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Sung-lo-shan — Its priests and tea — Its height above the sea — Rock formation — Flora of the hills — Temperature and climate — Cultivation of the tea-shrub — Mode of preserving its seeds — The young plants — Method of dyeing green teas — Ingredients employed — Chinese reason for the practice — Quantity of Prussian blue and gypsum taken by a green-tea drinker — Such teas not used by the Chinese — Mr. Warrington's observations.
THE hill of Sung-lo, or Sung-lo-shan, is situated in the province of Kiang-nan and district of Hieu-ning, a town in lat. 29° 56' N., long. 118° 15' E. It is famous in China as being the place where the green-tea shrub was first discovered, and where green tea was first manufactured. In a book called the 'Hieu-ning-hien chy,' published A.D. 1693, and quoted by Mr. Ball, there is the following notice of this place: —
"The hill or mountain where tea is produced is Sung-lo mountain. A bonze of the sect of Fo taught a Kiang-nan man, named Ko Ty, the art of making tea, and thus it was called Sung-lo tea. The tea got speedily into great repute, so that the bonze became rich and abandoned the profession of priest. The man is gone, and only the name remains. Ye men of learning and travellers who seek Sung-lo tea may now search in vain, that which is sold in the markets is a mere counterfeit."
Sung-lo-shan appears to be between two and three thousand feet above the level of the plains. It is very barren, and, whatever may have formerly been the case, it certainly produces but little tea now; indeed, from all I could learn, the tea that grows upon it is quite neglected, as far as cultivation is concerned, and is only gathered to supply the wants of the priests of Fo, who have many temples amongst these rugged wilds. Nevertheless it is a place of great interest to every Chinaman, and has afforded a subject to many of their writers.
The low lands of this district and those of Moo-yuen, situated a few miles further south, produce the greater part of the fine green teas of commerce; hence the distinction betwixt hill-tea and garden-tea, the latter simply applying to those teas which are carefully cultivated in the plains. The soil here is a rich loam, not unlike the cotton soil of Shanghae, but more free in its texture, being mixed with a considerable portion of sand.
When forming our ideas regarding the low lands, or plains, where the fine garden-tea is produced, it should be kept in mind that the level country here is not in reality low, but is a very considerable height above the level of the sea — much higher, for example, than the plain of Shanghae. From Hang-chow-foo to Hwuy-chow-foo the distance is about 800 le (150 to 200 miles); and, when we take into consideration the rapidity of the current, we see at once that the plains about Hwuy-chow-foo must be a very considerable height above those of Hang-chow or Shanghae, which are only a few feet above the level of the sea.
The rocks in this part of the country are chiefly composed of Silurian slate, like that found in England, and resting upon it is a red calcareous sandstone similar to the new red sandstone of Europe. This sandstone has the effect of giving a reddish tinge to the barren hills, as it crumbles to pieces. I met with no fossil organic remains in these rocks, but my time and opportunities did not permit me to investigate them very minutely.
All these hills are very barren and wholly unsuited to the cultivation of the tea-shrub, and hence their geological formation can have little to do with the success which has attended its management on the plains. Their vegetable productions, however, depending as they do in a great measure upon climate, afford us some valuable information, and to these I paid particular attention.
The flora here has a northern character, that is, the genera common in England or in the northern parts of India are common, while those shrubs and trees which are met with only in tropical countries are entirely unknown. The only plant seen here which has any resemblance to those of the tropics is the species of palm which I have already noticed, but it seems much more hardy than any other variety of its race. A species of holly not unlike the English is common; and various species of the oak, the pine, and the juniper are also found in great abundance. The grasses, ferns, and other low-growing bushes and herbaceous plants of northern countries are here represented by various species of the same genera.
If we were to draw our conclusions from the flora of the country only, we should be apt to suppose that the tea-shrub might be successfully cultivated in some parts of Great Britain; but this would be erroneous. We must examine the climate as well as the soil and its natural productions, and thus obtain a view of the question in all its bearings.
Shanghae is the nearest place to the green-tea country at which observations that can be relied upon regarding climate have been made to any extent.
The following table, prepared in Shanghae (lat. 31° 20' N.) from daily observations with Newman's best maximum and minimum thermometers, will give the requisite information as regards temperature: —
It is necessary to state, in connection with these observations on temperature, that the winter of 1844-5 was unusually mild. I have no doubt that in ordinary seasons the thermometer may sometimes sink as low as 10° or 12° of Fahrenheit. The winter months are not unlike those which we experience in England; sometimes heavy and continued falls of rain take place, at other times the frost is very severe, the rivers and lakes are frozen over, and the ground is covered with snow. The spring is early and pleasant. In April and May, when the monsoon changes from north-east to south-west, the weather is generally very wet; in fact, this is what is commonly called the "rainy season." From June to August it is often oppressingly hot, the sky is generally clear, little rain falls, but vegetation is often refreshed with heavy dews at night. The autumnal months are cool and agreeable, and about the end of October slight frosts are not unfrequent.
When we consider that Shanghae is 9° 30' further south than Naples, the extremes of heat and cold will appear excessive. But in order to account for this we must bear in mind the observations made by Humboldt many years ago. "Europe," he observes, "may be considered altogether as the western part of a great continent, and therefore subject to all the influence which causes the western sides of continents to be warmer than the eastern, and at the same time more temperate, or less subject to excesses of both heat and cold, but principally the latter."
Shanghae is situated on the east side of the large continent of Asia, and is consequently liable to extremes of temperature — to excessive heat in summer and extreme cold in winter — such as are unknown in many other places in the same degree of latitude.
