All the Tea in China


Amoy Harbor,  1841

Amoy Harbor,

When sailing ships ruled the seas and Western merchants sailed to China for their tea, most of the tea China exported was shipped out of Amoy. In fact, the word “tea” originated in the Amoy (Hokkien) dialect.

I mention this because my late husband was born in Amoy and also because the action in my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, takes place there.

Xiamen_LageAmoy, which is now called Xiamen, is a major Chinese city with a population of over 3,500,000. You’ll find it along the southeast coast in Fujian Province, an area that is famous for its oolong tea.

Types of tea.

Teas differ from each other based on many things: where they’re grown, the way they’re picked, and the particular plant. But the main difference is how they’re processed. The three most well-known types of tea are black, oolong and green.

Black tea. Black tea goes through the most processing. After picking, the leaves are allowed to wither. Then they’re rolled and crushed and allowed to oxidize or ferment. When fermentation is complete, they’re dried in an oven.

Oolong tea. Oolong tea is semi-oxidized or fermented.

Green tea. Green tea is not fermented at all. The leaves are heated immediately after plucking. This prevents them from oxidizing.

Other types of tea: Pu’erh tea and white tea.

Oolong tea had its origins in Fujian Province.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when everyone else in China was still drinking green tea, someone in the region of Phoenix Mountain began producing a semi-fermented tea. It took a few hundred years, but eventually the emperor heard about the uniquely flavored tea, and chose it as a “tribute tea.” The downside of the designation was that the growers were required to send a continuous supply of their tea to the emperor as a tribute. The upside was that their tea became famous.

In those days (and sometimes even now), tea was compressed into a kind of tea cake. The tea sent to the emperor was compressed in a mold which imprinted a dragon and a phoenix on top of it. Later, when loose tea came into fashion, because of the long black leaves, they called it “black dragon tea,” which in the Amoy dialect sounded like “oolong tea.”

Popular varieties of oolong tea.

Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea

Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea

Ti GuanYin or Iron Goddess of Mercy is a very famous tea from the Anxi area of South Fujian.

Golden Cassia is a fragrant tea that is also from the Anxi area.

Da Hong Pao or Big Red Robe is a Wuyi Rock or Cliff tea from the mountains of Fujian. It’s a premium tea that has sold for up to US$35,436/ounce. Needless to say, you only serve Da Hong Pao at very special occasions.

Da Hong Pao bushes, by Zhangzhugang

Da Hong Pao bushes, by Zhangzhugang

The story of this expensive tea is interesting. According to legend, the mother of a Ming Dynasty emperor became deathly ill, but after drinking Da Hong Pao, she recovered. In gratitude, the emperor sent four large red robes to clothe the tea bushes where her tea originated. Three of those bushes still survive today on a rock on Mount Wuyi.

The Western style of steeping your oolong tea.

tea pot at Baicha Tea RoomNow let’s get practical. To make oolong tea, use 2 or 3 grams of leaf for 6 ounces of water. The water should be 180-200 degrees F. Steep the leaves for 3-5 minutes. You can make a second pot with the same leaves.

Health benefits of tea.

The health benefits of drinking tea are too numerous to list in this post, so here’s a link to one of many articles.

Origin of the phrase, “Not for all the tea in China.”

Amoy Harbor, 19th century

Amoy Harbor, 19th century

The phrase “not for all the tea in China” is thought to have originated in the late 19th century in Australia. One of the earliest citings was from the writings of J.J. Mann. Traveling to Australia, a country that at the time had laws that kept all non-whites from entering, Mr. Mann asked for permission to bring a black servant with him. The authorities would have none of it. They told him in no uncertain terms that they wouldn’t allow his servant to enter, “not for all the tea in China.”

What is your favorite tea? Do you put sugar and milk in your tea? Lemon? Do you prefer coffee? Or something stronger?

I like oolong tea, but I also drink a lot of green tea. Right now I have a packet of Coconut Pouchong tea on the counter. Unbelievably delicious!

