The Cultivar

Qing xin wulong harvested in Pinglin

Qing xin wulong is the most widely planted cultivar in Taiwan and it is used in the production of some of that nation’s finest and most expensive teas. If you enjoy a good Lishan it will almost certainly be qing xin wulong. The same is true for most other high mountain teas, for top rated Dong Ding teas and for the best Wenshan Bao Zhong.[i]

Qing xin wulong, a cultivar of the camellia sinensis v. sinensis variety, produces wonderfully aromatic and floral teas that nonetheless have substance, great mouth feel, persistence and a long finish. It is these characteristics that make it so popular with growers and tea makers despite it being a slow growing, soft stemmed bush that is prone to disease.

When grown at low elevations in places like Pinglin (Wenshan Bao Zhong) and Lugu (Dong Ding) the leaf is relatively small, moderate green and shows distinct veins. When cultivated at altitude (e.g. Lishan, Cuifeng), however, the leaf is thicker, darker green and the veins are less readily apparent. Due to the cool environment at altitude, the leaves contain a higher level of pectin, which is important to mouth feel.

Harvesting on Lishan

Harvest times for qing xin wulong leaves are a function of both altitude and latitude with earlier and more abundant harvest dates in the south and at lower elevation. When grown in the north and at high elevations, the qing xin wulong harvests will be fewer and will be later in the spring and earlier in the winter.

Due to their popularity, teas produced from leaves of the qin xin wulong cultivar command a 30% – 50% price premium over those from other cultivars in a given region. The sole exception to this is the tie guan yin cultivar, which tends to be the most expensive in any region.[ii]

The popular name of the cultivar is the source of considerable confusion for Westerners for it is simply called wulong by most growers and merchants in Taiwan. We, of course, know oolong to be a way of making teas that are partially oxidized, not as a plant; but now you have seen my solution to this naming problem. I use the pinyin wulong whenever I refer to the cultivar and the English “oolong” whenever I am referring to the style of tea.[iii]

A search for origins

The reputation of qing xin wulong has been growing steadily in recent years and the cultivar now is grown in Vietnam, Thailand, Yunnan China and New Zealand among other places.[iv] However, its origins remain decidedly unclear: how and when did it come to Taiwan and from where? Is qing xin wulong simply the name for a plant that is elsewhere referred to by a different name? There are many theories but, as with so many of the puzzles in Taiwanese tea history, few definitive facts, so little documentation.

Li Chung-Shen

One theory that has been floated is that the cultivar was brought to the Dong Ding area in 1855 by Lin Feng Chi who acquired it in the Wuyi area of Fujian Province[v]. Another is that it came from the Anxi region of Fujian Province in the mid-19th century; yet another that it arrived from the Wuyi district of Fujian at about the same time. A fourth is that in 1866, John Dodd and his comprador Li Chung Sheng, who were actively involved in establishing “Formosa Oolong” as a leading tea type, are responsible for introducing the plant. Li, a native of Amoy (Xiamen), arranged planting loans from Amoy capitalists to Taiwanese farmers and is known to have brought plants and seeds to the island[vi] And finally there are those who contend that it arrived much later; that it was selected by the Japanese during their efforts to develop the Taiwanese tea industry.[vii]

The first question that might be asked, is: does the cultivar originate in Wuyi, Anxi or somewhere else? The answer I favor is based largely on scant circumstantial evidence that delves into the domain of names and colloquialisms. Nonetheless, I think this does go a considerable way to providing a solution.

In the Lugu region, the colloquial name for qing xin wulong is ruan zhi.[viii] This is a big clue. The original ruan zhi cultivar, hails from the Anxi region in Fujian. In fact, many think that qing xin wulong is just another name for ruan zhi.[ix] [x] Whether or not that is so, the use of this name suggests strongly that the original plants or seeds that were imported did come from Anxi as opposed to Wuyi or anywhere else.

When did it arrive

But when did ruan zhi arrive in Taiwan? Was it imported by traders in the mid-19th century or by the Japanese early in the 20th century? Here, Lin Xiu-Rui, a plant breeder at TRES has been exceedingly helpful. She has reported that the qing xin wulong cultivar was developed in 1918 as a result of seed selection done by TRES breeders.[xi] These seeds, I suggest, were derived from the ruan zhi parent plants.

Seed Pods

When plant propagation is done by seed the resulting offspring are sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, distinct from the parent plants; there can be mutation that can be substantial.[xii] The cultivar that emerged from TRES selections produced teas that were aromatic and had an excellent taste profile and came to be widely adopted by growers.

