Black Tea: Origin & Production

An English trader in a tea hong in Guangzhou, 1820


30 years after the first commercial import of 143 pounds of tea, Britain setup her first tea buying office (known at that time as factory) in Canton (known now as Guangzhou) in 1699. That same year, John Ovington, Chaplain to King William III wrote of various tea selections available in England, “The first Sort is ‘Bohea’… Those in China that are sick, or are very careful of preserving their Health, if they are weak, confine themselves only to this Kind of tea…” (1). He then went on to described other teas, which were all green.

13 Factories in Guangzhou

The “13 Factories” in Guangzhou where trading nations set up their offices and the Chinese government kept a watchful eye on the foreigners’ movement. The location is opposite of present day Shamian district.
Far top: Tea Packing in Guangzhou, detail of an export painting circa 1820~40.
Notice how quality gives way to profit margin to have the tea stamped upon by foot in order to pack tightly for shipment. (Read more about handling and storage) In the foreground, a Westerner, very likely to be English, negotiate with a Chinese.

Interestingly, in China, Wuyi oolong was considered a safe tea for the weak and the elderly and was used to treat minor ailments (still did when I was very young) in Fujian and Guangdong. Wuyi was spelled as Bohea, which was a transliteration of the Amoy dialect for the same Chinese words as Wuyi. The Chinese name that the word “oolong” is translated from — wu-long — literally means “black dragon”; the tea which the West now refers to as black tea has always been called “red tea” in the Far East.

A few years prior to Ovington’s statement, a tea advocate and Buddhist monk by the name of Zhao Quan wrote in A Wuyi Tea Song, “Ships from the West come here (Amoy) every year to buy this tea… so Anxi tea is made to the look of Wuyi tea, roasted before it is baked. The two teas become virtually the same.” (2) This clearly indicates a tea produced through the oolong process. The black tea that the West imported in those days was Wuyi style oolong rather than the red tea (3) that was yet to invent. Anxi, even to this day, has rarely involved in red tea production. When red teas came about in the following century, were grouped as black teas by the West simply because of the similar dark colour like the oolong tealeaves of Wuyi.

a obscurred beginning

Comparing a traditional Wuyi oolong with a traditional Fujian red tea. Left: The tealeaves of Rougui, an oolong, is consistently black in colour because they are made from relatively grown leaves from cultivars of much older ancestry. Right: A Zhenghe Gongfu is made from the very young leaves and shoots of relatively newer cultivars to give sweeter, easier to appreciate taste than the traditional oolong. I suspect the involvement of lighter colour shoots is the origin of the use of the expression “Pekoe” in referring to whether a red tea is fine enough.

Bohea continued to be the “black tea” consumed by the West until mid 18th century, when names as Congou (aka Gongfu) and Souchong began to appear in shop menus and family accounts in London. These are names associated more with red teas. In 1732, the county governor of Chongon (that Wuyi was in) wrote in one of his published diaries (4), “By the end of the ninth bend (of the river, which is the river that runs through Wuyi) in the mountain, there is a village named Xing Cun (Star Village) where tea traders come together. Some are from out of county… as well as from Guangxin (5) in Jiangxi Province, carrying with them their productions, a tea that is black but with red infusion. They call it Jiangxi Wu. They sell their products to local wholesalers in private.” This is probably the first reliable mentioning of the existence of red tea. Xing Cun was a wholesale centre for tea merchants who trade with tea hongs, the export companies. It was likely that gongfu and souchong varieties were either various localized versions of this Jiangxi Wu or they were simultaneous innovations. It can be induced that red tea was probably invented sometime before 1732 in this or a neighbouring area.

• origin & production • health notes • tasting & Buying tips
1. Jane Pettigrew, A Social History of Tea. 2003, the National Fund
2. Zhou Quan was amongst the first population of migrant south Fujianese to introduce oolong production in the Wuyi area. 释超全《武夷茶歌》中有:“迩来武夷漳人制,紫白二毫粟粒芽, 西洋番舶岁来买,王钱不论凭官牙,溪茶遂仿岩茶样,先炒后焙不争差。”
3. In this writing, I’ll use the original name “red tea” to refer to the group of teas that are fully fermented and the term black tea as a label that people might have used to refer to all tealeaves that look black.
4. Liu Cheng, Pianke Yuxian Ji. 1732
5. Guangxin is an ancient administrative area that is where the present day Shangrao city is, immediately north of Wuyi across the provincial border.
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