Chinese tea grown among the mountains and hillsides was in Mr. Fortune's time distinguished as "Hill tea," while both large and diminutive plantations on the lowlands or the plains were all called "tea gardens," a term which is now applied by the English to the extensive plantations of Ceylon and India.
Some of the largest tea plantations in China turned out, say, 500 chests, or 30,000 pounds, of tea per annum, at the same period.
In both China and the East Indies a common custom prevails of planting tea bushes about four feet apart, each way, and they are pruned down to a height varying from three to six feet, to bring the topmost leaves within reach of the picker. In both named countries, a first crop of tea leaves may be gathered from the plant at three years from the seed, but a full crop is not expected until the plant is about six years old. " A Chinese plantation of tea, seen from a distance, " says Mr. Fortune, " looks like a little shrubbery of evergreens. " And when journeying in the Bohea black tea country, he remarks - "As we threaded our way amongst the hills I observed tea gathers busily employed on all the hill sides where the plantations were. They seemed a contended and happy race; the joke and merry laugh were going around; and some of them were singing as gaily as the birds in the old trees about the temples."
There is an old Chinese ballad of some 30 stanzas, which pictures the reflections of a Chinese maiden who is employed in picking tea in early spring, from we select a few verses, literally translated.
"Our household dwells amidst ten thousand hills,
Where the tea, north and south of the village, abundantly grows;
From Chinshe to Kuhyu, unceasingly hurried,
Every morning I must early rise to do my task of tea.
"By earliest dawn, I at my toilet, only half dress my hair,
And seizing my basket, pass the door, while yet the mist is thick;
The little maids and graver dames hand in hand winding along,
Ask me, 'which steep of Sunglo do you climb to-day?'
"My splint-basket slung on my arm, my hair adorned with flowers,
I go to the side of the Sunglo hills, and pick the mountain tea.
Amid the pathway going, we sisters one another rally,
And laughing, I point to younder village - ' there's our house!'
"This pool has limpid water, and there deep the lotus grows;
Its little leaves are round as coins, and only yet half blown;
Going to the jutting verge, near a clear and shallow spot,
I try my present looks, mark how of late my face appears.
"The rain is passed, the utmost leaflets show their greenish veins;
Pull down a branch, and the fragrant scent is diffused around.
Both high and low, the yellow golden threads are now quite culled;
And my clothes and frock are dyed with odors through and through.
"The sweet and fragrant perfumes like that from the Aglaia;
In goodness and appearance my tea'll be the best in Wuyen,
When all are picked, the new buds by next term will again burst forth,
And this morning, the last third gathered is quite done.
"Each picking is with toilsome labor, but yet I shun it not,
My maiden curls are all askew, my pearly fingers all be numbed;
But I only wish our tea to be of a superfine kind,
To have it equal their 'dragon's pellet,' and his 'sparrow's tongue.'
"For a whole month, where can I catch a single leisure day?
For at earliest dawn I go to pick, and not till dusk return;
Then the deep midnight sees me still before the firing pan -
Will not labor like this my pearly complexion deface?
"But if my face is thin, my mind is firmly fixed
So to fire my golden buds that they shall excel all beside,
But how know I, who'll put them in jewelled cup?
Whose taper fingers will leisurely give them to the maid to draw?"
Men, women and children are in China employed for picking tea, and three crops are gathered in favorable seasons, with occasionally a fourth picking. Under the stimulus of East Indian heat and moisture, the " flushes, " or new growth of shoots, buds and leaves, are renewed as often as once in a week or ten days; so that during a season of nine months, from a dozen, to a maximum of thirty pickings are made. The same conditions apply to the tea plantations of Java. After ten or twelve years the bushes decline in vigor from the strain of constant loss of young growth, and are replaced by new plants. Thirty pounds of green leaves are an average day's work for women and children.
The yield of green leaves or of cured dry tea from a single bush is necessarily variable with its age, size and condition. In China, the proportion of manufactured tea to the green leaves is one to three, or one to three and one-third, while in the East Indies and Java the allowance is one to four.
Statistics gathered from India tea planters give us the following figures, for different districts and years:
Yield of Dry Tea per Acre, per Annum.
Yield of Dry Tea per Bush, per Annum.