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. I am a diehard coffee drinker but I can be passionate about it. I love Kona coffee from Hawaii but it’s best when drunk in Hawaii. I had wonderful coffee in both Greece and Brazil. In fact, I brought 10 kilos home from Brazil. Europeans make better coffee than Americans. Here I drink Starbucks. Obviously, I like my coffee strong but not bitter. Many people like it weak with way too much milk and sugar.

  2. Great photos and maps! Lots of great historical information on tea. I prefer extremes in tea depending on my activity and mood:TAOS Zen, Irish Breakfast and Constant Comment

  3. lew hayashi

    Wonderful story and very educational. Lew

    • Thanks, Lew. Another interesting fact: The pidgin that eventually developed into Bislama had ties to the pidgin the traders in Amoy spoke. The same sailing ships that picked up tea in Amoy also stopped in Vanuatu to pick up beche-de-mer (sea cucumbers).

  4. I loved reading your post, Nicki, as I sipped my Hibiscus tea. I’m a big tea drinker…love it all!

  5. Taiwanese LOVE their tea and all kinds of tea – black tea, green tea, bubble milk tea, etc. It seems that most of the other generation love to sit around and drink tea made from dried leaves. Even my husband and his friends from school drink tea during their annual game of majong during Chinese New Year (which feels a little strange to me because my husband never makes or drinks tea during the year, so this is a special occasion. Plus, they are in their 30’s – it is not really common for me to see young people their age drink tea.)

    As for me, I am a coffee drinker. Every morning, I make my husband and I a cup of coffee. It is our time to spend together before the start of the day and a time that has become a value part of our day.

    • I’m surprised to hear that the younger generation in Taiwan doesn’t drink much tea. When I visited Taiwan in the 1980s, I didn’t see any coffee shops. I guess times have changed.

      Spending time with your husband over cups of coffee sounds like a good way to start the day.

      • Nicki, I replied to your response a day or two ago but I am not sure if it actually went through.

        I am sorry, but I should have explained myself further. The older generation tend to enjoying making and drinking tea using dried tea leaves, teapots, and small tea cups. The younger generation tend to grab a tea at one of many drink shops around Taiwan (black tea and bubble milk tea tend to be the favorites). You don’t really see the younger generation drinking tea from the small cups like the older generation.

  6. I still start all my days with a nice cup of tea (dragonwell green). I’ve also gotten into a local herbal tea made from lotus petals – it’s extremely refreshing! My husband loves to drink both tea and coffee…he’s on an oolong kick, you’ll be glad to know!

  7. I don’t drink much tea. Exceptions:

    1. If I’m having Afternoon Tea (with scones!).
    2. Chinese tea at a Chinese restaurant.
    3. When I’m sick and can’t stomach coffee.

    As a kid, I loved Constant Comment. Now I prefer Lemon Ginger or English Breakfast Tea.

  8. Great information here, Nicki, about one of my favorite beverages. I used to be a coffee drinker until I was pregnant with our first child. My husband was brewing our morning coffee when the smell simply repulsed me. Since then I enjoy a cup of coffee mid morning or sometimes an espresso after a longer lunch. But this is tea all day long. My favorite is simply Earl Grey for morning and then a variety for the rest of the day, depending on my mood and how I feel physically. You’re right about the many benefits of tea. I love green tea but I find black tea more energizing. I also like the flavored tea (jasmine being one I especially like). I don’t consider myself a pro but definitley I am always ready for a new kind of tea and I think that it is a good time to be a tea lover, considering the countless shops that open everywhere. See you, Nicki.

  9. I really enjoy this post.
    I love tea, but most “teas” I drink are herbal teas which have nothing to do with actual tea leaves.
    I learned many interesting things in this article, Nicky. 😀

    By the way, I have a lot of pu’er tea at home but I have never never tried white tea. I’m super curious!

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  11. Garry puts cream in his tea. I put nothing in my tea. My first husband put sugar, but nothing else in it. He liked his coffee bitter and his tea sweet. I like my tea plain and my coffee sweet. I like a lot of different teas. It’s a mood thing 🙂 That was really interesting. Thank you!


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