China is the country that, at the start of our journey, simultaneously excited us whilst filling us a feeling of slight trepidation. China is the historical birthplace of the use of the tea plant over 4000 years ago. Many myths exist of this time, the most widely used is that of the emperor Shennong. He is said to have discovered tea itself, although many believe the tea plant was used thousands of years before this. More of this in the book! Whatever the timings are, it is known that the bushes of today are descendants of wild trees that grew in a giant primeval tea forest stretching from Yunnan to India over 50 million years ago.
Our introduction to China was a much more recent. Rob's parents had lived in China for a few years in our early 20's so we had had our first taste of travel to China and of Chinese tea and tea culture back then...[looking a bit younger here...]
When it came to travelling more seriously in tea three factors induced our rather cautious state of mind. First the tea history [as mentioned above] - where to start in our education, how to speak intelligently with people whose lives are so immersed and intertwined with tea?, second the sheer scale of the country and thirdly the language, or in our case the lack of language. While all of these have certainly presented their challenges during Michelle's time in this wonderful country [it is predominantly Michelle who travels to China every year] once on the ground and in the safe hands of the tea communities we have had the great fortune to meet any anxieties have been firmly put to one side. The rewards from travelling in this vast, varied country rich in culture have far outweighed any worries we may initially have had. We have always approached with an open heart and mind - prepared to learn, prepared to question and with the greatest respect and gratitude for those we have met along the way prepared to welcome us into their world.
Michelle : If you ask me [Michelle] [over a cup of tea] how I feel about China I will always share how it is the country that challenges me the most. In terms of tea, yes - there is a lifetime of learning here - but also in terms of 'me' myself, who I am as a person. Every year when I return I prepare to see whether I have been able to put into practice many of the things I have learned here - patience, the ability to slow down, appreciate time, place, people, tea and of course how my knowledge of tea both in terms of 'fact' but more importantly in terms of 'feel' has progressed. These are all areas I explore in the book but one thing is for sure [and I say this with a smile on my face] I'm always left in no doubt that I am a pupil at the beginning of my studies in tea and in life and that feels exciting and always, without doubt, keeps me coming back. The photos here are taken with my great friend Chuan Chuan who every year welcomes me during my time in Shanghai and through quiet, reflective tea drinking teaches and guides me. You can meet her in the book
The photos below were taken on my very first tea trip to China. You can read more about it in the book but in short I had got on a plane to meet a man who I had only ever chatted with about tea on the phone and had offered me a place on a tea tour of Hunan with some other American tea buyers....you get the picture and perhaps it is not surprising that when I arrived at the airport at around 11pm to a completely empty arrivals hall I did start to feel a little apprehensive...there was no-one there...two hours later someone did arrive to collect me and the next few days were a whistle stop introduction to finding and sourcing Chinese tea.
Nothing came of that particular trip but the theme continued - every year I journey into the unknown, every year I learn a little more and every year I meet the most extraordinary people and savour the most incredible teas. To date I have travelled to many of the famous tea producing regions of China - Yunnan, Fujian, Anhui and to the major tea-ware cities of Jingdezhen and Yixing. I've visited remote villages where the strong women of the hills have laughed at my soft 'non working' hands, trekked through bamboo forests with a machete, watched skilled craftspeople fully make teapots by hand, drunk a lot of rice wine in tribal villages and attempted to wok fire teas over open fires in Yunnan. Goodness only knows what our partners think when they see a tiny 5 ft woman knock on their door - many worry about me travelling alone - but whatever goes through their minds I have been shown nothing but the greatest kindness and hospitality on these trips.
Over time in the Tea House many people have shared their desire to visit China with us. Like us many of them share their apprehension - in our book we asked Freya Aitken-Turff CEO of the China Exchange in London to provide an introduction to China. She shares 'We have an exotic view of Chinese-ness [...] which means that expectations are often challenged when a visitor first arrives' Through our conversation she goes on to discuss how in this incredibly fast paced country sharing a pot of tea is welcome '[....] allowing us to enjoy and absorb something that has been part of China's culture and daily life for a few thousand years while connecting us to the country's contemporary experience'....This is certainly something I have experienced - from the tea market of Shanghai to the tea hills tea has enabled me to connect to so many people - a cup of tea becoming a common, human language.
The people below are those we partner with in China or have met through our travels or over cups of tea and whose stories are included in the book. The moment of motivation to start writing this book was also here - with Mr Nankang in his village in Yunnan [pictured first below] surrounded by one of the largest and best-preserved cultivated ancient tree plantation in the world. This incredible multi-layered ecosystem which naturally preserves soil fertility and reduces pests and disease. As Michelle left he took her hand and suggested she tell more people about the work being done here.
Through Mr Nankang and the people below we hope you will feel invited into the world of Chinese tea and perhaps [I hope] feel captivated to visit some of the places we mention. Don't forget, if you do, to make your first stop a cup of tea :)