FREE SHIPPING on orders over $65 International: over $250

Modern Tea Farming: Observations from Our Trip to China

Posted by Misha Gulko on

Our recent journey to China took us through Guangdong, Northern Fujian, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang (among other places), immersing us in these regions' rich cultures. We had the privilege of meeting many amazing tea masters and pottery craftsmen. Each conversation, every encounter, and the countless cups of tea we shared provided a wealth of knowledge and insights into the current state of tea farming and craftsmanship.

We observed several intriguing trends and shifts in the world of tea. From the urban migration of tea farmers to the rise of young, innovative tea masters, the landscape of tea production is undergoing significant changes. However, it's important to note that these observations are limited by the short duration of our stay and the natural constraints of such an exploration.

This blog post aims to share some of these observations and reflections, providing a glimpse into China's dynamic and ever-evolving world of tea farming and craftsmanship. Join us as we explore how modern influences are shaping Chinese tea farming and the challenges it faces today.


City Tea Farmers. The Urban Migration.

As we traveled through tea-producing regions, one trend that is impossible to overlook is the migration of many tea farmers to nearby cities. This shift marks a significant change in their way of life. Traditionally, tea farmers lived and worked on their farms year-round. Nowadays, however, many have set up tea shops and offices in urban areas, balancing their lives between the city and the countryside.


Visiting Shao Bo

Visiting our friend and a tea farmer, Shao Bo, at his shop in Chaozhou City


These tea farmers now live in the city, with their children attending urban schools and their daily routines intertwined with the hustle and bustle of city life. Yet, their connection to the land and their heritage remains strong. During the harvest season and phases of tea production, tea masters return to their ancestral farms. During this time, the essence of their work comes to life as they oversee the meticulous process of harvesting and processing the tea leaves.

This dual existence reflects a broader trend of urbanization in China, where rural traditions are interwoven with modern city life. It also highlights the adaptability of tea farmers, who are finding ways to preserve their craft while embracing new opportunities in the city. This movement has allowed them to expand their market reach, opening up new avenues for selling their tea directly to consumers in urban centers.

However, this transition is not without its challenges. Balancing life between the city and the farm requires a delicate juggling act, ensuring that both aspects of their lives are given the attention they deserve. Yet, for many of these farmers, the rewards are worth it. They are able to provide better educational opportunities for their children and improve their overall quality of life while continuing to nurture and develop their tea businesses.


The New Generation of Tea Masters and Pottery Artists

On our trip, we noticed that many young men and women are avidly interested in tea and tea culture, choosing paths that lead them to become tea pottery craftsmen and tea masters. The new generations are remarkably different from their predecessors. They often come with university degrees, bringing a wealth of education and a broad perspective to their work. Their academic backgrounds vary widely, from arts to business and marketing to agriculture, allowing them to infuse their tea craftsmanship with diverse skills and knowledge.

Moreover, these young artisans are often well-traveled and/or have studied abroad. Their exposure to global cultures and practices equips them with a unique ability to blend traditional Chinese tea practices with innovative ideas from around the world. This fusion of old and new is evident in their work, whether in the new elements in the design of a teapot or the experiments in tea production. They are not bound by tradition but see it as a foundation upon which to build and innovate.


Tea Ware made by Si Yu

 Teaware made by a young pottery artist Si Yu


This new generation is unafraid to experiment with their craft. They are driven by a desire to push boundaries and explore new techniques. Whether developing new teas, experimenting with different firing methods for pottery, or creating contemporary designs that appeal to modern aesthetics, these young masters and artists are constantly evolving. Their willingness to take risks and their passion for their craft are paving the way for exciting developments in the tea industry.

Furthermore, these young tea masters and pottery artists are keen to reach out to markets beyond China. They recognize the growing global interest in authentic and high-quality tea experiences. Young masters are eager to share their creations with the world, bringing the richness of Chinese tea culture to a broader audience.

Their blend of tradition, innovation, and global outlook revitalizes the craft. It ensures that Chinese tea culture continues to thrive and adapt in an ever-changing world.


