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A Leaf’s Journey: From Anji to the World

Source:Farmers’ Daily Date:2023-01-05

Anji, a small county in northern Zhejiang Province, where China’s green development philosophy “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” originated, has been the good standard of ecological conservation. Recently, Anji put forward the vision for building itself into a beautiful, green and cosmopolitan county of high quality, which has set the tone for the next five years and beyond. “Cosmopolitan” at once became the buzzword in this small county.   

There is no coincidence. In fact, Anji has already shown itself on the global stage for several times. It is the first county in China to receive the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award, and one of the first “Best Tourism Villages” recognized by the UNWTO. Half of China’s exported chairs are produced in Anji. In 2020, “Anji Play”, an early childhood curriculum respecting the nature of children, has been selected by the World Economic Forum as one of the educational models that should be promoted for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

What is also on the global stage from Anji County is Anji White Tea (“Anji Bai Cha” in Chinese). In 2021, Anji White Tea was included in the first batch of protected GIs under the China-EU Agreement on Geographical Indications. On November 29, 2022, good news came from Rabat, Morocco that the “Traditional tea processing techniques and associated social practices in China”, including the techniques to make Anji White Tea, was successfully included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, adding the total number of world intangible cultural heritages in China to 43.  

So what kind of leaf is it? How is its legend crafted? 

Anji White Tea is Not “White”  

“How come it’s not white?”

In his first trip to China, Philippe Gougler, host of France 3 program “Land of Dreams—The Ancient Tea Horse Road”, found himself confused. 

Since there is the word “white” in the name of Anji White Tea, many people on first acquaintance with it may share the same misunderstanding that the tea is white in color. In fact, it is called “white” tea only because the leaves will undergo an irreversible whitening process for a few days every spring. At temperatures between 19°C and 23°C, the leaves turn white, with green veins, resembling the feathers of a phoenix. The leaves will re-green if the temperature exceeds such a range. When processed into tea, Anji White Tea takes on the shape of an orchid with a green color. Therefore, it is of green tea variety in nature.  

In Da Guan Cha Lun (“The Treatise on Tea”), a book written by Chinese Emperor Huizong of Song Dynasty, it said that “White tea is quite unique, different from regular tea. It has soft and easy-to-spread branches and thin and lustrous leaves. It was occasionally found growing in cliffs or forests. While processing white tea, one must take great care with every step. If properly processed, the tea cake will look as crystal clear as a beautiful jade, unmatched by any other tea variety.” 

In 1982, a single bush discovered at an altitude of over 1,000 meters on a mountain was believed to be the mother tree of Anji White Tea. Later until 2013, Anji White Tea was confirmed by the tea experts from China International Tea Culture Institute to be the “white tea” described in Da Guan Cha Lun that had been lost for a thousand years, which rocked the world of tea. 

To save this endangered variety, local researchers applied the techniques of cutting propagation and successfully bred the plant. Now, over 200,000 mu (around 13,320 hectares) of the tea trees are planted in Anji. With an annual output of 2,100 tons worth of 3.2 billion yuan and 60% of the county’s total agricultural production, the tea has enabled Anji’s 290,000 farmers to increase their incomes by 11,000 yuan on average, and helped accelerate the integration of primary, secondary and tertiary industries in the county.  

Pan Yuanqing is an inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage of Anji White Tea manual frying techniques. As he explained to journalists, the process of picking the leaves of Anji Rare White Tea is particularly delicate because fresh leaves must be handpicked, either “one-tip one-leaf” or “one-tip two-leaf”. Different duration of processing shall be applied to leaves picked from different tea gardens at different time. In addition, frying requires skillful application of the techniques to “grab, shake, pitch, hold, flatten, push, buckle, throw, grind, and press”, so that “the cake will look as crystal clear as a beautiful jade, unmatched by any other tea variety.” 

Clearly, there is a reason for this unique tea. According to Ye Haizhen, President of Anji White Tea Research Association, Anji is located in a dustpan-shaped basin encircled by Tianmu Mountain and Longwang Mountain. As air rises along the “mouth of the dustpan”, it becomes cold and forms frost. This results in a short frost-free season and a long winter with low temperatures. Generally, the absolute low temperatures in the mountains are below 10, and the relative humidity of the air is as high as 84%. Also, there is less direct blue-violet light. All these allow plants to produce and accumulate amino acids and other nitrogen compounds, and establish its own re-whitening process and the genetic characteristics of its metabolism. 

