From the 16 – 22 November 2014 I attended the 8th Cross Straits Tea Expo (‘Cross Straits’ refers to the inclusion of both mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) and Taiwan (the Republic of China)). The Tea Expo was held in Wuyishan (武夷山) in Fujian Province (福建省) from 16 – 18 November. The remainder of the time was spent in nearby Baitashan (白塔山).
This was my first time to attend such an expo and it was quite an experience. There were more than 1,200 booths in the exhibition centre, ranging from tea factories displaying their wares to booths focusing on tea-related paraphernalia. There were a number of stages devoted to various cultural performances. Over 100 tea and tea-related enterprises from Taiwan were in attendance. Apparently over US $5 billion worth of trade deals were signed. An estimated 130,000 people attended the expo.
For me this was a valuable opportunity to see firsthand the commercial scale of China’s tea culture revival. It was also a perfect chance to understand the teas and tea culture of Fujian, one of China’s most important centres of tea production. This was my first ever visit to Fujian with tea and tea culture as the primary objective. Many thanks to Mr Li Haibing (李海兵) for organising the invitation and taking the time to introduce me to various scholars and tea entrepreneurs as well as giving me a personal guided tour of the historic village of Xiamei (下梅), which also happens to be Mr Li’s home town. I also met a number of tea industry journalists and writers, not to mention many tea entrepreneurs from all over China. A perfect venue for networking. Special thanks to my new acquaintance Mr Warren Peltier (夏云峰). Warren is a specialist in Fujian teas and has written a very valuable book on Chinese tea culture that includes translations of primary resource material from throughout Chinese history. You can see a synopsis of the book and reviews on Amazon here.
Wuyishan is a UNESCO World Heritage site noted for its unique biodiversity and important tangible and intangible culture. Wuyishan, and neighbouring Baitashan, were important centres for the emergence and development of Neo-Confucianism (宋明理学). Neo-Confucianism emerged in the region in the 11th Century and was partly a reaction to the rise and spread of Buddhism. Neo-Confucianism spread from Fujian to the rest of China and its philosophical debates were also influential in many neighbouring countries including Japan.
Wuyishan is, of course, also famous for its tea. In fact in China it is most likely ‘tea’ that people think of when they hear ‘Wuyishan’ mentioned. The region is famous for its red tea, but more so for its ‘rock tea’ (岩茶). ‘Rock tea’ refers a particular type of tea and tea production process. Wuyishan is indeed very rocky and some of the tea does literally grow in rocky crevices, but most of it grows on the small basins and terraced hillsides, many of which are dominated by towering rocky outcrops. The most famous types of ‘rock tea’ are known as the ‘four famous bushes’ (四大名枞), which includes Big Red Robe (大红袍), Iron Arhat (铁罗汉), White Cockscomb (白鸡冠), and Golden Turtle (水金龟). From my brief stay in Wuyishan I discovered that different people had some different variations of these four teas.
The tea from this region has also been exported to foreign countries for many centuries. Most famously the tea found its way across the Asian land-bridge to Russia. This trading route – following a trend in the ‘discovery’ and ‘naming’ of such tea-based trading routes that I have been researching for several years – is now known as the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ (万里茶道). Local authorities in China are keen to develop such routes as a way of increasing their ‘brand recognition’ in terms of local products but especially for cultural tourism. At the highest level of government in China, President Xi Jinping has developed a specific platform of foreign policy that uses the famous ‘Silk Road’ (including the ‘Maritime Silk Road’, but unfortunately – and to the great frustration of my colleagues in Yunnan – not the ‘Southern Silk Road’). In a recent trip to Russia President Xi also mentioned the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ (indeed President Xi has made numerous references to tea and tea culture in his official speeches during visits to foreign countries, something I will write about in more detail on another occasion).
As part of the tea expo a special ‘Chinese, Mongolian and Russian Mayoral Summit’ was convened to celebrate the tea road and discuss how it can be leveraged for trade, culture and diplomatic exchanges. Mr Li Haibing made arrangements for me to attend as an observer. There were quite a few Chinese representatives from the major cities along which the tea route traveled (it should also be acknowledged that some of the tea also was transported via the maritime trade routes through Southeast Asia and India), several from Mongolia, and a few from Russian cities that I never knew existed. There is an official government website in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian, but no English. After a search on the Internet I found virtually nothing on this in English. This is one of those instances where ‘English’ doesn’t have much cache, a sign of things to come perhaps?
Apparently the ’10,000 Mile Tea Road’ has been submitted for World Heritage status, just as in the case for the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ of Southwest China. China’s fascination for ‘World Heritage’ status, especially in terms of the relatively new category of ‘cultural routes’ continues. I’ll be watching developments with much interest.
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