Tea Industry in Hakka Villages – Oriental Beauty Tea

The majority of the Hakka people live in the mountains or in areas with barren and infertile land; therefore, most of the Hakka villagers grow tea. As an old Hakka saying goes, “where there is a mountain, there are the Hakka people; where there are the Hakka people, there is tea.” This saying succinctly sums up the importance of tea as a source of income for the Hakka people, and is also a representation of mountain culture. The Hakka people grow tea, make tea, and consume tea. In the Hakka language, one word (/consumption) represents both eating and drinking collectively hence the phrase consuming tea (食茶). The Hakka tea culture is a demonstration of Hakka creativity culture. The Hakka mountain songs, the tea picking songs, and the tea-picking opera were all products of the processes of labor involved in growing, picking, and producing tea. Thus, the Hakka people play an important role in the history of tea in Taiwan, with the Oriental Beauty tea the indisputable representative of Hakka tea.

Oriental Beauty Tea

(Photo: CNA)

It is believed that in the past, there was a Hakka tea farmer selling insect-bitten tea in the city in order not to let his labor go to waste. The unique flavour of the tea unexpectedly became a big hit, and foreign traders bought the entire stock. The tea farmer told the villagers what happened upon his return, only to be accused of “puffing up” (“pong fong” in the Hakka language, which means to exaggerate) his story; the farmer’s tea was then called Puff tea. Puff tea is also called Oriental Beauty tea, and the latter name had a beautiful albeit unfounded etymological story. It is said that, a hundred years ago, a British tea businessman gifted the special tea to Queen Victoria. The steeped tea leaves blossomed like flowers beautifully, and the room was filled with a fragrance, and the rich taste of the tea impressed the Queen a lot. The businessman told her that the tea originated from Taiwan, and the Queen conjured up an image of a painting of a graceful dancing Oriental beauty, wearing an exquisite cheongsam, and came to conclude that drinking the excellent tea gave the beauty her exquisite complexion. The Queen thus named the tea Oriental Beauty.

Oriental Beauty tea possesses a unique flavour among Taiwanese teas due to its fragrance of ripe fruit and honey-like aroma, which is a by-product of the tea trees’ defence mechanism, triggered when the Jacobiasca formosana insect bite on tea leaves, as the fragrance emitted would attract Jacobiasca formosana’s natural enemies. The natural fragrance could be preserved if tea leaves were processed while this defence mechanism was triggered. Usually, the more they are bitten by the Jacobiasca formosana, the more precious their tea shoots are. Therefore, if a tea plantation was to attract the Jacobiasca formosana to gather, no pesticides could be used. That is what makes the insect-bitten Oriental Beauty tea the crème de la crème among teas. The harvesting of tea leaves must happen during June and July, which would be the hottest period in summer, which falls around 10 days before and after the Dragon Boat Festival.

The Oriental Beauty tea unique to Taiwan is largely planted in the Hakka regions of Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli, due to historical, cultural, and climatic factors. Among these areas, the Beipu and Emei townships of Hsinchu are key production sites. Being geographically adjacent to each other, Beipu and Emei townships share similar patterns in the development of tea cultivation, refining, and marketing. However, with the changing of tea production, marketing, and manufacturing standards as well as post-war conditions, tea yields in Emei far exceed that in Beipu – especially for Oriental Beauty tea. Every year, both the Farmer’s Association of Beipu and Emei take turns holding tea competitions to pick and choose the top quality Oriental Beauty tea; this competition has become the premier event for grading Oriental Beauty tea in Taiwan.

The wisdom of the Hakka people is derived from their hardworking nature, and their propensity to cherish all things in the natural world since time immemorial. They do not perceive the Jacobiasca formosana to be pests, but instead allow it to co-exist with tea plantations. They take advantage of the leaves bitten by the Jacobiasca formosana to make the most unique tea in the world, the Oriental Beauty tea!

(Translators: Susan Su, Candace Chen, Grace Chung, Jack Tseng

In collaboration with Fu Jen Catholic University, Department of English)