In April 2011 a job was posted on a website seeking ‘full-time tea leaf pickers’ to pluck tea on Jiuhua Mountain in Xinyang in southern Henan province. The ad required young women who had ‘no sexual experience,’ ‘a bra size of at least a C,’ and a body that had no visible ‘scar or wound.’
The job ad also stipulated that tea would not be delicately plucked with the fingers but with the mouth during the spring harvest season. This technique of plucking the tender bud and adjacent leaves is called ‘mouth-lip tea’ 口唇茶):.
The so-called “mouth lip tea” comes from a legend that tea leaves used to be picked by fairy maidens with their mouths. When boiling water is poured onto these tea leaves, fairy maidens will ascend amidst steam into the sky. Tea made from these leaves has refreshing aroma and taste and can even cure diseases.
A variation on this legend tells us that the tea leaves were placed in young women or maiden’s bosoms when the tea baskets were full. Their ‘body heat’ purportedly warmed the leaves ‘releasing an extraordinarily fragrant smell.’
So how has it come to pass that we inherited these stories of young tea pickers endowed with large enough breasts to contain tea leaves?
Women of all ages have played a crucial role in the harvesting and production of tea in China. It was work that was both hard and hazardous, hard in that the long arduous hours required to pluck tea during three seasonal pickings–spring, summer and autumn–hazardous in that the tea was invariably grown on hilly slopes and far from flat terrain.
The tea plucked by young women become known as ‘maiden’ or girl tea (女儿茶). The tender buds and leaves plucked became synonymous with the delicate fingers and features of the young female ‘virgin’ pickers. It was also a name that used to denote tea of the highest quality–green tea produced in Xinyang, Henan or Pu’er tea from Menghai in Yunnan and tribute tea for the emperors.
The labour force for tea production would not just include women but men as well during the peak of the tea harvesting seasons, but poets, specifically male poets since the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) when tea was drunk across the social spectrum, idealized the task of tea plucking and the women.
The Tang poet Jiao Ran writes:
Carrying a basket, the girl of Wu climbs the mountain
In the mist, brambles pick at her clothes.
Falling mountain flowers confuse her direction.
Startled birds fly away, as she crosses the stream. . . .
Some of the depictions included the breasts of these young maidens:
Rarely was this tea known to people since ancient times,
Its superb quality has nothing to do with curing by fire.
When the girl, who is only fifteen years old, arrives to pick tea,
Her smooth breast heats the leaves, which look like jade.
She dries the tea with no concern for her clothing,
The tea foams into the cup—a cupful of fragrance
Armchair poets’ imaginations run wild or did some of them actually end up in the tea fields and mountains. I see it as if it were a movie–poet has his focus on a nubile tea-picker, is smitten by the landscape and the tea maiden and is momentarily wonderstruck.
Hard, difficult work becomes fantasy, infatuation and even erotic love. The object of their gaze are young women, who if able to offer their own assessment would be telling a quite different story.
‘Chinese job ad: Tea-leaf picking girls have to be virgins, C-cup and Up,’ Ministry of Tofu, April 17, 2011. Article accessed here:
Lei Ping’an, Pu’er Cha ji (Notes on Pu’er Tea), revised edition, Kunming: Yunnan Fine Arts Publishing Press, 2005.
Lu, Weijing, Beyond the Paradigm: Tea-Picking Women in Imperial China, Journal of Women’s History, no. 4, Winter 2004, pp. 19-46.
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