The Tale of Lin Feng Chi

In 1855, Lin Feng Chi set out for the Chinese mainland from his home in Nantou county on the island of Formosa (now the country of Taiwan.) He was off to write his provincial civil service examinations. As he was an impecunious scholar, however, once there he needed to seek lodgings with those members of the Lin clan who were well established in Fuzhou.

Lin Feng Chi passed his exam and, as a thank you to those who had aided him, presented his kinsmen with 12 of the 36 precious tea plants he had collected in the Wuyi mountains. The remaining 24 plants returned with him to Nantou where he planted them on Dong Ding Mountain. That is how tea came to Dong Ding and how the qing xin wulong cultivar came to Taiwan.[1]

Would that it were true.

I gainsay neither the existence of Lin Feng Chi nor his quest to pass the civil service exam. But it is very unlikely that he planted 24 tea  bushes on Dong Ding Mountain and it is even more unlikely that they were qing xin wulong.[2][3] In fact, planting in Dong Ding began at an unknown date with unknown cultivars.[4]

Farming on Dong Ding Mountain

There was some planting in the area during the Japanese colonial period (1895 – 1945) but maps from the time show that this was not extensive[5] Indeed, before the 1940’s Dong Ding’s tea effort was largely limited to the production of seeds for breeding purposes.[6] Production as we know it today began only after the war. At roughly this time Dong Ding began using the rolled semi-ball production method primarily to distinguish the tea from Wenshan Bao Zhong and Muzha Tie Guan Yin.[7]

“Professionalization” of Dong Ding

Family Home and Tea Factory

Up until the 1970’s, planting and tea making remained a part-time occupation in the Dong Ding area; the growers also farmed vegetable cash crops. During the 1970’s, however, growing became a “professionalized” full time occupation.[8] This occurred much later than in Northern Taiwan and the scale in Dong Ding enterprises remained small and familial. Most growers not only grew the tea crop but also manufactured their own tea. To this day, production in the Dong Ding area remains largely a household enterprise. It is one that is threatened, however, by a declining labor force as the youth abandons the rural setting for jobs in urban areas.

Abandoned Tea Garden

But just what is Dong Ding tea?

Traditionally, Dong Ding was a rolled oolong tea that was oxidized to about 40% and was charcoal roasted to varying degrees. It is produced at modest altitudes of about 800 meters, in Lugu Township in southwestern Nantou County and takes its name from the Dong Ding (Frozen Summit in English) mountain there.

The Highs

The 1970’s and 1980’s were the most important years for Dong Ding tea. As Taiwan’s economy soared, so did the value of the Taiwan dollar. The strong currency made Taiwan’s tea exports uncompetitive and, in consequence, the government strongly encouraged tea producers to return to oolong tea production and to focus on the domestic market.[9] This led to significant growth in the demand for Dong Ding tea which soon established its strong reputation for quality.[10]

As the fame of Dong Ding tea spread, many other areas, particularly those in high mountain zones, began producing a tea made similarly to Dong Ding. Not surprisingly, they appropriated the name as well. Name protection is poorly administered in Taiwan and although there is now a Lugu Dong Ding authentication mark, it is not widely used.

Lugu Dong Ding Certification Mark

The Lows

This failure to protect the Dong Ding name is, in some measure, the fault of the region as well. In 1976, Lugu Township was chosen as the site of the second national tea competition.[11] This competition became an annual event and grew quickly. So quickly, in fact, that it outstripped the capacity of Lugu farmers to provide entries. As such, entries from throughout the island were encouraged.[12] These had a significant effect not only on what tea is named Dong Ding but also on the evolution of the style of Dong Ding tea. Sadly, today many teas labelled Dong Ding do not originate in Lugu Township.

The 1980’s saw the initial development of “high mountain” teas[13] Trials for high mountain planting and production were undertaken largely at Fushoushan Farm in Taichung County.[14] The first commercially viable high mountain gardens, however, were established in the Meishan area Chiayi County.[15] From this beginning, high mountain tea plantations grew dramatically, particularly in Nantou County, and by the 1990’s Dong Ding found itself with reduced demand and strong downward pressure on prices.

Changing style

These gaoshan teas, which were less oxidized than Dong Ding tea to begin with, began to earn acclaim at tea competitions, such as the one held in Lugu, and over time the level of oxidation began to drop even lower. These lower oxidized and unroasted teas soon became the standard in Taiwan and this, in turn, led to changes in the way Dong Ding tea is produced. Today, oxidation of Dong Ding tea hovers around 20% as farmers have attempted to mimic the high mountain flavor profile.  Nonetheless, Yu Shuenn-Der estimates that 57% of Dong Ding producers continue to roast at least part of their tea to some extent.[16]

Maybe the best tea value in Taiwan

In the past two or three years, Dong Ding has enjoyed a bit of a revival at the consumer level. The prices for excellent quality tea are still very modest, even when compared to rather pedestrian gaoshan. In fact, Dong Ding teas might just be the best value oolong teas currently coming out of Taiwan.

That’s my take. What’s your view?


[1] See and among many others.

[2] See Campbell, David (2017) “Of Green Hearts, Black Dragons and Soft Stems: A Look at “Qing Xin Wulong”” where I have suggested that qing xin wulong is related to ruan zhi from Anxi. Subsequently I have received correspondence from The Key Laboratory of Tea Science at Anhui Agricultural University that claims that the cultivar is descended from a wild plant growing in Guilin village in Fujian.

[3] For a discussion of this story see Lin, Xian-tang (2009) 茶葉志 in鹿谷鄉志(上)Pp. 523-590 南投縣鹿谷鄉:南投縣鹿谷鄉公所 (Nantou County: Lugu Township Office) cited in Yu, Shuenn-Der  (2013) 台灣凍頂烏龍茶之工匠技藝、科技與現代性 Taiwan Journal of Anthropology 11(1)pp. 123-153

[4] The lack of good documentation makes much of the history of the tea industry very difficult to establish. There is a lot of guesswork.

[5] See Davidson, James W. (1903) The Island of Formosa: Past and Present (London, Macmillan & Co.,) p 371 and Ukers, William (1935) All About Tea (New York, Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company) p. 328

[6] Yu p. 125

[7] Ibid. On the ball rolling method see Campbell, David (2018) “Getting the Ball rolling” Chen Kuan Lin, dates the beginning ball rolling in Dong Ding much earlier; to the early 1940’s (personal correspondence.)

[8] Yu, p. 126

[9] Prior to the development of the domestic market Taiwan produced an assortment of green, oolong and black teas that sold internationally.

[10] The popularity of Dong Ding led to many inauthentic teas reaching the market. It is said that one couldn’t walk down the street without being showered by Dong Ding and there was far more Dong Ding sold than the region could produce.

[11] The first competition was held in 1975 in Pinglin in northern Taiwan.

[12] Yu p. 126

[13] Teas grown at elevations greater than 1000 meters are known as high mountain teas (gaoshan cha)

[14] Now Taichung City

[15] Meishan is part of the Alishan range but is in a different township than most of the Alishan tea area.

[16] Yu p. 128

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