Tea in China, 1854-- an article on Chinese Teas from the August 19, 1854 New York Times


The New York Times,
    August 19, 1854, p.6:

Tea in China.

From the Boston Traveller of Monday.

HONG KONG, Tuesday, May 23, 1854. 
    My Dear Brother: It is pretty difficult to find out anything by the Chinese about the culture or manufacture of tea.

    They seem to think that it is against their interest to allow foreigners to know anything of their arts; therefore they use all means to prevent them from obtaining any information.

    You ask them questions, and it is one chance in fifty, if they do not tell you a lie in every answer they give you, and if they cannot tell the lie, they will purposely mislead you in some way.
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    As long as they do not consider lying to be a vice, you may easily judge of the extent to which they may be capable of lying. I believe they consider it a talent or a fine accomplishment, to be able to tell a lie that cannot be detected--the only disgrace in it being the detection.

    You ask one of them about teas, and he tells you this and that, but you do not know if he is telling you the truth or not. You ask another in order to ascertain if the statement is correct, and you get an answer different from his; and the third man perhaps gives you an explanation different from the other two. So you may go on, and get information from them, and when you come to observe for yourself, you will find that you must dispossess youself of that, and adopt something else.
    I would not say that they always lie, but I do believe they lie oftener than they tell the truth.

    Whenever a Chinaman tells me anything that I have not known about, I do not take it into full belief until it is confirmed in some other way. You will think this, perhaps, rather a severe comment upon the Chinese; but I did not adopt the opinion until I had seen the fact verified many times. It is just the reverse with the European. I always believe them, until something appears which is inconsistent with the belief; it is only then that I change my opinion; so that I think there is no prejudice in it.
    But you will say, I know, that you do not confine yourself to your subject. Well, I admit that, and will endeavor to keep from running off the track for the future.

    Tea is raised now, you know, in many other places besides China. Whether it is generally as good as China tea I cannot say. That in Java, Sumatra, Hindostan, &c., was, of course, originally from China. In Java, I have drank tea which they said was raised there, and which I could not distinguish from China tea. They have, at all these places, Chinamen to overlook the raising and curing, so that if the soil or climate has no peculiar effect, it ought ot be quite as good.

    I saw a notice in a paper that a trial was to be made in America. I think they will there fail, there is so much difference in the price of labor. Probably it would grow and flourish as well there as in China, say not further north than New York, though it would no doubt do well in Massachusetts. It is raised as far north as Japan, the same latitude of Connecticut and Massachusetts. But to cultivate tea in America with the exception of a renumeration for expenses, is, I think, out of the question, until the population shall have so increased that labor can be had from one to ten cents a day.

    The tea plant is a pretty shrub, growing from two to six feet high, though if not molested, I think it attains to the height of even thirty feet. The height to which I have seen it growing in the island of Chusan and back in the country from Ningpoo, the latitude of 30° north, in which the greater part grows, is two and three feet, and in Java four and six. But it is cropped down every season, for the reason that from the new sprouts a greater quantity of leaves are produced.
    One shrub, I think, will yield, upon average, from five to ten ounces. It is planted both in rows like hedges, and in hills like corn. The blossoms look and smell like the apple blossoms, though the odor is quite light. The view of a large field, where you see thousands of these little hedges stretching along for a mile parallel to each other, is very interesting. But small farmers also cultivate patches of tea, selling the produce to the dealers.

    There is hardly a person among the Chinese from the beggar to the rich man, but who will have tea to drink, in some shape or other. The rich, of course, have the best; the poor man will buy the large coarse leaves, and will even steep them over the second or third time; the beggar will drink tea made from stems, and the refuse leaves thrown away from the manufactories.

    I have tasted, from curiosity, some sickening infusions of tea. If a Chinaman wishes to be polite to a person in his house, he will offer him tea to drink. Once, on an excursion back about fifty miles in the country, I went up to a quarry where there were some stone-cutters at work. Passing soon after, one of their houses, and it commencing to rain, the man asked me in. After sitting a short time, he offered me some tea. It was made in an earthen bowl, holding several quarts, and from which he frequently dipped out and drank himself. It was of a yellow, turbid color, and to the taste was warm, like water that has been standing in the sun, and nauseous. Had it been an apothecary shop, I would have taken it for an infusion of senna. Notwithstanding, I did drink a little from time to time, but was glad when it had stopped raining, that I could leave.

    The man, however, drank as if it had been the best of tea, in fact, they will not drink water as long as they can have their teapot by them. That is from a curious notion they have, on account of the stomach being warm, and the water cold, the two coming into contact will produce a conflict, and make them sick.

