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Red tea and black tea - a confusion in transmission

Huang H. T. (Alexandria, USA)

Three primary types are known in maritime commerce today: red tea (hong cha), green tea (lu cha) and oolong tea (wu long). Red tea is fully fermented, green tea, unfermented, and oolong partially fermented. Of the three, red tea, hong cha, is the one that is most widely consumed around the world. Red tea, however, has long been rendered in English as 'black tea.' A 'black tea' has, in fact, been exported from China to Europe since the latter part of the 17th century, and until about 1850 all the 'black tea' traded had came from the Wuyi Hills in northwestern Fujian. Both Western and Chinese scholars have, therefore, assumed that hong cha was developed in the Wuyi region during the Ming dynasty. Thus I was surprised to find, while investigating the origin of red tea, that the term hong cha is actually of fairly recent coinage. It first appeared in the Chongyang xianzhi 崇聍孎葀 (Gazatteer of the Chongyang county, the southern Hubei) in 1866, which states that hong cha was processed according to the directions of Cantonese merchants. Similar reports are seen in several other local gazetteers of the 1870's. They show that hong cha became a major factor in the export trade only after 1860, and that its production centers were in Hubei, Anhui, Hunan, Jiangxi and northeastern Fujian.

What then was the 'black tea' that was imported from China to Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries? the Chinese records have little to say about this issue. Fortunately, British observers such as Samuel Ball and Robert Fortune, did leave us with detailed descriptions of how the 'black teas' from Wuyi region were processed. Their accounts, published in the late 1840's, show that, without a doubt, the so called 'black tea' which created the trade imbalance between Britain and China that led to the Opium War, was, in fact, a partially fermented tea, i.e. an oolong tea.

How this glaring misinterpretation of the origin of fully fermented tea arise, and why it was so uncritically accepted by Western and Chinese scholars in the 20th century will be discussed in this paper.

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