According to this line of reasoning, the qing xin wulong is a mutation of the ruan zhi cultivar.[xiii] But we still don’t know when ruan zhi arrived in Taiwan. Here again, linguistic usage is helpful, though the road is rather tortuous.

We know that bao zhong the has been produced in Taiwan since at least the 1880’s.[xiv]  And we know that the character zhong (種) comes from the colloquial name for qing xin wulong, zhong zi (種仔) that is used in the Pinglin area.[xv] If we accept that the qing xin wulong cultivar, as we know it, did not emerge until 1918, then種仔 must have referred to something else before 1918. I suspect that this was ruan zhi. This supposition is encouraged, of course, by ruan zhi being the colloquial name for qing xin wulong in the Lugu district. And all of this together suggests that ruan zhi came to Taiwan in the mid-19th century. Lacking any contrary evidence (and little supporting evidence either) I am inclined to believe that Li Chung-Sheng included some ruan zhi among the plants and seeds he brought to Taiwan in the 1860’s.

So where does this leave us?

  1. Ruan zhi and qing xin oolong are not the same cultivar although they are closely related.
  2. Ruan zhi arrived in Taiwan in the mid-19th century, possibly brought in by Li Cheng-Sheng.
  3. Ruan zhi came from the Anxi region of Fujian province.
  4. Qing xin wulong was bred by TRES in 1918. It is a mutation of ruan zhi.

But none of these, apart from #4, rises much above the realm of speculation. What we do know for certain is that some of Taiwan’s finest teas are produced from qing xin wulong. We’ve come full circle.

That’s my take. What’s your view?

[i] Literally translated, qing xin wulong means Green Heart Black Dragon. Another cultivar that often is planted is jin xuan (TTES #12.) However, the amount of jin xuan under cultivation has, after an initial planting burst, been declining in recent years. The other great Taiwanese tea, Oriental Beauty (Dong Fang Mei Ren), is made principally from the qing xin da mou.

[ii] This is not universally true. At Fushoushan farm, for example, the ­qing xin wulong tea is more expensive than the tie guan yin that also is produced there.

[iii] Oolong is indeed an English word and is found in many English language dictionaries (see, e.g. Merriam-Webster or The Oxford English Dictionary.) It has been incorporated into the English language in the same way as “restaurant” from French and “typhoon” from Mandarin Chinese have been. The word originates in the Fukienese dialect where it is pronounced oōlióng which, as noted, translates literally as “black dragon.” Of course the Chinese characters for the words are the same: 烏龍

[iv] These other growing regions, particularly Vietnam, provide much of the material for teas that become “rebaptized” as Taiwanese once being imported into Taiwan.

[v] Wikipedia “Taiwan Tea”

[vi] Davidson, James W. The Island of Formosa: Past and Present (London, Macmillan & Co., 1903) pp. 373 ff.

[vii]  See, among others, Geoffrey Norman

[viii] Chen, Huan Tang, 台灣茶第一堂課 (Taipei, Andbooks, 2008) p.21. In the Wenshan area the plant is known as zhong zi and this is an important factor in the naming of Wenshan Bao Zhong tea. See my earlier blog, “The Name Game: Wenshan Bao Zhong (part 1)”

[ix] I say “original” because very confusingly, TRES has named its TTES # 17 cultivar, a cross between TTES 1958 and TTES 335 (these latter are field numbers, not release numbers) that was released in 1983, “ruan zhi.” Literally translated, ruan zhi means “soft stem.”

[x] E.g. Wikipedia, “Ruanzhi.” See also, Tony Gebely Tea: A User’s Guide (Chicago, Eggs and Toast Media, 2016) p. 106.

[xi] Lin Xui-Riu, personal correspondence.

[xii] In grapevines, for example, the pinot blanc cultivar, which bears white fruit, is a mutation of the red fruiting cultivar pinot noir. This example is of a “spontaneous” mutation that occurred naturally.

[xiii] DNA analysis could provide definitive evidence of a connection but to my knowledge, no such analysis has yet been done.

[xiv] Campbell, David “The Name Game: Wenshan Bao Zhong (part 1)” Of course, bao zhong or paochung, had been produced in Fujian province long before and had been introduced to Taiwan from there. See Williams, S. Wells, The Chinese Commercial Guide 5th edition (Hong Kong, A. Shortrede & Co., 1863) p. 144.

[xv] Campbell, passim

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