    The quality of all teas depends upon the time when the leaves are gathered, and the manner and success of preparing. To produce the best qualities, the leaves must be gathered early in the season, properly and thoroughly dried, and securely packed.
    The young leaves have the strongest and richest flavor, and according as they are gathered, sooner or later, will be the quality of the tea; and if they are not well dried, so that no moisture is left in them, and so put up that no air comes to them, the quality will be affected, if not spoiled.

    There are not, in reality, so many species of tea as we should, from the number of their names, infer. I am told that the plant is the same through all China, therefore it can differ only slightly by the variety of location, by the soil and climate, or some analogous cause. The leaves do not differ from each other more than those of the rose tree do.
    The kinds are two, the green and the black, and arise from the different periods of gathering, that is, early or later in the season. And the varieties are many, and arise mostly from the differences in manufacturing or preparing--a few varieties only from mixing and scenting.

    Under these two heads or kinds may be arranged all the other varieties. In America, we are apt to suppose that Hyson, Green, Black and Souchong are so many distinct species. The following are the principal varieties of the two kinds:
Green Teas.
Hyson, or Young Hyson,
Hyson Skin, or Old Hyson,
Chulan, or Imperial,
Black Teas.
Orange Pecco,
Ning Yong,
    Then there are some other unimportant varieties and only known by name as "Lotus Kernel," "Princess' Eye Brows," "Carnation Hair," "Sparrow's Tongue," "Dragon's Whiskers," &c. The names have been collected mostly by Mr. Williams. The names seem to be given without regard to system, something as our apples and pears are named at home.

    Hyson tea is so called from the Chinese word "Hyson," which signifies "before the rains." Therefore, being gathered before the rains it is also in the early part of the season, and being the gathering, while the leaves are very small, it is also called Young Hyson. Old Hyson, or Hyson Skia, is merely that which is left, after selecting the smallest and best leaves for Young Hyson. This, therefore, form the skin or refuse, is called Old Hyson, or Hyson Skin.

    Chulan tea is green tea scented with Chulan flowers. It is called, also, Imperial tea.

    Twankay is green tea, but comes from a particular location, I believe from the banks of the river of that name.

    Gunpowder tea is also a green tea, and is so named because the form of the leaf, after it is prepared, resembles the kernels of gunpowder.

    Of the Black teas, Souchong comes first, as being a principal variety of black tea--then Powchong--then Pecco--then Orange Pecco, which is Pecco scented with orange flower. Congou and Ning-yong I understand as having little difference in the variety.

    Pecco is so called from the Chinese word pecco, which signifies white down. At a particular stage of the growth a white down forms on the leaves, when the leaves are immediately gathered; the down indicating the proper time for the gathering. If the leaves are not gathered at that particular time, the white down falls off, and the leaves must go for one of the other varieties of black tea.

    Oolong is a black tea, flavored like green tea. How it is flavored I do not know; it may be given by a peculiar firing, or it may be scented after it is dried. It is likely that the Souchong scented would make the Oolong. A very little will make a difference, and it will then become a new variety.

    Ningyong is a black tea, so called from the place where it grows. It is considered one of the finest varieties. It may have a flavor differing from the other, which gives it sometimes the preference.

    Bohea, a black tea, is so called by the Chinese, because it is raised on two hills, called Bohea hills. The difference between this and other black teas is from its being gathered very late in the season, that is, after it rains. The leaves are large and coarse, and it is, therefore, the poorest quality of tea. I have understood that spurious green tea has been manufactured from these leaves, by cutting them to about the size of green tea leaves, drying and coloring them.

    The time for gathering the tea depends upon the particular kind of tea to be manufactured. The season is between March and August, and includes four periods--that for the green teas is in March, April or May, and that for the black teas is in the months of June, July and August; immediately following.

    Mandarin tea, I had almost forgotten. This is a kind rarely seen, (and I think I have heard that it is forbidden to be made.) It has a green color and is twisted up, something like small skeins of silk twist. I sent home a sample of it. I had an opportunity to try some of it at Mr. Bush's. It was nice, but not more so than that kind I sent you in the little canister. It is very expensive, four and five dollars a pound, and is called Mandarin because the Mandarins usually or often drink it. Mr. Williams has spoken of a kind of tea that costs, I think, from ten to a hundred dollars a pound. That is from a supposed particular virtue in the place or soil in which it grows.

    In some parts of China they make tea cakes. These are made by pressing the leaves very hard, while green, into the form of a brick, and then drying them. This is for the convenience of persons who are traveling.
D. L. B.
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