Textiles and Tea

I woke up early Friday morning to visit my friend the tea arts professor. She had some other instructors she wanted to introduce me to. But, with everybody being busy, our meeting would be limited to 30 minutes.

While this wouldn’t be enough to talk about much, it would at least be a good introduction, and I might get to meet up with them again later. When Fulbright told us that research in China requires a lot of connections and playing guanxi cards, I didn’t realize the extent to which this is necessary. I’m very fortunate to have made so many friends through traditional arts.

We arrived at the offices at 9:20, and water was already boiling. Two other middle-aged ladies were chatting. One was an office assistant, the other was a tea merchant. After introductions, I found out that the tea merchant primarily sold white tea, which I had been curious about anyways.

Upon deeper inquiry, I decided that this would be one main focus during my stay in Fuzhou. White tea seems to be a primary example of shifting tea cultures in the region. To be clear, this is all from hearsay—I’ll need to do more research before being sure. Despite having gone unnoticed for most of Chinese history, there were a few policies enacted in 2013 that aimed to boost white tea production while also regulating the use of pesticides in growing white tea. This has led to a boom in white tea production and sales, with people collecting white tea cakes in a fashion similar to puer cake collection (although it’s nowhere near that expensive… yet).

And now, white tea is being touted as this healthy, anti-inflammatory, all-natural tea, with some recent data showing that white tea production and consumption in China has steadily grown over the past five years, likely as a result of the new policies.

But while these agricultural policies create more supply, they don’t create demand. The demand is being generated through marketing white tea as healthier, and now through tying it to the greater realm of Chinese tea culture. As one of the professors mentioned, this is difficult to do because although “white tea” as a term is in pre-modern texts, it doesn’t actually refer to the white tea we consume today.

But nonetheless, the industry seems to be fairing rather well from the health-oriented marketing alone. Fuding, where a lot of white tea is produced, is near Mt. Taimu, a major tourist attraction and scenic park—which is nice because the foot-traffic alone is enough to sell tea. I wonder if the pairing of tourist destinations and tea production is a conscious decision on part of local (or perhaps national) policy-makers. It certainly helped sell tea and promote an aesthetic of literati-in-nature-drinking-tea in the Ming, and it’s fun to see how this is being reimagined in the present day.

Okay. Enough about white tea, for now at least.

The meeting ended up lasting eight hours rather than 30 minutes. We drank a few rounds of tea, had lunch, and then went to a textiles workshop to drink more tea. Over the course of eight hours, I was treated to a wonderful assortment of rougui, shuixian, and white peony—all Fujian specialties. I also got to meet artisans working to create tea-based dyes for textiles (this is another side of tea as a commodity that I haven’t begun to dig into).

After a long day and plenty of new friends, I went back to campus…

Only to meet another new friend.

Huang Yu is a doctoral candidate writing his dissertation on ink stones. Could this get any nerdier? Perhaps not. He’s also a wonderful calligrapher. And he speaks Cantonese. We connected really well, and after gifting me a box of chrysanthemum tea, he invited me to come join him in calligraphy lessons some time.

At this rate, I’ve met so many people (both young and old) in traditional arts that I don’t know if I’ll have enough time in my life to learn from them. But at the very least, I’m glad I know them and can pay them visits in the future—they’re all doing some very cool things.

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