The Conundrum

When addressing the question “Why are some Taiwan teas rolled in strip form and others in a ball shape?” the standard response has been that this is a function of migration patterns. If tea farming immigrants from Fujian came from Minbei (North of the Min River) teas were finished like those in Wuyi – strip form. If, on the other hand the immigrants came from Minnan (South of the Min River) they finished their teas in a ball form like the contemporary teas of Anxi.  Although this answer is neat and simple it has never sat well with me; something just didn’t seem right. It was too neat and simple. My recent research on the Taiwanese tea industry suggests that those instincts are correct.


During the Qing Dynasty, Taiwan was, administratively, a part of Fujian Province. But this status was more in theory than in fact for Taiwan remained a frontier area that was exceedingly difficult to control.[1] Despite a strict Qing policy prohibiting emigration, the flows of people from the mainland to Taiwan continued through 1895.[2] Once Taiwan passed into Japanese hands in 1895, however, this flow of migrants stopped almost immediately. Rather than “relying on immigration to fuel development, the Japanese focused inward and succeeded in transforming Taiwan from a frontier to an orderly society.”[3] Although economically Taiwan continued to trade with other nations, socially and culturally it was largely closed off from the rest of the world during the Japanese era.

A la Carte

Source: James Davidson The Island of Formosa. Tea growing areas are shown in green, south and east of Taipei

At the outset of the Japanese era, tea growing in Taiwan was concentrated in the basin to the south and east of Taipei. The teas produced on the island at that time were Formosa oolong and Paochong (Bao Zhong) and these teas both were made from cultivars brought from the Wuyi area and finished in the strip rolled manner. The map above, taken from James Davidson’s Island of Formosa shows this concentration of production around Taipei.[4] A later map (below) from about 1935 taken from William Ukers’s All About Tea, shows how the tea cultivation areas had grown in the ensuing years.[5] The growing areas now extended into Taoyuan, Miaoli and Hsinchu counties and the area around Sun Moon Lake.

Source: William Ukers, All About Tea. Tea growing areas are shaded.

Both Davidson and Ukers describe, in considerable detail, the process for making oolong tea in Taiwan yet neither makes the slightest mention of “ball rolling” of these teas. It appears that as of 1935 the technique of ball rolling oolong teas was, if not unknown, certainly not well known in Taiwan. This, along with the lack of immigration to Taiwan from Fujian during the Japanese period fatally undercuts the notion that it is the immigrant’s place of origin that accounts for whether or not the “ball rolling” technique was used.

Meanwhile …  Ball Rolling in Anxi

But not only was “ball rolling” not being used in Taiwan as late as 1935, it appears as though it was not used in Fujian then either. Colleagues who deal extensively in Anxi teas all report that it was only in about 1980 – 1990 that the ball rolling technique became a factor in Anxi tea production.[6] Austin Hodge writes, on the Seven Cups website, that it was only in the 1990’s, when Taiwanese investment began in Anxi’s tea areas, that tieguanyin producers there began to switch shape from the long twisted form to the tightly packed ball form.[7] Far from the technology transfer being from Fujian to Taiwan, it seems as though it went very much in the other direction.

If the notion that the variation in finishing method was a function of the northern or southern origin of Fukienese immigrants cannot be sustained, what does explain this difference, and when and where was it developed? We already know that the “ball rolling” method was not widespread if in use at all in the mid 1930’s. As such, moving towards the answers we seek involves looking more closely at the innovations that were introduced into Taiwanese tea production during the Japanese colonial era.[8]

Rìben de chenggong ma?

In 1903 the Japanese established the Tea Manufacture Experiment Station in Yingmei[9] and in stages opened branches in other tea producing areas. The Wenshan branch opened in 1930 and the Yichi branch in 1936. These stations undertook extensive research on the development of tea production techniques. Qui Xian-Ming claims that in 1929 Yashuhiko Tanimura and Inoue Kuni began work on a method that would lead to the development of the cloth ball rolling system that was a precursor of the one used today.[10] Later Tanimura and Kuni would continue this research at the Wenshan TMES station.[11] If this is correct, the moving force behind the development of ball rolling came from the Taiwanese research stations  that were established and largely manned by the Japanese. Later, this method of production was used by Wang Tai-You and Wang De in private tea production, beginning with Muzha tieguanyin. It was only after the war that the method gained widespread use in the country.[12]

The method, ostensibly, was introduced in order to enhance the stability and convenience of packaging and shipping tea to export markets. Another reason, suggested by Chen Kuan-Lin, whose family has been producing tea in the Dong Ding region for several generations, is the simple fact that producers in that region wanted a way to distinguish their tea from Bao Zhong (Paochong) and Formosa oolong, both of which were better known and produced using the strip method.[13]

Merrily they roll along

Contemporary rolling machines

The ball rolling method is now the standard production method for oolong tea in Taiwan with only Bao Zhong and Oriental Beauty serving as significant exceptions to the rule. It is, one might say, Taiwan’s signature to the tea world.

That’s my take. What do you think?

I am grateful to Chen Kuan-Lin, Roy Fong and Phil Rushworth for the information they kindly provided for this short essay and to Giovanni Majer who commented on an earlier draft. As always, any remaining errors are mine alone.

[1] See Robert Gardella Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade 1757 – 1937 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994) passim. See also, Denny Roy Taiwan: A Political History (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2003)

[2] Lin Ji-Ping “Tradition and Progress: Taiwan’s Evolving Migration Reality” Migration Policy Institute 2012 downloaded on Dec. 5, 2017

[3] Ibid.

[4] James W. Davidson The Island of Formosa: Past and Present (London, MacMillan & Co., 1903) facing p. 370. Tea also was grown in the Dong Ding area from plants brought from the Wuyi area. At that time these teas were finished in a strip manner not in the current ball manner (Chen Kuan-Lin, private correspondence 2017.)

[5] William Ukers All About Tea (Mansfield Centre, Martino Publishing, 2007) p. 328. Original publication 1935.

[6] Phil Rushworth of Zhen Tea and Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court, private correspondence 2017.

[7] See .

[8] In this section I rely heavily on Qiu Xian-Ming ”日治時期臺灣茶業改良之研究”  (Master’s thesis, National Central University, Taoyuan, 2004)

[9] Now known as Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES.)

[10] Qui p. 77

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p. 78

[13] Private correspondence 2017

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