lmost every tea writer, it seems, must at some point produce an article on Dahong Pao, or DHP as the cognoscenti refer to it. In fact, it has been written about so frequently that there cannot be much new to say. There is not much new to say, one area aside; how this tea name is translated into English. And that, perhaps because it matters so little, has always been a source of considerable irritation to me.
The name for this tea in Chinese characters is 大紅袍 (DA-HONG-PAO) and the way the tea (or rather the tea bush) got this name is a matter of legend; some of it perhaps true in one form or another. The stories go something like this:
Long ago (hey, it wouldn’t be a legend if it weren’t long ago) a high ranking court official – sometimes the Emperor’s wife – fell gravely ill during a visit to the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province. The situation was dire; the prognosis poor. As a comfort the patient was given a cup of local tea and, lo and behold, was quickly revived. Overjoyed the Mandarin – or the Emperor’s wife – asked what tea had been given to them. They were shown the bushes from which the tea leaves had come and in gratitude the Mandarin – or the Emperor – draped his scarlet robe around the plants. Hence the name: 大紅袍.
The Name Game
These Chinese characters were translated into English as “Big Red Robe” and that has been, for many years, the name by which the tea has been known in the West. But what a coarse and clunky translation! “Big-Red-Robe;” the Chinese would never use such an inelegant name for what is one of the country’s finest teas. “Big-Red-Robe” is a literal translation of each individual character in the name. It isn’t “wrong” it’s just, well, not very nice.
So, how do we get around this? The name in Chinese characters is what it is.
Just so. What I suggest, however, is that the first two characters 大紅 be read as a single word rather than as two words. Rather than “Da Hong” we have “Dahong.” And now, rather than “Big Red” we have “Scarlet.” Scarlet Robe – the “correct” name for this exceptional tea.
But what is this thing we call Scarlet Robe? Dahong Pao is one of what are called the “si da ming cong” (四大名叢) or “four famous bushes.” The other three are Tieluohan (Iron Arhat), Bai Ji Guan (White Cockscomb) and Shui Jin Gui (Golden Water Turtle) and all three of these are grown in the Wuyi region of northern Fujian Province. However, DHP, also from Wuyi, is no longer produced from the “original” bushes, only four of which remain.There is, now, no recognized DHP cultivar. Rather, the tea is made a blend of two clones of these the original bushes, the Qi Dan cultivar and the Bei Dou cultivar. Often too it is a blend of these two along with some more commercial quality teas. As a result, some purists claim that Dahong Pao no longer exists.
The aim of the blending, in any event, is to produce a tea that exemplifies what good “yan cha” (rock tea) strives to be, a dark roasted oolong with a long and decidedly “rocky” finish. When you are in the market for Scarlet Robe, always ask your tea merchant what their DHP is produced from for there is much ordinary tea parading as traditional Dahong Pao,
I am under no illusion that my idiosyncratic rendering of the tea’s name will ever pass into wider circulation. Nonetheless, I shall persist in calling DHP “Scarlet Robe” and my soul will be uplifted with every sip.
That’s my take. What’s your view?