng, Jiāngsū, Hénán) were supplying the Imperial Court. There was a special government department of superintendents that inspected tea gardens and supervised processes of production and deliveries to the Court. The head of the Tea Department was called the Tea Counsellor "tsyue cha shi" (榷茶使 ). The best tea made from first spring buds was sent to the capital where the Celestial Emperor performed rites of spring sacrifice in the temple of ancestors on the day of Qīngmíng (清明節) - festival of Purity and Clarity (April 4th). Traditionally after these ceremonies, the Emperor granted awards to high government officials, gave gifts of encouragement to lower officers, and made presents to foreign ambassadors. Tea was an important element of such dispensations.
There is a description of harvesting and preparing Mendin tea in "Illustrated chronicles of towns and provinces of China" ("Yuanhe tzunsan tuchzi", 813): "Mountain Menshan is 10 li to the South of the province, and they grow the best imperial tea in Shu. Every year before the day of Qīngmíng festival the ruler of Minshansyan county chooses a lucky day. He performs ritual washing, makes ritual bows, then dresses up in court clothes, goes up the mountain top and asks the abbot of the monastery to make a ceremonial opening of the garden. After burning incense and praying to the mountain spirit they collect 360 jin of tea leaves, which corresponds to the celestial number of the calendary year cycle. Ready tea is put into 2 silver jugs and sent to the capital where it will be presented to the Emperor and used in worshipping ancestors rituals. At the same time, tea leaves of different kinds are harvested in Menshan mountains (on Peak of Purity (Tsinfen), Sweet Dew (Ganlufen), Jade Maiden (Yuinuifen), Well Spring (Jintsuanfen), Water Nut (Linjyaofen)). These leaves are made into tea lumps "Ke Jy Cha" ("nut tea"), put into 18 silver jugs and also sent to the capital. This is called "supporting tea" ("pei cha").
The center of tea production was established in Jyan An (建安) (modern Fújiàn province) in X century. "There are Northern gardens Beiyuan at the bottom of Phoenix Mountain Fenhuanshan, in 30 li to the East from Jianan, and there are facilities for roasting tea next to this place. The soil of the Imperial garden is red, and tea that grows there is of highest quality". 46 Imperial gardens of Beiyuan stretched by over 30 li. 1336 roasting ovens produced "Lun-fen tuan" ("Lumps of Dragon and Phoenix" 龙凤团茶), the best tea in The Middle Kingdom which was supposed to differ from usual tea just as "the Sky differs from the Earth".
Photo: Wǔyí Shān mountains, it is here where loose tea first appeared in Imperial gardens Beiyuan.
Such tea was worth its weight in gold. Ready "tuans" were packed together in batches, wrapped in palm leaves and then in silk, put in red lacquered boxes with golden locks and official seals, and housed in bamboo baskets. A batch of 8 "Big Dragon Lumps" ("Da Lun Tuan") weighed 1 jin (500 g) and cost 2 liang of gold. There were 20 "Small Dragon Lumps" ("Syao Lun Tuan") in a batch of the same weight and same price.
When Ming Dynasty came to power in 1391, Emperor Zhū Yuánzhāng issued an Imperial Edict "On supplies of Imperial tea from Jiāngníng, and on abolishing Dragon Lumps, production of which is a heavy burden for farmers". Abolishment of "Dragon and Phoenix Lumps" became a fateful moment in tea history. Not only those technologies that had been established during centuries of production disappeared, but also the respective utensils and the specific tradition of use. An intensive process of searching for new forms filled in the vacant place, and tea culture regained its life spirit, simplicity and genuineness that had been lost during Song Dynasty period.
This historical period is remarkable for numerous literary works dedicated to tea, its kinds and grades, methods of growing plants and processing leaves, choosing water for brewing and details of infusion, as well as tea utensils. Zhū Quán (朱权), the 17th son of the first Ming Emperor Zhū Yuánzhāng, wrote "Tea notes" ("Cha Pu", 茶谱) in 1440, then Zhāng Yuán (张源) produced "Tea Sketches" ("Cha Lu", 茶录) in 1595, and Xu Cí Shǔ (许次纾) published "Tea reflections" ("Cha Shu", 茶疏) in 1597 - all these are treasures of style and spirit that enriched tea culture in great measure.
