Disappearing beauty: Picking and roasting tea by hand



Hangzhou is globally known for its natural beauty, tea fields that stretch for miles and its famous West Lake Longjing tea. It's harvested once a year in early April around China's traditional Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day.

Tea represents a slow lifestyle, but the making of it is a race against time.

“Every day, we start from 6:00 o'clock in the morning and work until 6:30 in the evening,” tea farmer Tang Chunyin told CGTN.

A typical tea picking lady around Hangzhou West Lake

Almost all the tea pickers are female, as males are either plowing in spring or roasting the tea at home. Harvesters have fewer than 20 days to pick the tender tea leaves, which just sprouted in early April.

Later this month, heavy rain and rising temperatures will make them overgrow and lose their aroma.

During spring in the south of China, the weather changes quickly during the day. Either under scorching sun to drizzling rain, bamboo hats protect the tea pickers from the heat and rain.

While some farmers are already using machines to harvest, here in Hangzhou, people believe the premium quality of Longjing has to be handpicked.

“During the picking season, you have to pick the bud and both its adjacent leaves together, in order to make their shapes look desirable after being roasted,” Tang Chunyin said. It’s called by tea lovers “two leaves with one bud.”

“After all these years, the skills have already become part of me,” Tang Chunyin said.

Tender Longjing tea leaves growing in the terraced fields, which stretch miles around the West Lake

If picking is a job based around familiarity, the next step demands real craftsmanship – roasting the tea leaves.

It has to be done the same day the leaves are picked. To prevent oxidation, the sooner the roasting starts, the better.

Traditionally, it's only done by hand.

Qiu Xiaohua is a renowned tea roaster in his village.

“You need to use your hand to feel the temperature during the roasting. If it's too hot, it could be over-fried. You also need to press them hard in order to flatten the leaves and squeeze the fluid from them. Sometimes you can easily get your hand burned,” Qiu Xiaohua said.

CGTN filming Qiu Xiaohua as he roasts the tea by hand

It takes half a day to roast just one kilo of the leaves by hand, a combination of patience and labor.

The celebrated practice is safeguarded on the State Council’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. But it’s disappearing in the face of modern technology.

“Machine-frying is five times faster, but it may over-fry some of the leaves or break the shape of them. However, most buyers cannot tell the difference, except real tea lovers. The prices of hand-roasted tea is just a little higher than those made by machines,” Qiu Xiaohua told CGTN.

Today, even Qiu Xiaohua is using machines.

Now in his 40s, he is the youngest in his village who still knows about the skill.

“It's too tiring and isn't worth the labor. Now I'm only roasting for those who really care.”

Farmers pick the tea leaves wearing bamboo hats.

Qingming Festival is the best time to have a cup of West Lake Longjing tea. It's also a time to reflect on how our cultural heritage can live peacefully in a fast-changing world.