Growing and harvesting precious leaves in northern Fujian province is a labor of love-and commands a premium price, Fan Zhen reports.
Yu Ning believes that handmade tea can store memories between people and nature.
"The different nuances in tastes actually record the changing weather, locations and even the tea makers' moods and manual methods."
This is the third year that Yu, an office worker in Beijing, has traveled from the capital to the countryside in northern Fujian province to help Ma Lilu's family pluck and process tea and sell their handmade products in the city.
Her colleagues sometimes joke that she could just have the tea mailed and look after the business in Beijing. There is no need to spend all of her annual holidays trekking in the field.
Being a tea seller is obviously not all Yu wants. "It's only a necessary link in the whole circle," she says.
Three years ago she was just a regular tea lover seeking a healthier lifestyle.
She knew tea's varieties, health benefits and had stacks of tea sets, but had only the faintest idea about the natural habitat and human efforts behind the scenes.
"Tea was more of a consumption concept for me," she says.
When she met Ma for the first time, she was surprised by his dilapidated home, because his daughter works for his brother, owner of a chain of tea shops at Maliandao, the biggest tea market in Beijing.
"I thought with their connections they should at least be well-off-because for the handmade tea of this quality, the retail prices can shoot to 5,000 yuan ($821) per kilogram in the city."
Ma's family has been growing tea for more than three generations. Because of their limited income, they haven't opted for mechanization yet and thus preserve the most traditional tea-making craft: from plucking and withering to rolling and heating, everything is done by hand.
Ma lives in one of China's biggest tea-production provinces where tea is a traditional business for most households. Each year tons of tea leaves are outsourced from this small piece of land that enjoys a warm climate, abundant rainfall and a hilly landscapes that provide rich yellow and red soil suitable for growing tea.
Sellers pay a premium for batches picked from older plants or, even better, from wild tea trees. But usually they only pay for the common batches at the end of the year.
This makes life difficult for the traditional tea farmers like Ma. As the booming tobacco industry makes its foray to rural areas, a lot of farmers are now growing tobacco instead for higher and more immediate profits.
The changes to the natural environment are obvious. The color of the soil has turned black, and discarded plastic mulch is not an uncommon sight.
Some farmers even secretly cut down the trees on the mountains to fuel the heaters used to dry the tobacco leaves following harvest.
"After a few visits, I've noticed the river in front of Ma's home has had a dramatic fall in its water level and the water is not clear anymore," Yu says.
To keep Ma's family in the tea business, Yu and Yu's cousin Xing Yiqi volunteer to help them pluck leaves every spring, promise them immediate payment and, most importantly, learn the craft from the family.
"We want to send the message that their craft is not only precious as a tradition but also has high economic value on the market," Xing says.
"We sold 140 kg of tea last year and brought 30 percent of the profits back to improve their farming facilities and living conditions," Xing says. "A virtuous circle based on trust-that's what we try to create, at least starting from this one family."
They say they do not deny the benefits of mechanization of the tea industry, but they just want to preserve this craft for people still curious about the stories behind food and encourage the artisans to pass it down.
"Traditions are never abstract. They are the daily things that we've been doing for generations. Like the root of the tree of culture, if it weakens, the tree won't be healthy enough to blossom and bear fruit. It will still survive but be just as fragile as those floating duckweeds," says one of her customers, He Tingzhen, a guqin (Chinese zither) teacher.
Yu's favorite tea is from a wild tea shrub opposite a waterfall more than 1,000 meters above sea level on the mountain.
Every time she brews it, she recalls the eye-catching clear stream, the breeze in early spring that stirred the green tea buds and brought along the fragrance of the neighboring flowers-and how later uncle Ma happily talked about their new house while rolling the leaves like a tai chi master.
"It's all in this one cup of tea."
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Yu Ning brews her favorite tea at home. The tea lover spends her holidays traveling from Beijing to the countryside in Fujian province to help a tea-growing family pluck and process tea and sell their handmade products in Beijing. Fan Zhen / China Daily
A tea grower in northern Fujian province picks tea leaves. The leaves harvested range from unopened buds to the top three leaves. Photos Provided to China Daily
The tea leaves are rolled and pressed to break the cell walls and to wring out the juices inside.
The final step in the production process is to "fire" or heat the leaves quickly to dry them and stop the oxidation process.
(China Daily 02/28/2014 page22)