May 19, 2010

China's Famous Teas Top 10 - money and power?

There are various versions of Chinese Famous Teas Top 10. The most "official" version was from the Agriculture Department of China in 1959. In this version, the Ten Famous Teas are:

1. Xi Hu (West Lake) Long Jing (Dragonwell) 西湖龍井
2. Bi Luo Chun (Green Spiral Spring) from Dong Ting Mountain 洞庭碧螺春
3. Huang Shan Mao Feng 黃山毛峰
4. Lu Shan Yun Wu (Lu Shan Cloud) 廬山雲霧
5. Liu An Gua Pian (Melon Seeds) 六安瓜片
6. Jun Shan Yin Zhen (Jun Shan Silver Needle) 君山銀針
7. Xin Yang Mao Jian 信陽毛尖
8. Wu Yi Yan Cha 武夷岩茶
9. Tie Guan Yin 鐵觀音
10. Qi Men (Keemun) Red Tea 祁門紅茶

In some other versions, Du Yun Mao Jian (都勻毛尖) replaces Xin Yang Mao Jian. As great as Du Yun Mao Jian, it's understandable why Xin Yang Mao Jian was selected into the list in 1959. Xin Yang Mao Jian was one of the first group of teas that won international award in 1915 Panama World Expo. Besides, Xin Yang is in He Nan province. Located in central China, the national influence of Xin Yang Mao Jian was greater than Du Yun Mao Jian in history.

In some versions, there is Bai Hao Yin Zhen (白毫銀針), which is quite understandable. The official version lacks a representative of white tea.

In some versions, there is Tai Ping Hou Kui (太平猴魁), which is quite understandable. Whether or not listed in the top 10, Tai Ping Hou Kui is one of the most prestigious and expensive teas in China. However, there are more than 30 provinces in China and there are too many great teas in An Hui province only. With Huang Shan Mao Feng and Keemun Red Tea (both are from An Hui ) in the list, the official version had to exclude Tai Ping Hou Kui.

Puerh was not nationally popular in China until recent decades. But once the value of puerh is widely recognized, many puerh fans protest that puerh was not included in the Top 10. Actually in 1959, most people didn't know much about puerh yet. But nowadays, puerh is included in some versions of the Top 10.

Some versions include Dong Ding Oolong of Taiwan.

In all previous versions of Top 10 I've seen, there are always Xi Hu Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun and Huang Shan Mao Feng. Generally speaking, these, in my opinion, are the most popular teas of China in the past 100 years (considering green tea has been the main stream in tea drinking of China, in spite of the rise of oolong in recent decades). If a Top 10 list doesn't include these three teas, then I personally think the list doesn't have reference value.

Now comes the 2010 World Expo famous teas official Top 10 list, which is the strangest Top 10 list I've ever seen. Here is the list:
1. An Xi Tie Guan Yin
2. Du Yun Mao Jian
3. Hu Nan Hei Cha (Hu Nan Black Tea, "Black Tea" is the Chinese sense of post-fermented tea, not the "Black Tea" in western sense)
4. Xi Hu Long Jing
5. Wu Yi Yan Cha
6. Run Si Keemun Red Tea (What is "Run Si"? I had to google to learn that it's a company name.)
7. Yi Xiao Tang Liu An Gua Pian (What is "Yi Xiao Tang"? Again, I had to google to learn that it's a company name!)
8. Tian Mu Lake White Tea (This is a green tea, from the same cultivar as the famous An Ji White Tea. This Tian Mu Lake White Tea is by far not as famous as An Ji White Tea.)
9. Zhang Yi Yuan Jasmine Green Tea ("Zhang Yi Yuan" is a company name too. But to be fair, this company is very much different from above-mentioned companies. This one has 110 years of history.)
10. Fujian Fu Ding White Tea (It is Bai Hao Yin Zhen. The official name specifies it's Bai Hao Yin Zhen from Fu Ding county, not from Zheng He county.)

I am totally shocked, not because two of the "favorite 3" in my mind were excluded from the list. I think it's actually all right if the rest of the list were fair. Xi Hu Long Jing is still in the list. I guess, if it were not there, all Chinese, even non-tea-drinkers, would think the list were a joke.

