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Pick of the Crop!
In Fujian Province in East China, there is a place called Anxi. It's home for the production of a popular drink known as tieguanyin tea, by far the best-known oolong tea.

A place dominated by mountains, lush green forests and, of course, tea gardens, Anxi has a tea-raising tradition dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

It boasts an annual production of 15,000 tons and 16,700 hectares of tea gardens - ranking as China's largest production base of oolong tea.

About 70 percent of local people are involved in the tea industry and they are very proud of the tea produced there.

It's warm and wet in Anxi, a climate which often produces foggy conditions. This kind of weather is very good for the tea plants.

Drinking tea has formed an important part of social etiquette in the region since the Tang Dynasty. Drinking facilitates lengthy, meandering discussions, often on the subject of the tea itself.

Veteran connoisseurs like to show off their ability to uncover the charm and spirit of the mountain where specific tea leaves were grown.

For ordinary people, after a long day of hard work, a round of tea offers refreshment and physical relief. This is one of the important reasons why the tradition lives on.

People talking about tea often sound like they are discussing fashion.

Don't be afraid to join them. In Anxi, tea is served to anyone who steps into one's house. For newcomers, the best tea the owner has is usually served often tieguanyin, to show their hospitality. A broad smile appears on the host's face when you praise his tea for its fragrance and taste.

Tieguanyin, the pride of local people, is a legend itself since no one knows exactly how it came into being. There are various stories about its origin.

Some say that during the Emperor Qianlong period of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) there was a person called Wei Ying in Lintou, Anxi, who was a follower of Buddhism.

Every morning he would present a cup of tea before the Goddess of Mercy. One day he went on to the hill to chop sticks, and found a tea tree growing out of a stone. Its leaves were glistening under the sun.

So he dug it out and brought it home where he grew it carefully. Its leaves, after being processed, produced what was to become oolong tea. The fragrance was extremely strong and its weight heavier than any others. So people just called it zhongrutie, which means "heavy as iron."

And because the colour of this tea was dark green as iron and its shape like the hand of the Goddess of Mercy, people later renamed it tieguanyin, which literally means "Iron Goddess of Mercy."

There is another story of its origin. It is said that a scholar called Wang Shilang once produced some tea and presented it to Emperor Qianlong who named this kind tieguanyin.

Despite the controversy, the birthplace of tieguanyin is assured. There is a tieguanyin tea tree hundreds of years old in Xipin, a village in Anxi that first produced the tea.

It is on the top of a great rock in the middle of a mountain. As more tourists come to pay tribute to the legendary tea, a cement-covered road has been built leading to the rock.

As the bus climbs the rising mountain road, you can anticipate a great view of the tea producing base. Field after field of tea plants loom through the clouds. In early spring or autumn, women are seen picking tea in the fields. They collect the tea leaves into baskets carried on their backs.

In previous times, tieguanyin was totally produced by hand with a series of complicated processes. There were once 10 procedures from picking to refining. But now it is made in factories using a simplified process.

Those still interested in finding out about the traditional manual method can drop into the houses of some of the locals along the road leading to the birth place of tieguanyin.

They may not speak your language, but they can show you the various processes including grinding, parching, rolling, shaping and drying.

Apart from being a growing center, Anxi has also developed into a distribution centre in recent years. A national tea wholesale market is called chadu (tea capital) by locals. Tea growers bring their products, tea experts judge the quality and tea buyers bid in auction halls.

It is especially interesting in April and November when the "Tea King" contest is held.

Tea farmers vie for the title. The gold medal winner is often auctioned in Hong Kong.

A recent gold medal winner at a Tieguanyin oolong competition in Fujian sold for 120,000 yuan/100 grams - that's an astonishing US$43,000 per pound!

Anxi is 85 kilometres from Xiamen and 58 kilometres from Quanzhou, both of which can be reached by various flights and trains. Shuttle buses between Xiamen and Anxi, or Quanzhou and Anxi, leave at 10-minute intervals.

The full price of a single air trip between Beijing and Xiamen or Quanzhou is 1,550 yuan (US$186).

(Beijing Weekend January 6, 2003)

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