Iron Goddess of Mercy

Anxi is a mountain village, sitting on top of hills that have been entirely carved with tea terraces. There’s not a lot else you can do with the mountains in Fujian, as they are too steep for any other kind of cultivation. So it’s lucky they can grow tea.

The director has spent the last two days hectoring me about the difference between the languages of south Fujian (Hokkien) and north Fujian, around Fuzhou (Hokchew). It often sounds like a real-ale drinker buttonholing one in the pub about the differences between the dialects of Norfolk and Suffolk, but it’s a big deal for her, and supposedly for the locals, too. She is particularly pleased because her own native dialect, Teochew, is cognate with Hokkien, and so she can rocket off in conversation with the locals.

Hokkien is a big deal because in the local language the word for tea is not the Chinese chá, but . Or in Hokchew, t­ē. I think you can see where this is going; when the drink was first exported, it was shipped by Hokkienese, who told the English and the French how to pronounce it.

Being in a warm place with pointy roofs, while a bunch of people yell at each other in Hokkien all around me feels oddly like being back in Taiwan. We are in what was once a plush 19th century farmhouse with upswept Min eaves, now converted into a centre for tea excitement. You may wonder what is exciting about tea, and I am still wondering myself, but the manager, Jasen Lim, is an affable former designer who has made tea his new tourist mantra. Visitors can come and sample the varieties of Iron Guanyin, which happens to be my favourite Chinese tea.

He sets out three bowls in front of me. One is Iron Guanyin made from one-year-old leaves, and tastes faintly of orchids. At least that is what he tells me – never having tasted an orchid, I can neither confirm nor deny. The second is from three-year-old leaves, and has a smokier aftertaste. The third is from five-year-old leaves, and has a darker, brownish colour, looking more like oolong. I obligingly sip and comment, and only choke a couple of times when I am exhorted to suck and gargle with it like a wine connoisseur.

“You are the first English person I have met,” Jasen says. “Although not the first English person to try this tea. That was Queen Victoria, back in the days when the English drank real tea.”

Half an hour’s drive further up the mountain, we come to Wei Yuede’s compound. Master Wei is such a tea celebrity that he only has two hours to shoot with us before he rushes off to a tea conference in Beijing. One wonders what they serve in the breaks. He is clad in Qing-style silk and is an ideal interviewee. I have a set of questions to ask him, but when I ask him the first, he launches into a ten-minute soliloquy about the meaning of tea, answering with a series of four-character phrases, each one of which is unpicked into a series of poems about the wondrous properties of tea, particularly Iron Guanyin. I ask him how it differs from Pu’er, and he goes into one.

“Pu’er is rubbish! They don’t know what they’re doing. They roast it too much. They use the wrong trees. They’re all idiots. There’s a poem that says…” And off he goes for another ten minutes, until I ask him what he thinks of English tea.

“English tea!? Ha! That Indian crap! They steal our tea and plant it somewhere foreign, and then they leave it in the hands of lackwits who don’t know how to bruise it, don’t know how to roast it, don’t know how to store it and don’t know how to ship it. They cart it ten thousand miles on ships damp with saltwater, and they hand it over to a bunch of foreigners who don’t know how to make it. It turns out brown! We have a poetic saying that goes…” And he’s off again.

Usually, our problem with Chinese interviewees is that they don’t know anything. Master Wei knows everything, and is determined to preface any statement with a nine-point rebuttal, in blank verse, of any likely dissent. I just wind him up and watch him go. When he finishes, with an appeal to the peanut gallery about the future of tea, there is applause from the assembled visitors.

“My ancestor,” he says, “discovered Iron Guanyin tea. He was visited in a dream by Guanyin herself, the Goddess of Mercy, who told him how to make it.”

Master Wei has half a dozen children. This is somewhat in contravention of the one-child policy, but he makes so much money from selling tea that he just pays the fine and keeps on trucking.

“My most expensive tea,” he says, “is £36,000 a kilogram. It is so pure that it actually GETS YOU HIGH. And hard. All night.” There is a long pause, which segues into a Pinteresque silence. “Do you want some?”

I confess that I have little need for any of these benefits right now, particularly since the director and our fixer have each taken the bedrooms on either side of mine, in order to protect me from what they believe to be an army of prostitutes converging on the hotel. I have seen no evidence of this, but I appreciate their concern. As for Master Wei, he is living proof of his beverage of choice’s medicinal benefits.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).

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