What shocked me the most is Tian Mu Lake White Tea. I am sure it's a great tea, but in terms of popularity, I wonder if it could possibly enter "top 200" China famous teas. The tea is introduced from An Ji, home of An Ji White Tea. But Tian Mu Lake White Tea is not comparable to An Ji White Tea in terms of quality, popularity, production, history... actually not in any aspect. Yet An Ji White Tea was excluded from the "Top 10". An Ji White Tea being excluded is not a big problem. After all, there are so many famous green teas in China. However, it seems to me a huge problem that Tian Mu Lake White Tea is listed as "Top 10". No that it's not a good tea, but how exactly did it get there? Some tea professional says that the top manufacturers of Tian Mu Lake White Tea paid $$$$$$ to get in. I don't know the source of the information, but I am sure it takes something, money or something else, for it to be listed in the "Top 10".

What shocked me the second hardest is that of the ten famous teas, three of them are named with manufacturing companies (number 6, 7 and 9). Keemun, Melon Seeds and Jasmine Green Tea are all historically great, no matter who the manufacturers are. Historically (such as in 1915 Panama World Expo in San Francisco) it happened that tea products of certain manufacturers were given international awards. But all of them are examples when the manufacturers were The Master level manufacturers regionally. It also happened that tea products with company names were included in tea encyclopedia books. But all of them are examples when the companies designed or invented those tea varieties. The three teas in the current "Top 10" list are none of such cases. Zhang Yi Yuan Tea House of Beijing does have a respectable 110 years of history. In spite of that, the jasmine green tea produced by Zhang Yi Yuan is not an invention of this company. The other two companies don't even have a impressive history, and in my eyes it's very odd to have their names in front of two most famous teas of China. When reporting about the "Top 10" teas, many media removed the names of the two companies, which, I guess, means that I am not the only one frustrated by the names.

Previously I've seen companies are included in events of famous tea selection, which didn't surprise me as much. After all, it's easy to figure out who paid for those events. But this "official" list did shock me! My initial, intuitive response to this "Top 10" list is, How dare you! But then, I thought, should I be shocked at all? After all, today is not 1915. Nowadays, World Expo is a commercial event. Isn't it the most normal that money talks?

Besides the big shocks, here are a few smaller surprises of mine.

1. Hu Nan Hei Cha, I had never thought this would be one of the "Top 10". It's said that the committee (I don't know who they are, how many people are there and how they made the selection) was determined to be "politically correct" and would include at least one tea from the "Six Varieties" (green, white, yellow, red, oolong and black). So here Hu Nan Hei Cha is the representative of Black Tea. Many people thought puerh would be the representative. But it's a fact that not all the people agree that puerh is a Black Tea. More important, people simply don't agree on the answer of the basic question "What Puerh Is". Probably such ambiguity cost Puerh its place in the "Top 10". Also I guess (which may not be true), because Puerh is already hot and Yunnan province is already making big money from puerh, probably Hu Nan province has stronger incentive of lobbying around to get their tea into the "Top  10".

2. Lobbying power of local government cannot be ignored. It surprises me that 3 Fujian teas are in the "Top 10". It surprises me only a little, because it's indisputable that the best white tea of China is from Fujian, and the other 2 Fujian teas are famous Tie Guan Yin and Wuyi. Therefore it is understandable that 3 Fujian teas are in the "Top 10". However, considering how many great teas there are in provinces such as Zhejiang, An Hui and Jiang Xi (which got none of its great teas in the "Top 10", not even the wonderful Lu Shan Cloud), I can imagine how hard Fujian province would have to work in order to get 3 teas into the "Top 10". In fact, in the past 10-15 years, Fujian province has made great efforts (including government funded advertisement on national TV, special tea tax policies and political lobbying) to promote their teas, first Tie Guan Yin, then Wu Yi Yan Cha, and in recent year or so, Fu Ding White Tea. It may seem somewhat unfair that 3 teas from the same province enter the "Top 10" list. But I guess we can't blame a local government for doing all they can to promote their teas.

3. It surprises me a little that a jasmine green tea is included in the "Top 10". I personally love jasmine green tea, but I also think one can easily find dozens of other teas more suitable to the "Top 10" list. Again, power of the company, and probably the "political correct" factor also partially caused the committee to select a representative of flower scented tea. A positive light I can see from this, however, is that it may help promote jasmine green tea generally. It's not an uncommon thought that jasmine green tea is usually made with inferior tea leaves, which I strongly disagree. I believe, any tea can be made with inferior tea leaves, or great tea leaves. We can't blame a whole tea category just because of some bad products.


Alex Zorach said...

I'm not a big fan of top-10 lists like this because I think they have the feature of making already well-known teas more well-known, while many excellent but less well-known teas remain unknown to the vast majority of people.