The Changing Landscape of Tea-Harvesting Labor

While the tea industry is experiencing a vibrant influx of young artisans and innovators, another challenge is becoming increasingly apparent – the labor shortage for tea picking. As more young people pursue higher education and seek better-paying opportunities in cities, fewer are available to work in the demanding and labor-intensive field of tea harvesting. This trend has created a significant gap that needs to be addressed for the sustainability of the tea industry.

Tea harvesting is a meticulous and time-consuming process that requires skilled hands. Traditionally, it has been a family or community effort, with multiple generations working together during the harvest season. However, the comfort of urban life and the promise of higher wages have drawn many young people away from rural areas, leaving an aging workforce behind to handle the demanding task of picking tea leaves.

As a result, tea masters are increasingly turning to migrant workers from distant provinces to fill this labor gap. These workers travel long distances and stay on the tea farms during the harvest season. To secure their services, tea masters often provide lodging and pay them well in advance, ensuring their commitment to the task. This arrangement, while effective, significantly increases the cost of labor, adding to the overall production expenses and risks.

Reliance on migrant labor highlights a broader issue within the agricultural sector—the need for sustainable labor solutions. As the older generation of tea pickers retires, finding ways to attract and retain a new workforce becomes crucial. Addressing this issue is essential for ensuring the continued production of high-quality tea and preserving the rich traditions that define this ancient craft.


The Real Value of Tea: Price to Quality

One of the observations we made many years ago and re-confirmed on this trip is the lack of a direct correlation between the price of tea and its actual quality.

It is commonly perceived that teas with high price tags or those associated with renowned tea masters are of superior quality. While this is often true, our experience taught us that high prices and prestigious titles do not always guarantee the best cup of tea.

In the world of tea, much like in other industries, branding and reputation play significant roles. Many buyers are willing to pay premium prices for teas associated with famous tea masters or specific terroirs, believing these factors inherently ensure superior quality. However, judging from our experience, this is only sometimes the case. Some of the most delightful teas we tasted came from lesser-known farmers without official titles. Often priced more moderately, these teas showcased exceptional quality and flavor profiles that rivaled and sometimes surpassed their more expensive counterparts. 

Moreover, while important, the terroir only partially defines tea's quality. Terroir refers to the unique combination of soil, climate, and geographical features that influence the growth and characteristics of tea plants. Although it plays a crucial role, it is not the sole determinant of a tea's taste and quality. The skills of the tea producer used in processing significantly impact the final product.

Through numerous tastings and interactions with various tea producers, we learned that the correlation between price and quality is often indirect. A higher price tag may reflect the prestige of a tea master or the rarity of a specific tea. Still, it does not always equate to a superior tea-tasting experience. Similarly, more affordable teas can offer surprising depth and complexity, challenging the notion that quality always comes at a high cost.

Our journey underscored the importance of approaching tea with an open mind and a discerning palate. Exploring a wide range of teas, regardless of their price or the fame of their producers, can lead to delightful discoveries.


Embracing the Evolution of Tea Culture 

Our journey through China's Eastern Tea Belt gave us a fresh perspective on the evolving landscape of tea culture. It is clear that the world of tea is transitioning, balancing between maintaining traditions and embracing modernity.

The influx of young, educated tea masters and pottery artists is a promising sign for the future. These individuals are blending their education and openness to the world with a deep respect for tradition, creating unique and exciting tea experiences. Their willingness to experiment drives a new wave of creativity in tea craftsmanship.


Ajie's pottery studio


However, the industry faces significant challenges, particularly in the labor of tea picking. The reliance on migrant workers highlights the need for sustainable and fair labor practices. Addressing this issue is crucial for the continued success of tea production.

Ultimately, our trip reaffirmed the importance of approaching tea with an open mind. The joy of tea lies in exploration and discovery, appreciating the diverse flavors and stories behind each cup. As we continue our journey in the world of tea, we are reminded to embrace traditions and innovations, value the contributions of every hand that touches our tea, and remain curious and open to new experiences.