The rain came down suddenly and in torrents – a stray cloud escaped from the mist that surrounds Emei Mountain and interrupted Jia Yue Jun as she weaved down the backside of this ancient mountain, one of the four great Buddhist mountains in China. Ms. Jia had been inspecting her organic crop of green teas – rows upon rows march down the side of the mountain and reappear on a peak across the valley. She slides back up the side toward the dirt road, in stockings, protecting her hair with a scarf.
Ms. Jia grows a green tea called Zhu Ye Qing (Bamboo Leaf Green) – a name given by a traveling nobleman to the succulent sweet tea brewed by Buddhist monks on this mountain for centuries. As she passes down the mountain, farmers collect soil for resale as far away as California – seems even the dirt off Emei Mountain is valuable and in demand.
A few hours north, Yang Tian Zhong is sipping the rare and subtle Huang Ya (Yellow Bud) – a tribute tea to Emperors for 2,000 years before the chaotic events of the 20th century reduced Huang Ya and its birthplace, Meng Ding Mountain, to naught but whispers between poet-farmers. Mr. Yang, a poet-farmer in his own right, spent the last three decades reviving the ancient process by which tender green tea buds are slightly fermented, creating a tea as pure and healthy as a green, but with more body and a yellowish tint.
His efforts are now enshrined in law (as GB-18665), the standard by which Meng Ding teas in general and specifically Huang Ya must be grown and processed.
To tea lovers across the globe, Zhu Ye Qing and Huang Ya may be familiar names, but their birthplaces in the Tibetan foothills of western Sichuan, places like Emei, Meng Ding and Qing Cheng Mountains, remain shrouded in fog. These three peaks are shining points in a mountain range that rises up to the Tibetan Plateau in the west and down to the Yangtze River Basin to the east – a range covered with tea bushes, crawling with tea farmers and dotted with Buddhist and Taoist monasteries where the teas found their first welcoming consumer.
For years, these teas have drawn Chinese from across the nation, some spending the equivalent of $2,000 for a mere 25 grams of Mr. Yang’s tea and similar amounts for Ms. Jia’s organic Zhu Ye Qing. Eastern traders from Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai make yearly pilgrimages to Sichuan in March and buy trainloads of green tea to ship back to the coast, where they are re-packaged and sold across the globe. Only now have the poet-farmers of Sichuan begun to make their own tentative ventures and introduce their rich tea culture to the world beyond.
For not only does Sichuan grow some of the best green tea in the world, the Sichuanese have developed their own special tea ceremony, incorporating dance and Wu Shu as well as their own tea pot designs. Yixing clay teapots are from Sichuan. The first Empress of China, Wu of the Tang dynasty was from Sichuan and re-enforced the tribute system there – ensuring a steady supply of teas and medicines.
“Although a lot of people even in China do not know it, tea originated here in Sichuan,” explains Mr. Yang. “Our problem is we are not as good at business as the East (coast Chinese) and foreigners.
Unlike household names like West Lake Dragon Well and Fujian Tie Guanyin, Sichuan teas and tea culture are still land-locked, finding very few avenues for expression even within China. For local tea lovers, this situation suits them just fine.
“I have been drinking my tea here for years and I will continue to do so till I die,” says Lao Yang, sitting in his favorite teahouse in Kuan Xiangzi, one of the oldest streets in Chengdu. “Lao Sun and I compose poems and chat the day away – being old I am entitled to enjoy myself!”
There are countless tea houses in the city of Chengdu, ranging from the hole-in-the-wall locations with leathery looking Sichuanese still in their blue Mao-era uniforms to spacious, meticulously decorated tea mansions catering to businessmen and officials.
Every afternoon from noon until three virtually the entire city retreats to a favorite spot to sip tea. Sichuanese mix work and pleasure: locals gamble, discuss the newest real estate deals, sign contracts, get their ears cleaned and chomp on sunflower seeds — all to the steady drip of hot water into a teacup. Teahouses stage Sichuan opera plays, singing competitions and stand-up comedians for the very young and very old and provide a leisurely escape from the office for the middle-aged twenty and thirty-something crowd.
“My apprentice is in Singapore now performing the Sichuan tea ceremony and promoting our teas,” said Mr. Yang. “The Singaporeans need to relax more, so they are very receptive to our tea culture.”
Recent efforts by the local governments of both Mingshan Prefecture, where Meng Ding Mountain is located and Emei Town have resulted in increased visibility (and sales) for the two great green tea producers. In Chengdu, a franchise teashop called Zhu Ye Qing opened recently and already as more than 35 locations in the metro area. You can get Emei teas at any of these shops. For Meng Ding teas, the shops are fewer and far between, but the tea market in the North of Chengdu is a good place to start.