For example, I think Tie Guan Yin tends to get all the attention, whereas the other Anxi oolongs are basically ignored, and I think this is a shame.

As another example, as much as I love Darjeeling tea, teas from Jalpaiguri, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Nepal get overshadowed by teas from nearby Darjeeling and Assam.

One thing I want to do with is to draw attention to the lesser-known styles of tea (and also tea-producing regions).

Of course, I'm being a bit hypocritical with all these comments though because I just added a top-10 highest-rated and most often-rated teas list to honestly I'm just caving in to pressure (a lot of people have told me it's imperative to list that sort of stuff, after all it is a rating website).

I think it would also be good if people just made up their own top 10 lists. Have you considered making your own top 10 Chinese tea list?

Gingko said...

Hi Alex, your comment made me think what's the use of the "top 10" list. I think the most famous teas have been famous for various reasons. And the "top 10" is a historical record on tea preferences of the public in an era. The old "top 10" list has been cited by many tea articles and tea books. In the future, if the new "top 10" list is cited by books or articles, I hope authors can add a footnote "it's a controversial list". In traditional society, a tea could only get famous with its quality (and also some teas of high quality didn't even get famous). Therefore, historical records of "famous teas" were quite reliable. But I am afraid in the future, people will have to realize things called "famous" in our era are not necessarily outstanding.

Besides, practically getting into "top 10" helps a tea gain market share, because of the advertisement effect. Since it's an official list, I thought it should have been more fair.

I guess if I make my own top 10 list, it won't mean much to other people. But it will be nice if many people vote for a list. I think it's a good idea to have a top 10 list on Sometimes people's votes tell the most truth, at least reflect people's real preferences.

Alex Zorach said...

This post of yours has inspired a post on my blogs. Thanks as always for stirring up thought and the production of ideas:

Ten of China's Underappreciated Teas

The Wikipedia article that I link to from my blog post really gets at the issue you are talking about here, the way these lists are controversial.

Honestly, if you made a top 10 list I would be very interested to read it personally...just as I'd be interested in reading the list of anyone who knows anything about tea and has sampled some variety of tea.


flo said...

this list apparently is not meant to convey appreciation, it is to be understood on another register, the "corporate" one. I see it merely as institutional communication.
Also a commercial/prestige endorsement (listed "top 10" = "bankable").

Gingko said...

Hi Alex, that's a good topic! Now after reading your blog, I am inspired to think about what's the top 10 under-appreciated in my mind :D

Flo, what made me feel very bad is, this is supposed to be a showcase of tea culture (it will be put in the China hall of World Expo), at least it was in the past. But not anymore!

tea lover M. said...

What shocked you the most is Tian Mu Lake White Tea in the list? Do you really know about Liyang and its tea? If you are not familiar with Tian Mu Lake White Tea at all, how dare you be sure that it takes money for it to be listed in the "Top 10"? Do the professionals make the list just according to their popularity? Of course not! It is true that Tian Mu Lake tea was introduced from An Ji, but after so many years of research and development, how do you know it is not better than or at least as good as An Ji White Tea? Have you ever heard of Tea Festival of Liyang? I bet not...Do you know about the good reputation of Liyang tea? Sincere advice for you: please do read more information about Liyang and its tea industry and do not pretend to be professional about tea or make fun of yourself out there any more!

Gingko said...

Hi tea lover M, I didn't say Tian Mu Lake White Tea is not good (as I said in the article "I am sure it's a great tea"), but I am just shocked it's listed in the "Top 10" while An Ji Bai Cha is not, because I personally believe Tian Mu Lake Wite Tea is not comparable to An Ji White Tea in terms of quality. And it's not my personal believe, but a fact that the two are not comparable in terms of popularity, production and history.

I didn't say I was sure it took money for it to get there. It takes either money or something else - this something else could be historical popularity, quality, political power, or something else - isn't it true for all the teas?

The good reputation I know about Tian Mu Lake White Tea is, it has been selected as a tea used for the central government events - this is one of the best advertisement for the tea, and the selection procedure of it is unknown to most tea professionals that I know. Compared with the mythical government endorsement, what impressed me more is the eco-agriculture and tea-agricultural-tourism efforts made in Tian Mu Lake White Tea plantations.

Let me repeat, Tian Mu Lake White Tea is a great tea. I am shocked it's in "Top 10". It's ok that we don't agree with each other. But as we can see, we do agree on something at least. :D