In the spring of 1938, Feng Shaoqiu arrived in Hankou, one of the three major cities in Hubei province and once a lucrative international tea port. The China Tea Corporation needed his expertise in locating other tea producing areas, since much of the areas surroundings their tea plantations in southeast China had become war zones in the wake of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
In August the China Tea Corporation Corporation relocated to Chongqing in China’s southwest. Feng and his colleague Zheng Hechun were sent to southern Yunnan to investigate the economic potential of the region as a tea production base. Arriving in Kunming in mid October, Feng and Zheng took a three-day steam train to Xiaguan and from there walked for almost fifteen days across rugged mountain ranges and sections of the Mekong River. They arrived in Shunning (present-day Fengqing) in early November. It should have been recorded in the annals of modern tea history as the long tea march.
The journey turned out to be a gold mine for the production of black tea. Feng and Zheng collected samples of black and green tea and returned to Kunming in December with glowing reports of Shunning as an idea tea producing area. The tea wheels were set in motion with trial testing of the teas. In December the Yunnan Tea Trading Corporation was founded. From 1939 to 1941, the Shunning Experimental Tea Factory produced 110 tonnes of gongfu black tea.
Other tea producing areas in southern Yunnan were also explored. A tea processing expert called Fan Hejun was sent to Menghai and reported back to the Yunnan Tea Trade Company that the large leaf varieties in the region were comparable in quality to leaves used by Darjeeling Tea and Anhui Keemun Tea. Trial samples were sent to Hong Kong and Shanghai for further inspection.
The Fohai Experimental Tea Factory (forerunner of the Menghai Tea Factory) officially opened shop in September 1940. It employed over 90 technical personnel from around the country. By the end of 1941, the factory produced close to 15 tonnes of black tea. It was shipped to Hong Kong packed in tuocha wicker baskets, then repacked in wooden creates for export.
The tea was no longer called Yunhong (Yunnan Red), but Dianhong. Dian, an abbreviation for Yunnan province, was considered more ‘refined’ and ‘elegant’ than Yun, and had a venerable history in Chinese textual sources. The first mention of dian used in the compound diancha (Yunnan tea) can be found in The Book of the Southern Barbarians compiled by Fan Chuo in the eighth century.
The Fohai Experimental Tea Factory was forced to close its doors in 1942 because of the Pacific War, relocating to Kunming. The tea factory was not yet fully set up, but before the factory’s employees left for Kunming, an electric generator was installed only to be dismantled in case the Japanese found use for it as a power source.
From the mid 1950s, Yunnan black tea produced in Fengqing and Menghai expanded into Changning, Yunxian, Shuangjiang and Lincang. From 1952 to 2009, export figures show that Yunnan black tea production grew steadily from 430 tonnes in 1952 to 2,435 tonnes in 1963, 4,865 tonnes in 1974, 5,775 tonnes in 1985, and 6,000 tonnes in 2009. While the production of broken Yunnan black tea started in the late 1950s, it wasn’t until 1989 with the purchase of CTC machinery from England that Yunnan black tea started to make a significant dent in the international market.
It’s tempting to make parallels with Feng and Zheng who collected tea samples in Yunnan and the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune (1812-1880). Fortune was famously commissioned by the East India Company in the 1840s to collect tea specimens and plants in China with the hope of breaking the monopoly that China had on tea cultivation, and establishing a tea industry in India. Feng Shaoqiu, Zheng Hechun and Fan Hejun were never bestowed with such colourful job descriptions as Fortune, described in some texts as ‘the famous Scottish tea spy for the English,’ ‘an undercover agent to China,’ ‘official plant collector in China.’
‘A Brief History of Yunnan Black Tea’ (‘Dianhong Shilüe’), Dianhong (Yunnan Black Tea), April 2011: 1-4.
‘A Foreign Trade History of Yunnan Black Tea’ (‘Dianhong Maoyishi’), Dianhong (Yunnan Black Tea), April 2011: 8-10.
‘Amazing Lives: Robert Fortune’ (click here).