TEA LITERATURE

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A Journey To The Tea Countries of China

By Robert Fortune

ITSS-Robert-Fortune-imageRobert Fortune (1813-1880) 

An excerpt from Robert Fortune’s, A Journey to the Tea Countries of China

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When morning dawned we had an early breakfast and proceeded on our journey. One of the grandest sights I had ever beheld was now awaiting me. For some time past I had been, as it were, amongst a sea of mountains, but now the far-famed Bohea ranges layn before me in all their grandeur, with their tops piercing through the lower clouds, and showing themselves far above them. They seemed to be broken up into thousands of fragments, some of which had most remarkable and striking outlines. It is difficult to form an estimate of their height, but, comparing them with other mountains known to me, the highest here may be six or eight thousand feet above the level of the sea. There are some spots on the sides of the lower hills under cultivation, but all above these is rugged and wild.

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I always like to look on scenery of this kind early in the morning. I do not know whether it is that there is a freshness and beauty about it then which it loses when the day is further advanced, or whether the mind is more susceptible of impressions then than at other times ; it may be that both these combine to render morning views most delightful and pleasing to the eye. Had I chosen the time for my first view of the Bohea mountains, I could not have been more fortunate. The morning was clear, the air cool, and the sun was just shining on their eastern sides. As its rays shone on the rugged peaks, they gave a rich and golden tint to some, while those in the shade looked gloomy and frowning. Strange rocks, like gigantic statues of men or various animals, appeared to crown the heights, and made the view most remarkable.

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Our road had been of an undulating character all the way from Hokow, and, although we had ascended a great number of hills, yet we generally descended again into valleys on the opposite side, but, on the whole, we were gradually attaining a higher elevation above the level of the sea. We had now, however, arrived at the foot of the central and highest range, and began the ascent towards the mountain pass. The road here is about six feet in width, and paved with granite. It led us round the sides of the mountains, and gradually carried us higher and higher, and at last, when we had rounded one of the upper windings, a view of the pass itself, in the highest range, was presented. This pass is much lower than any other part of the range, and consequently has the mountains rising high on each side of it. Just before we arrived at the top the road was so steep that even Chinese travellers get out of their chairs and walk, a proceeding unusual with them on ordinary occasions. From the foot of the range to the pass at which we had now arrived the distance was twenty le, or about five miles.

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This pass is a busy thoroughfare. It connects the countries of Fokien with those of Kiang-see, and is the highway, through the mountains, from the black tea districts to the central and northern provinces of the Chinese empire. Long trains of coolies were met or overtaken at every turning of the road. Those going northward were laden with chests of tea, and those going south carried lead and other products for which there is a demand in the tea country. Travellers in chairs were also numerous, some going to, and others returning from, the towns of Tsong-ganhien and Tsing-tsun, and the surrounding country. Whether I looked up towards the pass, or down on the winding pathway by which I had come, a strange and busy scene presented itself. However numerous the coolies, or however good the road, I never observed any two of them walking abreast, as people do in other countries; each one followed his neighbour, and in the distance they resembled a colony of ants on the move.

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At every quarter of a mile, or sometimes less, there is a tea-shop, for the refreshment of those who are toiling up or down the mountain. We frequently stopped at these places on our way, and refreshed ourselves with a cup of the pure bohea on its native mountains.  (pages 208-211)

Tea Plantations in China

In publishing this account of my journey I may repeat what I said in the introduction to my former ‘ Wanderings :’—” I have no intention of writing or making a book upon China.” My object is to give a peep into the Celestial Empire, to show its strange hills and romantic valleys, its rivers and canals, its natural productions, whether in the field, on the hillside, or in the garden, and its strange and interesting people, as they were seen by in their every-day life.

Roadside Altar in Chinese Tea-Growing Region

As I descended the hill I passed a small and unassuming temple, erected, as the tablet states, to the ” honoured gods of the soil.” The accompanying sketch by Captain Cracroft gives a good idea of it. Small temples, or ” tablets,” of this description are often met with on the roadsides, particularly in the vicinity of monastic buildings. Idolatrous as they are, they show a spirit of thankfulness to the Supreme Being for the ” showers that usher in the spring, and cheer the thirsty ground.”

Carrying High Quality Tea

These I was told were the finer teas; the chest was never allowed to touch the ground during the journey, and hence these teas generally arrive at their destination in much better order than the coarser kinds. The single chests were carried in the following manner. Two bamboos, each about seven feet long, had their ends lashed firmly to the chest, one on each side. The other ends were brought together, so as to form a triangle. By this means a man could carry the chest upon his shoulders, with his head between the bamboos in the centre of the triangle. A small piece of wood was lashed under the chest, to give it an easy seat upon the shoulders. The accompanying sketch will give a better idea of this curious mode of carrying tea than any description.

Carrying Low-Quality Tea

All the low-priced teas are carried across in the common way; that is, each coolie, with a bamboo across his shoulders, carries two chests, one being slung from each end of the bamboo. Whenever he rests, either on the road or at the inn, the chests are set down upon the ground, and consequently get soiled, and do not arrive at their destination in as good order as those carried in the other way.

Other Publications by Robert Fortune

  • Three Years’ Wandering in the Northern Provinces of China, A Visit to the Tea, Silk, and Cotton Countries, with an account of the Agriculture and Horticulture of the Chinese, New Plants, etc., London: John Murray.
  • A Journey To The Tea Countries Of China; Including Sung-Lo And The Bohea Hills; With A Short Notice Of The East India Company’s Tea Plantations In The Himalaya Mountains. By Robert Fortune … With Map And Illustrations, London: John Murray. [and reprinted 1987 by Mildmay Books]
  • Two visits to the tea countries of China and the British tea plantations in the Himalaya: with a narrative of adventures, and a full description of the culture of the tea plant, the agriculture, horticulture, and botany of China 1, London: Murray, LCCN 04-32957, National Library: CAT10983833.“China Through Western Eyes”, Digital Initiatives, University of Hong Kong Libraries.
  • Two visits to the tea countries of China and the British tea plantations in the Himalaya: with a narrative of adventures, and a full description of the culture of the tea plant, the agriculture, horticulture, and botany of China 2, London: Murray, LCCN 04-32957, National Library: CAT10983833.“China Through Western Eyes”, Digital Initiatives, University of Hong Kong Libraries.
  •  A Residence Among the Chinese; Inland, On the Coast and at Sea; being a Narrative of Scenes and Adventures During a Third Visit to China from 1853 to 1856, including Notices of Many Natural Productions and Works of Art, the Culture of Silk, &c, London: John Murray
  •  Yedo and Peking; A Narrative of a Journey to the Capitals of Japan and China, with Notices of the Natural Productions, Agriculture, Horticulture and Trade of those Countries and Other Things Met with By the Way, London: John Murray.