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Tea and Wuyi Mountain


Qing China guarded the secret of tea cultivation closely and no foreigners were allowed to stray from designated treaty ports where tea, as well as porcelain and silk, were traded under close supervision. Then along came Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, a kind of Victorian 007 who was able to infiltrate the Bohea Hills (as Mount Wuyi was known to the West) committing an act of industrial espionage that would change the world – he learned the secrets of tea cultivation and transported the plant to India, thus ending a Chinese monopoly that had persisted for over two millennia. 

It may seem strange to think that if you’re reading this article with a steaming mug in hand, you’re likely drinking a Camellia leaf that can trace it’s botanical roots back to the Wuyi Mountains but that’s certainly the case. The story of global tea addiction stems from the hills of Fujian as the merchants of the ancient world shipped the “China drink” from ports like Fuzhou and Qianzhou to locations as diverse a North Africa, Arabia and eventually Northern Europe.   

A Short History of Wuyi Tea

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With reverence for the mountainous landscape rooted in the world views of both Taoist and Buddhist traditions, the region known as Wuyi Shan, with its red sandstone cliff faces, dramatic gorges and lush vegetation were inevitably going to attract some attention. By the 7th century, temples, monasteries and even palaces were being constructed in this verdant quarter of the Chinese empire. Many can still be visited to this day, including Huiyuan Temple and Wuyi Palace on the banks of the Nine Bends River.

The history of tea cultivation doesn’t reach back quite as far as tea produced elsewhere in the region. Before the Song Dynasty the tea shrubs simply grew wild. But when an eminent Song tea expert discovered Wuyi’s unique terrior, with its warm, humid climate and fine volcanic soils fed by mineral-rich mountain streams, Wuyi Mountain soon began to develop as an area of tea cultivation producing varieties of what the Chinese call yan cha, or rock tea.   

It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty that Wuyi would have its heyday, however, when an imperial decree ordered that all tea should be loose leaf, crushing the cake tea industry elsewhere in the southeast. By the sixteenth century monks from Anhui developed a new tea cultivation technique by pan frying leaves in a dry wok. On the slopes of Wuyi this would produce the world’s first Oolong and black teas of which Da Hong Pao remains the most sought after to this day.

The Portuguese, who occupied neighbouring Taiwan for a period, introduced the West to tea in the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century the British had developed such a taste for the good leaf it too was drawn into the Chinese theatre. A period of war and semi-colonization would follow in imperial Britain’s wake, precipitating the eventual collapse of Qing China. Who could have imagined when they first brewed-up a batch of Da Hong Pao that the scent of this sumptuous brew would lure “barbarians” from afar to rattle the world’s most ancient civilization to the brink?

Wuyi Mountain Today

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Red China reunified the old empire, but only after reform in the 1980s was the People’s Republic opened to the outside world once more. The mountain range of Wuyi was made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and has been flourishing as a tourist spot ever since.

Nowadays, once you have your ticket in hand, the Wuyishan Scenic Area can be entered via the north or south gate from where you gain access to six specific scenic spots. For many the highlight is to ride a bamboo raft down the Nine Bends River to take in the stupendous gorges or hike up Heavenly Journey Peak to catch the sunrise.

The Da Hong Pao scenic area is less dense with tourists than some of the more geographically dramatic locales. But as its name suggests, this Arcadian valley of tea bushes framed by soaring danxia rock formations is where the region’s principle export is sown. It’s a great hike, especially when you remember that you’re navigating your way through a precious commodity. Choice cuts from the original bushes the emperor is said to have dressed in red robes can fetch their weight in gold! Indeed, Da Hong Pao is now the Wuyi economic mainstay. The many teahouses and shops than crowd the surrounding villages are all hawking the leaves that continue to satisfy China and the world’s appetite for a good old cup of cha.    

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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