But Shanghae is near the sea, and the extremes of heat and cold are therefore less than in the green-tea district of Hwuy-chow. I have no doubt that the thermometer rises several degrees higher in summer in the town of Hwuy-chow-foo than it does either in Shanghae or Ning-po, and in like manner sinks much lower during the winter. If we allow eight or ten degrees each way we shall probably be very near the truth — quite near enough for all the purposes of this inquiry.
In the green-tea district of Hwuy-chow, and I believe in all other parts where the shrub is cultivated, it is multiplied by seeds. The seeds are ripe in the month of October. When gathered they are generally put into a basket, and mixed up with sand and earth in a damp state, and in this condition they are kept until the spring. If this plan is not pursued only a small portion of them will germinate. Like the seeds of the oak and chestnut, they are destroyed when exposed to sudden changes in temperature and moisture.
In the month of March the seeds are taken out of the basket and placed in the ground. They are generally sown thickly, in rows or in beds, in a nursery, or in some spare corner of the tea-farm, and sometimes the vacancies in the existing plantations are made up by sowing five or six seeds in each vacant space.
When the young plants are a year old they are in a fit state for transplanting. This is always done at the change of the monsoon in spring, when fine warm showers are of frequent occurrence. They are planted in rows about four feet apart, and in groups of five or six plants in the row. The distance between each group or patch is generally about four feet. The first crop of leaves is taken from these plants in the third year. When under cultivation they rarely attain a greater height than three or four feet.
When the winters are very severe the natives tie straw bands round the bushes to protect them from the frost, and to prevent it and the snow from splitting them.
In my former work1 I offered some remarks upon the preference which many persons in Europe and in America have for coloured green teas, and I will now give a "full and particular account" of the colouring process as practised in the Hwuy-chow green-tea country upon those teas which are destined for the foreign market. Having noted down the process carefully at the time, I will extract verbatim from my note-book: —
"The superintendent of the workmen managed the colouring part of the process himself. Having procured a portion of Prussian blue, he threw it into a porcelain bowl, not unlike a chemist's mortar, and crushed it into a very fine powder. At the same time a quantity of gypsum was produced and burned in the charcoal fires which were then roasting the teas. The object of this was to soften it in order that it might be readily pounded into a very fine powder, in the same manner as the Prussian blue had been. The gypsum, having been taken out of the fire after a certain time had elapsed, readily crumbled down and was reduced to powder in the mortar. These two substances, having been thus prepared, were then mixed together in the proportion of four parts of gypsum to three parts of Prussian blue, and formed a light-blue powder, which was then ready for use.
"This colouring matter was applied to the teas during the last process of roasting. About five minutes before the tea was removed from the pans — the time being regulated by the burning of a joss-stick — the superintendent took a small porcelain spoon, and with it he scattered a portion of the colouring matter over the leaves in each pan. The workmen then turned the leaves rapidly round with both hands, in order that the colour might be equally diffused.
During this part of the operation the hands of the workmen were quite blue. I could not help thinking that if any green-tea drinkers had been present during the operation their taste would have been corrected, and, I may be allowed to add, improved. It seems perfectly ridiculous that a civilised people should prefer these dyed teas to those of a natural green. No wonder that the Chinese consider the natives of the west to be a race of barbarians.
"One day an English gentleman in Shanghae, being in conversation with some Chinese from the green-tea country, asked them what reasons they had for dyeing the tea, and whether it would not be better without undergoing this process. They acknowledged that tea was much better when prepared without having any such ingredients mixed with it, and that they never drank dyed teas themselves, but justly remarked that, as foreigners seemed to prefer having a mixture of Prussian blue and gypsum with their tea, to make it look uniform and pretty, and as these ingredients were cheap enough, the Chinese had no objection to supply them, especially as such teas always fetched a higher price!
"I took some trouble to ascertain precisely the quantity of colouring matter used in the process of dyeing green teas, not certainly with the view of assisting others, either at home or abroad, in the art of colouring, but simply to show green-tea drinkers in England, and more particularly in the United States of America, what quantity of Prussian blue and gypsum they imbibe in the course of one year. To 14 ½ lbs. of tea were applied 8 mace 2 ½ candareens of colouring matter, or rather more than an ounce. In every hundred pounds of coloured green tea consumed in England or America, the consumer actually drinks more than half a pound of Prussian blue and gypsum. And yet, tell the drinkers of this coloured tea that the Chinese eat cats, dogs, and rats, and they will hold up their hands in amazement, and pity the poor celestials!"
Two kinds of Prussian blue are used by the tea-manufacturers — one is the kind commonly met with, the other I have seen only in the north of China.2 It is less heavy than common Prussian blue, of a bright pale tint, and very beautiful. Turmeric root is frequently employed in Canton, but I did not observe it in use in Hwuy-chow.
I procured samples of these ingredients from the Chinamen in the factory, in order that there might be no mistake as to what they really were. These were sent home to the Great Exhibition last year, and a portion of them submitted to Mr. Warrington, of Apothecaries' Hall, whose investigations in connexion with this subject are well known. In a paper read by him before the Chemical Society, and published in its 'Memoirs and Proceedings,' he says, —
"Mr. Fortune has forwarded from the north of China, for the Industrial Exhibition, specimens of these materials (tea dyes), which, from their appearance, there can be no hesitation in stating are fibrous gypsum (calcined), turmeric root, and Prussian blue; the latter of a bright pale tint, most likely from admixture with alumina or porcelain-clay, which admixture may account for the alumina and silica found as stated in my previous paper, and the presence of which was then attributed possibly to the employment of kaolin or agalmatolite."
1 Three Years' Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China.
2 I formerly mistook this for a kind of indigo.