Previously seen on “The Corner”

Last month I looked at the name Wenshan bao zhong to see if it could offer clues about the nature of authenticity for this tea.[1] I noted that many consider authentic bao zhong to be tea only from the area around Pinglin to the south-east of Taipei. The second point that came out is that bao zhong doesn’t mean “packaged kind,” the usual English translation but “packaged qing xin wulong.” [2] Nonetheless, names can take us only so far and now it is time to look at the history of the tea itself.

No, that really is his name

The modern Taiwanese tea industry first developed in the mid-19th century and it’s growth often is credited credited to the Scotsman, John Dodd.[3] Then, in 1881 a Cantonese trader, Go Fok-lu, introduced the method of making bao zhong (paochong) tea in the Taipei region. The process involved scenting the tea with jasmine, cape jasmine, gardenia or similar fragrant flowers.  After scenting, the tea was roasted over a low fire.[4] Following this roasting, the bao zhong was packed into what Davidson called “gaudily labeled paper bags” suggesting that the method of wrapping the tea in paper sheets is a more recent development.[5]

Taiwan tea area 1903

At this time the tea was called simply bao zhong with no place name attached. However, it all came from the Taipei basin to the south-east of the city.

Only inferior quality leaf was used to process bao zhong, the better quality leaf being reserved for the making of Formosa Oolong. And unlike Formosa Oolong, bao zhong production was almost entirely in the hands of Chinese packers.[6] Also unlike Formosa Oolong, bao zhong was tea not destined to a Western market but rather was shipped through Amoy (Ximen) and aimed at satisfying the Chinese diaspora in south-east Asia and America.[7] This trade represented a healthy 12% of the total trade in Taiwanese tea.[8]

Marching to a different drummer

Allegedly Wang Shui-Qing

Allegedly Wei Jing-Shi

During the early to mid-colonial period, bao zhong remained a scented tea.[9] In the early 1930’s, however, a tea maker in Nangang (a district in south-eastern Taipei) named Wei Jing-Shi developed a method to get the floral scent in the tea without using flowers.[10]  At about the same time Wang Shui-Qing devised a similar product although his tea was more highly oxidized and roasted. These processes were guarded secrets only reluctantly revealed to other farmers.

During the period of Japanese control, all bao zhong that was exported needed to be stamped as Nangang bao zhong[11]. Thus, Nangang was the original place name attached to bao zhong tea. It was only after the war that the name switched to Wenshan bao zhong.

Peanut’s time

Stilwell’s Peanut

Following the defeat of Japan, Nangang declined as a tea producing region, the center of production shifted to the Pinglin area and the tea became known as Wenshan bao zhong. Nonetheless, the production methods introduced by Wei Jing-Shi remained very popular and there was heated competition between this method and the Wang Shui-Qing process that lasted well into the 1990’s.

By the early 1950’s farmers throughout the production area had acquired the technical know-how to produce floral but unscented tea. This natural floral character came to be associated with authentic Wenshan bao zhong and the scented teas of prior years came to be viewed as inauthentic.

In 1975 the first Taiwanese tea competition was organized in Pinglin.[12] These competitions, which now are held throughout the tea growing regions of Taiwan, have more than anything else, led to different tea types increasingly conforming to a standardized flavor profile for that type. As growers and producers make their teas to curry the favor of the judges, the diversity of styles of bao zhong has decreased.

Contemporary Wenshan bao zhong

Plucking tea leaves in Pinglin

The battle, and it truly was a battle, over the style of bao zhong was not decided until well into the 1990’s when the Wei Jing-shi production method came to be accepted as the true expression of the tea.[13] This method, with its lower oxidation levels and minimal roasting, however, is not conducive to ageing and high quality aged bao zhong has become very difficult to find. In fact, over the past several years bao zhong, following the trend set by high mountain (gaoshan) tea has seen oxidation levels drop by some 10%.[14] Contemporary bao zhong is now made with oxidation levels that can reach as low as 5% and that rarely exceed 15%. Roasting, if it happens at all, is very light.

Tea labeled as bao zhong is now produced using several cultivars in addition to qing xin wulong. Principal among these are jin xuan (TTES #12) and cui yu (TTES #13); cultivars that were released in the early 1980’s. Growers, however, consider that only qing xin wulong produces the best tea. It is qing xin wulong bao zhong tea that is entered in competitions. The other cultivars are used for more commercial offerings.

Finally, although over the the past few decades, the name Wenshan has come to be integrally associated with bao zhong, tea called bao zhong is produced in other areas including some high mountain sites. From the perspective of “authenticity”, however, these teas must be considered impostors trying to cash in on the bao zhong name.

She ain’t what she used to be, many long years ago

The New Wave? Mechanical harvesting

It should be clear now that what was “authentic” bao zhong would be considered decidedly inauthentic today. Authentic bao zhong today is not what it was 150 or even 50 years ago. Originally the tea was a relatively highly oxidized and roasted tea that was scented with flowers and wrapped in paper. Today, bao zhong is a lightly oxidized tea exhibiting natural floral aromas, made principally from the qing xin wulong cultivar and wrapped in vacuum sealed mylar pouches. Only the twisted shape seems to have survived. What was considered authentic no longer is. And who knows in what direction authenticity may evolve yet again.

That’s my take. What’s your view?

[1] The Name Game: Wenshan Bao Zhong (Part 1)

[2] I follow the convention established by Leo Kwan of using the English word “oolong” (yes, it is an English word, but that’s the subject of a different article) when referring to a tea and the Pinyin “wulong” when referring to the cultivar.

[3] See James W. Davidson The Island of Formosa: Past and Present (London, MacMillan & Co., 1903) for a description of Dodd’s efforts.

[4] Davidson, passim and William Ukers, All About Tea (New York, The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935) p. 338. See also “Formosa Oolong Tea” (Taihoku[Taipei], Bureau of Productive Industries, Government of Formosa, Japan, 1904) special reprint 2018.

[5] Davidson p. 388

[6] Ukers, p. 338

[7] Davidson p. 387, Ukers p. 338

[8] Davidson p. 389

[9] Ukers’s 1935  book (p. 338) describes bao zhong as a scented tea.

[10] Chen, Kai-Hsien “A Cultural and Scientific Quest of Taiwanese Tea, Aroma and Taste” presented at the 2nd Annual Colloquium, The Sensory Aspects of Tea, U. C. Davis, January 29, 2017.

[11]  Qiu Xian-Ming ”日治時期臺灣茶業改良之研究”  (Master’s thesis, National Central University, Taoyuan, 2004).

[12] The most famous of these is the competition held annually in the town of Lugu in the Dong Ding region.

[13] Yu, Shuenn-Der, “Authenticity, Terroir, and Invention of Tradition: French Wine versus Taiwanese Tea” Proceedings of the 2015 International Conference on Chinese Food and Culture, p.94

[14] Ibid. p. 95

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