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A tea leaf ’s journey

Updated : Apr 08, 2020
A cup of hot tea with golden luster is made through a magic journey which starts when tea leaves are picked gently in the early morning without sunlight weakening the freshness and brightness of dewy tea buds.

Zhangjaijie shines with golden sunlight and cole flowers in early spring and then will be dominated by greenness as tea plays its part in the drama of spring.

A tea garden located at an altitude of over 500 meters in Huangjiaping Village of Wulingyuan District, boasts broad space and rich resources for the development of tea with its humid and foggy climate all year around.

Tea is rather precious around Qingming. Where tea buds are nourished in moist and misty mountain areas, tea pickers, principally women, add another bright color to the tea garden when they carry a bamboo basket and nip off tea buds with the gentlest force of their fingertips.

He Jie, a tea maker who inherited the ancient method of processing tea that has lasted for generations, protects the disappearing traditional skill with his perseverance that is not worn by time.

A piece of green leaf can be magically transformed with his handicraft as he is rather familiar with all the tea-making procedures and quite capable of it.

Firstly, the stir-frying process begins after the green leaves are put into a pot. He Jie repeatedly stir-fries in one direction with both hands turning the tea leaves upside down, throwing them to the direction of his body and then making them drop back into the pot. To throw is to form a temperature difference, which can stimulate the substances in the tea and generate unique tea aroma.

Secondly, the fixation is also an important and unique tea-making technique. The heat under the pot should be well adjusted so that the green color of leaves can be properly faded without impairing the fragrance and freshness while removing the astringent flavor, which requires professional skills of a tea maker, especially when there was no thermostatic control in the past. If the temperature is too low, it is necessary to braise the tea for a longer time and slow down the frequency of stir-frying; otherwise, it is necessary to speed up the frequency. Fresh leaves that have been stored in the basket should be stir-fried more often because of the high temperature of the basket.

With the advancement of modern technology, He Jie does not need to get through all these troubles and can dehydrate the leaves heated evenly in the pot. And the leaves gradually turn darker and smaller, letting off pleasing aroma.

Thirdly, after the leaves are held in a round bamboo basket, spread out evenly, and left to cool down for about 15 minutes, it it time to start another procedure of rolling. He Jie gently gathers the tea leaves in the center of the bamboo basket and rubs them with both palms with a force of about 5 kilograms in a counterclockwise direction at a constant speed, to prevent the leaf buds from breaking.

With delicate handling, this procedure is not completed until each tea leave is evenly shaped. As the tea leaves crackle softly in the pot, He Jie grabs the leaves and shakes gently to make them fall back into the hot pot.

After the fixation and the rolling are repeated three times, fragrance of the agglomerated tea fills the whole space.

It takes more than 2 hours to complete the process. And the quality of the finished tea is always determined by how the tea maker's eyes, mouth, hands, and nose work and his years of experience in handling tea, though today's tea making equipment is more advanced than in the past. 

The ancient method of making tea is totally based on the feeling of the frying temperature with hands to fully maintain the flavour. Therefore, He Jie never wears gloves when stir-frying to better perceive the shape and transformation of tea leaves.

“Hands are the most valuable weapon for tea makers,” said He Jie. It all depends on the hands to judge the dryness, toughness, and softness of tea leaves through touching and feeling. And the speed, force and temperature also directly determine the quality of the newly made tea.

He Jie’s hands are rougher and darker than others’, yet they represent the most delicate tea making technique.

Tea making, like any other handicraft, resembles the attitude humans have toward the nature and self as the laws of nature is implied in the whole process. We learn about concentration, dedication, treasuring and inheritance and understand the softness of nature in the fragile leaves.

Inexpensive as tea could be, it is sure to be made in perfect condition with appropriate techniques and timing, according to He Jie.

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