Mr. Owen A. Gill, of Messrs, Martin Gillett & Co., Baltimore, in 1891, estimated the yield of Indian tea plantations at 400 pounds per acre per annum, costing at that time in India, ready for shipment, say, ten cents a pound; to which must be added, freight, selling charges, etc., of at least four cents a pound.
Half century ago, Mr. Fortune estimated that in China the small grower realized for a common Congo tea, about four cents a pound, but that boxing, transportation to the coast, export duty, etc., brought the cost in Canton to about ten cents a pound. Fine teas then paid the grower, say, eight cents a pound, but the English merchants in Shanghai paid thirty cents for the same teas.
Dr. Charles U. Shepard of the Pinehurst tea plantation at Summerville, S.C., recently stated that Chinese bushes are said to produce 2 ounces of dried tea per bush; those of Japan, 1 ounce per bush or less; those of India and Ceylon averaging 3 to 4 ounces, and on high ground, 2 to 3 ounces; while Dr. Shepard has gathered from his own plantation, from acclimatized Assam crosses, 3 ounces per bush, and from Chinese plants, 4 to 5 ounces. His Japan plants yielded but 1/2 ounce of tea.
Picking tea on the level lands of India and Ceylon is very light work, and women and children are almost exclusively employed. Mr. David Crole, writing in the serious and practical vein of a scientific expert, is moved to a poetic sense of the scene when he speaks of the return of Indian tea pickers from their work at evening: -
"A long line of women with their gay clothes of various hues, lit up by the expiring gleams of the setting sum, winding their way along the garden paths, like some monster snake, with scales of many colors; their gait perfect, undulating, and undisturbed by the baskets poised gracefully on their heads; singing some quaint refrain in the usual minor key, or making the air gay with their chatter and laughter; which, if far distant, strikes the ear pleasantly as a faint and indistinct hum."
The tea plant undoubtedly reaches its highest perfection as a member of the vegetable kingdom, in India and Ceylon, in a climate of extreme heat and extreme rainfall and moisture, and in a very rich soil; and the remark is often heard from Indian planters that "tea and malarious fevers flourish together." Experience has shown however that the tea plant possesses a wonderful power of accomodation to adverse conditions. In China and in the United states, it has been taught to put up with a comparatively sterile soil, dry mountain air, at heights in China reaching 6,000 feet above sea level, and occasional temperatures as low as 12 to 10 degrees Fahr., in the midst of recurrent ice and snow.
The story of tea in Japan alone calls for more space than this entire book could furnish, and there is an ample field for a treatise upon the cultivation, preparation, and social importance of tea in that strikingly interesting land. Nearly one half of the tea consumed in the United states comes from Japan, our imports of Japan tea being about 44,000 pounds during last year. Although tea has been grown in that country for more than six centuries only about forty years.
Tea in Japan is largely grown upon hill-slopes and in small plantations or gardens, the latter term being peculiarly appropriate to their neat, symmetrical and picturesque appearance. The character of the soil is noticeably connected with the quality of the tea. From the putting forth of new leaves in the Spring-time until the advent of its white fragrant blossoms in the Autumn, the tea plant is an object of admiration and affection with the susceptible, nature-loving Japanese.
We are indebted to an English gentleman and tea merchant who has resided in Japan for 30 years, for many interesting facts connected with our subject.
He tells us that while the principal crop of teas for export is produced on plantations of comparatively recent establishment, there are tea gardens in the interior of Japan which have been cultivated for 500 years; and that tea is still gathered from bushes which spring from roots which were planted 100 to 300 years ago. These ancient plants yield a tea in limited quantities which is elaborately and expensively prepared for the nobility and wealthy Japanese, and commands prices running up as high as ten dollars a pound. Some of the choice tea which comes to this country is picked from plantations which have been in existence for 300 years, and is sold under the names of "challenge," "Violet," and "Japonica " teas.
These facts are in striking contrast with the limited life of Chinese tea plants, as stated by Mr. Fortune.
Japan teas do not fall into either of the three classes into which Chinese and Indian teas have been divided. They have been styled green teas by the trade, but that appelation grew out of their customary color, and their mild odor and taste; while Japan Black teas are now produced from the same leaf. Japan teas are favorites with many persons who do not relish the herby taste of other Black teas, and with whom Chinese Green teas disagree.
Tea Leaves, 1900, was written by Francis Leggett & Co.