Drying maocha in Man Zhuan village, Xiangming
I had heard that Man Zhuan 蛮砖 was one of the best places to buy pure gu shu near Yiwu. Man Zhuan is one of the 6 famous tea mountains of ancient times (六大茶山), and produces some exceptionally fragrant tea, because their old trees grow organically surrounded by natural forest. Apart from a little weed cutting with machete, these 200 year old trees live in balance with the lichen & insects. So we made the 2 hour trip from Yiwu's main town, rattling over 55km of cobblestone & dirt track, to see these trees for ourselves.
A shelter amongst the tea trees
There are many villages on Man Zhuan mountain, but the village that shares the mountain's namesake, is surprisingly small, comprised of only 28 families, who share 50-60mu of old trees split into parcels of land on the east & west sides of the mountain (elevation 1,250m). They pick 5 times a year, including winter / rainy season tea, yet a typical family plot only produces around 100kg maocha a year. Their 2011 maocha was selling for RMB 400/kg. I asked the farmers if it would be better for the trees & the value of their tea if they only picked 2 or 3 times a year. They said they contantly pick throughout the year to maximise the growth of buds, and reduce huangpian (which only sells for RMB 10 / kg).
"Ba Jiao" - small, sweet bananas
Litter on the track
We walked down through the village to see their tea garden. Every household was sun drying maocha in large pans, propped up on every elevated surface. Passing through an outcrop of “ba jiao” banana trees, I was disappointed to see plastic refuse & tin cans littering the dirt track. But 200m further down, and we emerged into a clearing where roughly 100 trees 2-3m high were growing on a steep slope, surrounded by natural forest.
Man Zhuang's tea trees, growing in the forest
Compared to the 100 year old plantation bushes we had seen in Yiwu, these were stand alone trees growing in a less landscaped environment, but they were still rather thin & wispy, with long tall branches growing vertically up to give them their height. They appeared somewhat denuded, relative to old trees I saw on Nannuo & Bulang. Perhaps due to the constant picking they endure. Unlike the animist tribes such as the Jinuo people on YouLe, who venerate their tea trees and sacrifice chickens to them, the Han Chinese who settled in Yiwu are known for pushing their trees harder. So whilst I wasn’t terribly impressed by Man Zhuan’s trees, we at least got a good reference of what passes for a 200 year old tree.
Typical Man Zhuan tea tree trunk (purportedly 200 years old)
Lichen lichen everywhere
Back in the village we met Zhu Ke Cheng (朱克诚 ) a solid rock of man who looked more like a rugby player than a tea producer. He told us he used to be so muscly, nobody believed he sold tea for a living. I asked him if he was a wrestler or weight lifter. “No, but you’re on the right track,” he replied. “I was trained as an athlete, but you’ll never guess which sport.”
It turns out Mr. Zhu was a rifle shooter in China’s Olympic team.
Born in Chuzhou, Anhui, he didn’t go to school as a child, as he couldn’t understand mandarin! Mr. Zhu now runs a tea house in Dong Guan, a factory town in Guangzhou famous for its palatial KTVs & saunas. Every year he comes to Yiwu to press cakes under his private label “Cheng Pu Tian Xia” (诚普天下), which he stamps with the Beijing Olympics icon of a rifle shooter.
On his wrist was a heavy Tibetan silver bracelet, a popular accoutrement with puer producers. Around his neck, hung a very expensive Huang La Shi (honey wax stone) necklace that he drove 1,000km to Jiangxi to buy. He bought a solid piece of rock and had a factory polish it down to make the beads. Like many in the Chinese tea business, appreciation for gu shu is just one aspect of a wider cultural appreciation for traditional Chinese art & craftsmanship.
Zhu Ke Cheng (朱克诚 ) of Cheng Pu Tian Xia (诚普天下)
Mr. Zhu told me that there is too much fake gu shu in Yiwu, especially in MaHei, which he claims blends more tai di than anywhere else & sprays too much pesticide. “If you want pure gu shu you have to run around too much.” He prefers to come to Man Zhuan each year, where he lives with the farmers for 50 days each season. “It’s not comfortable,” he joked. “There’s no fast cars or pretty girls!”
Mr. Zhu only makes “da shu” (big tree) tea from trees that are 3-5m tall. I think there is a certain logic to preferring tree height & size over purported age. He told us the wispy trees we had just seen were not the best. The other side of the mountain is better. “I don’t like trees that have been pruned to encourage regrowth. The huigan is not as good as free, tall, ancient trees” he explained.
Mr. Zhu processes his tea with an Yi minority family that lives in Man Zhuan . We sat in their courtyard, with the sun blazing down, and sampled tea they had picked 2 days ago. It had a clear light yellow liquor, and tasted soft, buttery, but bland. Mr. Zhu explained freshly picked leaves had low cha qi (tea energy) and xiang qi (fragrance), especially when overcast & humid. “This needs to be put away for awhile.” he said.
In a small cottage nearby, workers were pressing cakes from 2006 maocha that he had got stuck with when the market collapsed in 2007. The maocha had been stored in the rafters of the farmers house in Man Zhuan all this time, a sign of their strong, trusting relationship.
The maocha was unceremoniously dumped into a large heap on the polished cement floor. The workers then used a large hand scoop to gather up a bamboo pan’s worth at a time, which in turn was used to fill the tin steaming cans. The technician weighing out the portions wore a face mask & hair cap to prevent contamination of the maocha (first time I've seen this at the cottage industry level), but the steam & press guys didn’t, I guess because once the tea is in the bag, there's no human contact until the drying stage.
Weighing & steaming maocha before pressing into bings
Stone pressing puer cakes in Man Zhuang, Yiwu
We were invited to eat lunch with Mr. Zhu and his kind host family. We were served a delicious vegetable soup, with rice, tofu, eggs & fish. “Good tea makes you happy, healthy & comfortable.” Mr. Zhu said. “Our main responsibility as producers is to ensure there is no pesticide in the product.” This is why he is driven to only make gu shu cakes, and stays with the farmers to supervise the entire process from tree selection, picking, processing & pressing. I learnt from Mr. Zhu that tea made from the twigs of the tree is the most nutritious, and that leaf hair has the most polyphenols. He advises his customers to store his tea for 3 years before drinking, as he believes the tea is in an awkward transition stage before then. Like many producers who prefer Yiwu to Bulang, his ideal tea is sweet, with “sheng jin” (生津 salivation inducing effect). He avoids ku cha (bitter tea), because it reminds him of Chinese medicine.
Zhu Ke Cheng's private label "Cheng Pu Tian Xia" 诚普天下
After lunch, we hassled Mr. Zhu to let us try the 2006 tea he was currently pressing. He generously pulled a few cakes off the rack but warned us it hadn’t completely dried yet, so not to expect much fragrance. We enjoyed it nonetheless and bought a few cakes as souvenirs. Mr. Zhu is old school and doesn't believe in selling online, but if you’re ever in Dong Guan, you can visit his shop 诚普天下 in 东莞市南城区宏远宏景中心A9号铺 where this cake sells at RMB 600 for a 400g bing. As I have 3 cakes in my collection, you can also contact me for a sample.
Interestingly, Mr. Zhu thinks the protected "1,000 year old tree" we saw in Luo Shui Dong was at most 400-500 years old. He believes the oldest tree in Yiwu is less than 600 years old and lives in Gua Feng Zhai.
Yours truly with Zhu Ke Cheng