Legend has it that tea produced in Xishuangbanna was first traded before the Qin Dynasty – that is, before 221 BC. However, the earliest historical records of tea trade in the area date from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). At that time, tea was mainly sold to the Central Plains area around the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River; the areas south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, including southern Jiangsu and Anhui provinces and northern Zhejiang Province; Sichuan Province; Tibet; and India. From the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Pu'er tea underwent a boom as it gained a reputation as the tribute tea of choice for the nobility in the imperial palace. In the yard of Che Family home in Yiwu County, there is still a board inscribed with four characters, "Rui gong tian chao." These characters were inscribed by an emperor in the mid-19th century, and mean "Divine Tribute to the Kingdom of Heaven." Locals still regard the words as a great honor.
At that time the imperial court set up a special institution in Pu'er Prefecture, the tea collecting and distribution center, in a bid to manage tea production, processing and trade. This is how the tea's name came about. By that time, trade in Pu'er tea had reached Southeast Asia and parts of South Asia.
Meanwhile, transporting Pu'er tea became a thriving business. Yunnan is a mountainous province with many virgin forests, so good transportation in the early days relied on a large numbers of mules, horses and oxen. Those transportation teams were known as horse or oxen caravans. The operators of these caravans were mostly Han, who had shuttled between inland areas and Yunnan for 1,300 years. Even today in Yiwu County, many local Han people say their ancestors were immigrants who came with the caravans.
Yiwu in Xishuangbanna is a small town legendary for its tea. In 736, Liu Hancheng, a Han person, led a horse caravan to Yunnan. The caravan surmounted various difficulties until it finally reached a virgin forest located at an altitude of about 1,300 meters above sea level in northern Mengla County, Xishuangbanna. There Liu decided to settle down and join the tea business. He opened a teashop named "Tongqing," which was among the first in the area. Over the next 200 years, many other teashops sprouted up, some of which are still famous today. The emergence of the teashops transformed the forested area into a small town. Traders came from afar and made huge profits, and thereafter settled in the area.
Yiwu has been a renowned tea processing center and export base since the Qing Dynasty. However, now there are only dilapidated walls and cracked houses here, and weeds grow along the sides of ancient roads. Even the famous Shiping Guildhall, which was once a thriving well-decorated edifice, has become a ramshackle building. Only the hoof prints on the ancient roads remind people of the prosperity of former days. But tourists still visit the old tea processing mills in Yiwu. In spring or autumn, visitors watch how Pu'er is processed manually, in contrast to most areas where Pu'er is processed with machines.
The Gao family firm is local tea trader with a history of around 100 years. The family plants tea in its own garden, covering an area of about 100 mu (1 mu equals to 666.7 square meters). Some of their wild tea trees are more than a century old. Because of their high value, tea dealers come from as far away as Taiwan to ask about their yields. Nowadays, there are three people in the Gao family and they still work together processing their tea. Gao's wife is in charge of drying the leaves through rapid pan-frying. Then she rolls, rubs and shapes the leaves. Frying the leaves also helps remove their bad smell. After that, Gao's daughter steams the pu'er. The dry leaves become soft in the warm and humid environment. At this point she wraps the leaves in a cloth and shapes them into a cake – the form in which the tea is sold.
The last step is the most important – the pressing of the tea, which needs to be done by men. Gao bends over and lifts a large stone of around 10 kilograms. "We have to press pu'er with this stone for at least half an hour," he explains. The Gao family has 20 such stones, and continually working them to press the pu'er requires considerable physical strength. It also requires a certain technique. Knowing how, where, and how long to press involves much knowledge and experience.
Da Hong Pao from Wuyi Mountain of Fujian Province
Da Hong Pao is the best Oolong Tea. It is grown in Jiulongke (literally the nest of nine dragons), a valley on the north side of Wuyi Mountain. The site appears on UNECSO's list of both natural and cultural World Heritage Sites.
Jiulongke is named after the nine cliffs flanking the valley, which look like dragons. Visitors can see six original Da Hong Pao tea trees of 350 years old growing among the rocks of Jiulongke. They look ordinary, but 20 grams of the Da Hong Pao can be sold for RMB 200,000. In the past gun-totting guards patrolled the area. However, since 2006 it has been forbidden to harvest leaves from these trees. Da Hong Pao currently sold on the market comes from plants grown in the 1970s and 1980s.
In fact there are many tea trees growing on the cliffs and hills of Wuyi Mountain, but for hundreds of years people have believed that Da Hong Pao is the best. The most outstanding feature of Da Hong Pao is its strong aroma, which resembles the scent of an orchid. The fragrance is intense and long lasting.