Oriental Beauty: The search begins

One day, many years ago, when I was working in the wine business, a group of journalists from several south-east Asian countries visited the winery. The sole woman was a young reporter from Taiwan and we soon established that we both enjoyed tea. During lunch, she asked me if I liked Oriental Beauty. I’d never before heard of this tea and hesitated. That pause was filled with peals of laughter from the other guests followed by a very red blush from the young woman.

Since that time I have become very familiar with Oriental Beauty (the tea), or OB as tea insiders tend to call it, although, after being told in no uncertain terms by a dear Taiwanese friend that “oriental” is a pejorative, I call it Bai Hao (white tip.) In fact, this tea goes by many names in addition to Oriental Beauty and Bai Hao: Dong Fang Mei Ren (Mandarin for Oriental Beauty), Peng Feng Cha (Braggart’s Tea), Wu Si Cha (Five Color Tea) and sometimes, but rarely, as Pekoe Cha. In the years since first learning of it, I have remained intrigued both as to the origins of these names and when, where and how the tea itself originated.  Considerable research has left me to conclude that it is, to quote Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Bug-bitten or twice smitten?

Qing Xin Da Pan

Oriental Beauty is an oolong tea; but a special kind of oolong. It is what is often called a “bug-bitten” tea. And it is one of the few high quality teas that come from the summer harvest (second flush Darjeeling – also reputedly bug-bitten – is another.) The best Bai Hao is produced using leaves from the Qing Xin Da Pan cultivar that is grown at relatively low altitudes. And although there are bug-bitten oolong teas made in other countries that have been given the name Oriental Beauty, all authentic Bai Hao oolong hails from Taiwan.

In Taiwan, the “bug” in question is known as Jacobiasca formosana or, more prosaically, the green leafhopper. This leafhopper attacks the tender stems of unopened buds on the tea plant which causes the plant to mount a defense by producing a suite of volatile chemicals that either repel the leafhopper directly or attract leafhopper predators to the area (we don’t know which for certain.) It is this suite of chemicals that produces the wonderful honey and muscatel aromas so characteristic of Oriental Beauty (see Eric Scott’s blog “Oriental Beauty and Other Bug-Bitten Teas: Fact or Fiction” in World of Tea https://worldoftea.org/oriental-beauty-bug-bitten-teas/.)

The bug attacks also cause the buds above the stem to desicate and thus retain their “furry” white tips. And that, pretty clearly, is the origin of the descriptive name Bai Hao. (A buying hint: some unscrupulous growers and dealers cull a quantity of buds from the summer harvest and add them to later harvests in order to claim the tea is Bai Hao and thus charge higher prices. To ensure the real thing, always check to see that the buds are attached to the leaf set.)

After harvesting and outdoor withering, the leaves are bruised by tumbling or shaking and allowed to oxidize to about 60%. The tea is then fixed and the leaves are covered and allowed to soften before they are twist rolled, dried, and often, given a light roast.

A rose by any other name…

But when was this tea first made and what about the names? There are several hoary legends that purport to be the true story of Oriental Beauty but we’ll begin by taking a couple of steps back before trying to move forward.

John Dodd

The first great leap in tea production in Taiwan (then called Formosa) occurred in the early to mid-1860’s and was spearheaded by a Scot named John Dodd. He developed a strong market for Formosa oolong in the United States, which for decades remained the major importer of Formosa tea (see: James Davidson, The Island of Formosa, Past and Present 1903.) As Davidson describes Formosa Oolong (and Baozhong) he makes no mention of anything resembling what we call Oriental Beauty.

A second major development in Taiwanese tea happened during the Japanese colonial period (1895 – 1945.) The Japanese established the research centers that have since become TRES (Tea Research and Extension Station) and were keen to show to the world their modernization of the island. They introduced black tea manufacture to Formosa and encouraged its production and export. Nonetheless, according to William Ukers (All About Tea, 1935,) oolong was the most extensively cultivated “variety” in Formosa, representing some 40% of the total. Ukers goes on to describe in great detail the methods of oolong manufacture but, like Davidson, describes nothing that we would recognize as Oriental Beauty.

