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Ancient tea heritage cultivates new success

By HU MEIDONG in Fuzhou and ALEXIS HOOI | China Daily | Updated: 2023-03-31

Unlike many of his other young colleagues, Li Yao, a software engineer, doesn't start his day with a cup of coffee. Instead, his long hours in front of the computer are sustained through countless pots of traditional Chinese dark tea.

"I was a coffee addict for a few years after returning from abroad, but I've gradually rediscovered the joys of tea," the 32-year-old Beijing resident said. "It's not just a beverage. It's a part of our culture and heritage here."

His choice of tea is Tieguanyin, a semi-fermented oolong variety from an ancient production area in Anxi county of East China's Fujian province.

Li's preference exemplifies a growing interest at home and abroad in local agricultural products and also the traditions and practices behind them.

In May, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations included Anxi's tea-producing site on its list of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, recognizing its focus on time-honored techniques and ecological sustainability.

The history of Anxi's tea cultivation spans more than 1,000 years, forming a complex agricultural system that encompasses pest and disease control, water and soil conservation, nutrient recycling and microclimate adjustments with age-old cultural practices, according to the FAO.

The tea industry is a pillar for Anxi, where about 80 percent of the population works in tea-related jobs and more than half of farmers' income comes from tea.

Tea planting in the county covered 40,000 hectares in 2021, with an output of 62,000 metric tons that year and output value of 28 billion yuan ($4.1 billion).

Meanwhile, Anxi Tieguanyin, with a brand value of 142.9 billion yuan, has topped a national ranking of tea brands for six consecutive years, local authorities said.

By the end of 2022, China's number of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems sites, such as Anxi's tea-producing area, totaled 19, the most of any nation on the FAO list.

In July, President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to the World Conference on Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, saying it is the common responsibility of humankind to protect agricultural heritage.

China has been protecting and promoting agricultural heritage, constantly advancing protection of such practices, Xi emphasized.

Anxi's Tieguanyin culture system encompasses planting and production practices that can be traced back to the late Tang Dynasty (618-907).

With an intimate understanding of the growth habits and characteristics of local plants, tea growers in Anxi have established a multitiered landscape, with headwater forests on hilltops, tea trees on hillsides and fruit trees in the foothills, sustaining a structure that "makes full use of local illumination, heat, water and soil resources", according to the FAO.

Zhang Changshui, an official with Anxi's agriculture and rural affairs bureau, said the "world-class business card" of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems will further shape the brand image of Anxi tea, give it a stronger global presence and invigorate the local economy.

Tea cultivator He Huanzhu is helping more local people ride the success of the tea industry in Anxi by including more women in the industry and offering them study and work opportunities.

In 2019, He initiated training programs on tea-related subjects, ranging from production to promotion, in line with technological upgrading, the digital economy and sustainable development.

The programs have attracted more than 380 women as trainees, some of whom started their own businesses after mastering tea-related knowledge and techniques.

"We invite tea experts and entrepreneurs at home and abroad to carry out training programs on tea culture, tea industry and technology to help preserve and promote Anxi's Tieguanyin tea culture system," He said.

Wei Yuede, a national-level intangible cultural inheritor of Tieguanyin techniques, is another promoter of Anxi's tea culture.

The certified tea master established an institute to teach and train next-generation practitioners. Wei expressed the hope that there can be more qualified practitioners to share the responsibility of carrying forward tea culture.

Wei said that with the steady development of Anxi's tea industry, more people will be attracted by the history and heritage of tea.

"By buying and drinking, the world can know more about our Tieguanyin," he said.

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