"... Intimate tea magic starts with the energy that has been living in it from the very beginning - when it was processed. If fire is burning hot under the pot, tea becomes fragrant with transparent scent. In a cold pot, the tea spirit is tired and exhausted. But if flames lick the bottom of the pot with fierce and fury - you will get scorched powder! If you stint the wood for the fire - your tea will lose its pecious emerald colour! If you delay with drying the leaves - they will turn to dust, but if you don't dry them well enough - they will stay raw. Overdone leaves become brownish-yellow, and underdone leaves stay wet and black. Tea that was prepared according to all the rules is sweet. If the order is broken, tea becomes tangy and puckery!
... In the days when ancient people were making tea, they used stones to grind tea leaves. Tea was like light pollen flying in the air, that's why it was compressed and stored as round tablets called "tea cakes of Phoenix and Dragon". The tea spirit, when put into boiling water, could fly up the air and evaporate! That's why only young and delicate water could be used for brewing. Nowadays tea leaves are not ground and seived, which means that the initial divine spirit hidden in the leaves only starts to reveal itself when the water is fully ready. Therefore it is said that water should undergo 5 stages of boiling to let the tea open up its three aspects: breath (qì), energy (jīng), and spirit (shen)..." ("Tea Scetches" -"Cha Lu" (茶录) by Zhāng Yuán (张源))
In the times of Qín Dynasty, tea culture finally took the form we recognize today. While Yan-cha from cliff gardens, Lóng Jīn from Xī Hú lake, Maofen from Huángshān and Pu'er from Yúnnán came into their own identities during the reign of Ming Dynasty, then in the Qín times selection and experiments with technologies of processing leaves gave more than 40 grades which survived up to the present days. These are green Mendin teas, Emei Shān and Qīngchéng Shān from Sìchuān, Luan Guapyan and Tàipíng Houkui from Ānhuī, Dun Tin Bi Lo Chun from Jiāngsū, Ānji Baicha from Zhèjiāng, Xìnyáng Máojiān from Hénán, white Fudin Baicha from Zhànhé, yellow Jūn Shān Yín Zhēn from Húnán, black Liú Bao from Guǎngxī, Tiě Guānyīn from Southern Fújiàn and so on and so forth. All these grades appeared during the Qín reign and were supplied to the Imperial Court. They were delivered in silver, clay or tin vessels, wrapped in palm leaves, paper or silk, packed in bamboo baskets and sealed with official stamp "Yú" ("Imperial"), to the tea department of the royal kitchen in the Forbidden City in Beijing. This department was supervised by a Minister of the highest rank, personally appointed by the Emperor, and he was in charge of official ceremonies and celebrations that were a remarkable feature during the Qín period.
During the times of civil wars and economic collapses of the beginning of XX century, tea business was also declining. This is not meant to say that the Chinese stopped drinking good tea, but that tea production went down to bare minimum sufficient only for the domestic market. However the crisis didn't spread everywhere. Mother Dà Hóng Páo plants of Wǔyí Shān mountains were guarded by well armed Guómíndǎng soldiers. Not one tea leaf was wasted, and Lóng Jīn continued to be produced in the Imperial tea garden at Western Lake Xī Hú, as well as many other famous tea places survived the difficult times without losses.
на фото: деревня Сипин, уезд Аньси, родина чая Те Гуанинь
When the economic situation in the country started to come back to normal in 1970-s, tea business also began to regenerate on a new technical and scientific level. Under the influence of then appeared "Chinese cultural trend", centers of tea studies investigating new grades and methods of processing started to emerge one by one in tea producing provinces. At present, besides famous historical grades, dozens of new kinds which are none the worse in quality and effect they have on body and mind, were created. These are high mountain Taiwan oolongs with comprehensive taste and wonderful fragrance which lasts for many brews, strong fruity Cháozhōu oolongs, and red teas especially loved in Russia for their bright bouquet and spectacular warming effect.
Here we come across a subtle point which might be unobvious for those who is new to the world of Chinese tea. All these famous grades that were supplied to the Imperial court in the past and won many awards at reputable competitions nowadays, are unceremoniously faked on the widest scale.
For example, Xī Hú Lóng Jīn - the legendary "Well of Dragon from Xī Hú Lake" that has been produced in Zhèjiāng province since 949. It became a premium brand and a cultural identity of China during the period of economic revival and regeration of tea production. It was a must-give present to the heads of foreign countries visiting the country. No wonder that its popularity caused a great lot of imitations at the market. At present, not only Xī Hú produces it but also Yúnnán, Gùizhōu, Sìchuān and other provinces. Nevertheless the authentic "Xī Hú Lóng Jīn" can only come from Hángzhōu, province Zhèjiāng. Numerous small agents buy cheap Lóng Jīn far outside its historical region and pass it off as real to incompetent customers. It is just a pale imitation of the original taste and smell but an amateur is uncapable to discover the difference.