At this time, it would seem, Formosa Oolong was produced much in the manner of Wuyi teas albeit with somewhat lower oxidation and roasting. As Chen Kung-Lin (private correspondence) claims that the rolled ball method was not introduced to Taiwan until 1939 by Wang Tai-You and Wang De this appears to be a reasonable assumption. In any event, there is no indication of the complicated processing techniques involved in making Oriental Beauty.

Peng Feng Cha discovered?

Outdoor withering Bai Hao

Bruce Tan, in 膨風茶的地理學 (The Geography of Peng Feng Tea, 2009) claims that the tea was in fact created in 1932 by a Beipu tea manufacturer named Zhang Juei-Cheng. According to MarshalN’s research, (“The Original Oriental Beauty” in the blog “A Tea Addict’s Journal” http://www.marshaln.com/2014/04/the-original-oriental-beauty/ ) Peng Feng tea is first mentioned in Formosa tea documents (written in Japanese) in 1933. He suggests that some unnamed tea farmer might be responsible for the tea which had commanded a very steep price following a local competition (hence, perhaps, the name Braggart’s tea.) In either event, the tea was exhibited at the 1935 Taipei International Exposition held by the Japanese colonial government to showcase Taiwan’s successes under Japanese rule.

So we’ve now a better idea of the approximate dates for the origin of Oriental Beauty tea and the provenance of the Peng Feng name. The tale of the farmer taking his ruined crop to the city and selling it for a high price to a foreign buyer, I might add, is almost certainly just that; a tall tale.

Maybe it’s Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury (uncredited internet image)

But how did the tea come to be known as Oriental Beauty? Too frequently one reads about a Queen of England (sometimes Victoria, sometimes Elizabeth II, even though these two reigned in different centuries – and the tea didn’t even exist during Victoria’s time.) referring to the tea as a true “oriental beauty.” The name is said to have stuck and then been translated back into Mandarin as “Dong Fang Mei Ren.” Myths and after the fact legends!

Peng Feng tea continued to be produced, almost certainly in small quantities, well into the Marshall Law period (1949 – 1987) and it continued to be called Peng Feng tea. But with the reemergence of China and the subsequent collapse of the export trade for Taiwan’s teas, traditional tea seemed imperiled. The 1970’s and 1980’s saw a tremendous shift in Taiwan’s tea production and market approach. During this period tea producers turned to developing and satisfying the domestic market and high mountain teas were planted in increasing numbers. A “traditional” tea like Peng Feng risked being lost and, according to Scott Writer (private correspondence,) it was probably revived at the suggestion of the TRES (then known as the Tea Manufacture Experiment Station.)

Bruce Tan has suggested that the name “Oriental Beauty” was invented in 1983 during a visit by the Premier of the ROC (Taiwan is still officially the Republic of China) to the town of Emei although Writer notes a reference to this name in 1956. Nonetheless, the name “Oriental Beauty” was not widely used before 1983 and didn’t become popular until the 1990’s. That would explain why I hadn’t heard of Oriental Beauty when asked by the visiting journalist.

Thththththththat’s all folks!

Image by Warner Bros.

And that, I’m afraid, is about as clear as I can make this story. What is plain, however, is that most of the naming legends seem to have sprung up after the fact as “invented traditions.” Anything to promote sales, I suppose.

 

That’s my take. What’s do you think?

I wish to extend special thanks to Scott Writer, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Monash University in Melbourne Australia, without whose help this blog could not have been written. A sincere thanks too, to Eric Scott, a Ph.D. student in biology at Tufts University for his thoughtful comments and corrections to an earlier draft of this blog. As always, remaining errors are mine alone.

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