A Leaf for Common Prosperity  

The picturesque and vast ecological tea garden in Huangdu Village of Xilong Town is still shining with lustrous greenness under the warm winter sun 

On April 9, 2003, the then Secretary of the CPC Zhejiang Provincial Committee Xi Jinping inspected Huangdu Village during his first visit to Anji County. As the village was then well-known for getting prosperous by growing white tea, Xi praised that “a leaf created an industry and enriched local people”. Today, the village sells not just tea, but also its beautiful scenery. In 2021, the village received over 300,000 tourists, and its lucid waters and lush mountains are constantly turning into mountains of gold and silver. 

“When drinking the water of a well, one should never forget those who dug it; after becoming rich, people have never forgotten the kindness and love of the Party.” In April 2018, twenty Party members in the village wrote a letter to General Secretary Xi. They reported the developments of their white tea industry, and expressed their willingness to donate 15 million tea seedlings to poverty-stricken areas to help them shake off poverty. They also promised to help the recipient areas with tea planting and marketing. Xi replied to this letter and gave important instructions. 

From then on, the Party members and villagers of Huangdu Village kept the important instructions in mind and meticulously engaged in land selection and tea planting, processing and sales under the “White Leaf No. 1” project with great enthusiasm. They successively sent 579 people in 98 batches to Guzhang County of Hunan Province, Qingchuan County of Sichuan Province and Pu’an County, Yanhe County and Leishan County of Guizhou Province. Within just a few years, Huangdu Village has donated a total of 22.4 million tea seedlings to the five counties in three provinces, created a total planting area of 6,217 mu (around 414 hectares) and helped increase the local per capita income by over 2,000 yuan. 

Lifting people out of poverty and enriching them is not the end. Instead, the story of “a leaf for common prosperity” shall go on. In the next three years, Anji County will continue to donate no less than 30 million “White Leaf No. 1” tea seedlings, and expand the tea planting area in the recipient place to 10,000 mu (around 666 hectares), so that “the seedlings for prosperity” can benefit more people.  

When news came that the “Traditional tea processing techniques and associated social practices in China” was successfully included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Anji was ignited with joy and excitement. Representatives of tea farmers from the five counties in the three provinces receiving Anji White Tea seedlings also joined the celebrations. On December 9, together with Anji tea farmers, they took part in a series of tea art activities to celebrate this remarkable achievement in Xilong Town. On December 10, fifty thousand farmers cooked tea in the Green Square of the county and held the “Tea Drinking Day for All” event. 

Fragrance of White Tea from Anji to the World  

The Louvre in Paris, France, has a romantic encounter with Anji White Tea. Since November 2010, all distinguished visitors to the Louvre would be able to try Anji White Tea. This story can be dated back to October 2010 when Zhejiang Province organized its premium agri-businesses to attend the SIAL International Food Exhibition in Paris, and a tea company in Anji was within the delegation. Taking this opportunity, the company got in touch with the Louvre, and sent a sample of Anji White Tea to the contact person. After tasting it, a director of the Louvre was deeply impressed by its unrivaled fragrance and immediately decided to introduce Anji White Tea into the Louvre.  

Since then, Anji White Tea has embarked on its export journey. In 2018, eight tea farmers from Anji County visited Poznan, Poland’s third largest city, to participate in the International Trade Fair for Food. In order to fully demonstrate the premium quality of Anji White Tea, tea farmers played videos of white tea gardens and the process of tea harvesting and processing during the event. They also served the prepared Anji White Tea to tea merchants from around the world. At the end of the fair, tea merchants from 27 countries raced to sign sales contracts with Anji tea farmers, creating a new record of bulk tea export. After that, the sales of Anji White Tea has been increasing year after year.  

Jia Wei, head of Yumo Tea Farm, proudly said that the EU has one of the world’s highest safety standards. The annual bulk export of Anji White Tea to the EU is enough to show its superior quality. Wan Chuangen, head of Anji Maiqingye White Tea Co., Ltd., believes that the company is not only selling tea, but also making friends around the world. More importantly, it is spreading Chinese tea culture and getting the world fall in love with Chinese tea.  

Anji White Tea’s processing technique was officially included in the UNESCO Representative List as one of Zhejiang’s projects, which heralds an unprecedented opportunity in Liu Bin’s eyes. As the Director of the Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of Anji County, he said that the county would pursue quality and efficient development, spare no effort in realizing common prosperity, further integrate and promote tea culture, tea industry and tea technology as a whole, and tell the wonderful stories of Anji White Tea to the world through quality transformation, competitiveness improvement and sustainable development of the industry by adopting applicable technologies, introducing digital technologies, and relying on cultural resources and human resources. 

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