Another example is the famous oolong Dà Hóng Páo (大红袍) - "Big Red Gown". Today it is a legend and a tribute to the tradition, rather than a real product. The mother tea plants from which shoot cuttings were taken for seedlings in the previous century are not used for yield anymore, and Mu Shu Cha (tea from mother bushes which grew out of the seedlings) is very rare and therefore extremely expensive. Dà Hóng Páo massively distributed on the market is either a blend of several kinds of tea or one of Wǔyí Shān grades that is much easier to sell under this brand umbrella.
District Ānji known for its Tiě Guānyīn - "Iron Boddhisattva Kuan-yin" - was one of the poorest areas of province Fújiàn before 1996. Now it ranks among the houndred of strongest districts of the whole China. The demand for this grade suddenly jumped up in the middle 90-s. Houndreds of hectares of mountain slopes were broken and brought into cultivation, and new tea factories of all sizes were proliferating. 42000 tons of this tea are made per year, out of which 7000 tons are exported. More than 800000 people are involved in tea production. Tea from high mountains is considered the best, the second quality is taken from middle heights, and valley tea ranks at the bottom. However, except for altitude the final quality of ready tea actually depends even more on other factors like age of the plant, time of harvesting, quality of fertilizers, and manufacture technologies.
A similar story happened to Pu'ers. Their popularity growing exponentially, the "Pu'er boom of the noughties" caused a local raw stock shortage. Tea leaves started to come not only from nearby regions but from neighboring coutries like Vietnam and Laos as well. More and more wild areas of Yúnnán mountains were cut into terraces for tea plantations. An official standard - defining basic characteristics of "true Pu'er tea" and the borders of its growing territories, as well as breaking down raw produce into 5 categories in dependence on the proportion between leaves and buds - was established in Yúnnán in 2006. Meanwhile, produce from old tea plants doesn't have grades, and its price is determined by the taste and the region's status.
Once a particular brand becomes popular, there appears a great lot of low quality imitations. Yet there is a Chinese proverb saying: "A cloud of fake dragons doesn't mean that there is no real dragon". The key is - the intent to find it!
During years of research in the course of numerous expedition trips and business journeys, Moi Chai company leaders gained a lot of experience in tea business. We have established partnership with many certified producers, yet we continue to expand to different areas of China by visiting plantations and factories, testing and choosing the best tea of new crops which deserve the title "Elite". In the following video, director of our company Sergey Shevelev talks about his "principles of life".
Our tea shop is constantly enriching the collection with best hand-made grades of Chinese tea, coming from small farms located in the historical tea growing regions. All of these regions were given the status of natural sanctuaries of national and world-class standard in the end of XX century.
This is certainly expensive tea. There are not so many places where historical conditions came together in favor of its growth and production, and the production itself requires high mastery and a great amount of efforts. This is genuinely good tea: harvested and made by hand from selected raw leaves, bought directly from the original producer, and delivered carefully to our shop. It is not that we deliver it in silver jugs - as was formerly the case for the Imperial ritual in the temple of ancestors - but with no less respect and attention.
Such collectors' tea is not meant for everyday use, but for a special occasion, for tea lovers and tea connoisseurs who are capable of appreciating the nuances of its bouquet, as well as the fineness of its effect. "For many men who see the dawn and bear the sun in their hearts, who share joys and deeds between themselves, when they come together to drink tea, the arrangement of the tea set is nothing more than a delay of an open talk... When tea is ready, the host raises from his place and passes a cup to the guest with words: "To pour peace and quiet over the noble man's heart". The guest raises to receive the cup and responds: "That being said, but this is not enough to break one's loneliness". This ritual is repeated thrice, and then cither Qin and checkers Go appear, accompanied by brushes and ink..." (Zhū Quán (朱权), «Cha Pu» (茶谱)1440)
To learn about tea, to understand it and properly enjoy it is not a highbrow art. Everybody can master it and find many useful and interesting things for oneself. Developing taste for good tea contributes to developing good taste in general, strangely enough. People who have noticed this say that understanding tea leads to understanding the essence of things. Read more on how to make first steps, in the article "How to choose good tea". To those who visit here for the first time , we recommend watching an interview with our company director Sergey Shevelev for TV-channel "Culture".