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Tea is a divine herb. Profits are ample if one plants it. The spirits are purified if one drinks it. It is something esteemed by the well-born and the well-to-do which the plebeians and social dregs also cannot do without. Truly it is a necessity in the daily life of man, and an asset for the fiscal prosperity of the commonwealth.

–Xu Guangqi, Ming-era scholar-statesman (1562 – 1633), Book of Agricultural Administration

All the tea in China was once classified by the Imperial Tea Bureau, whose job never ended since with the constant addition of new teas their classification system became progressively more complicated, resembling a vast Chinese puzzle. Amazing to tell, the collapse of the last (Qing) dynasty in no way interrupted the operations of this bureaucracy, which rumbled right along under its own momentum and added another couple hundred new names of teas to the list before eventually dissolving in the 1920s.

China is to tea what France is to wine, with Italy and Spain thrown in for good measure. Forty to fifty kinds of tea are currently produced in Yunnan Province alone, and there are eighteen other tea-producing provinces. Before Communism relaxed its vice-grip, all of this tea was traded – and named – by China, Inc., now officially known as the China National Native Produce and Animal By-Product Import & Export Corporation. Within this octopus, each province had a separate import/export company to handle its tea under a brand of its own. Evergreen is the brand of the Shanghai Tea Import & Export Company, Sprouting the Bejiing brand, Temple of Heaven the Zhejiang brand, etc. Different companies might market gunpowder tea, for instance, in different grades. Do you begin to grasp the full horror? These brands are still to be found on Chinatown shelves around the world, but most China tea is now grown, processed and marketed largely free from administrative control.

Only a few teas in each category can be discussed in a book like this one, written chiefly for my fellow “round eyes.” You have every right to protest that I relate nothing whatever about Eshan Pekoe or Sword of the Emperor or a hundred other beauties. You must discover them for yourself – they are simply too numerous to describe. “Ten thousand,” the Chinese say when they mean a large number which nobody can exactly specify. “The ten thousand teas” would be their way of saying “all the tea in China,” and as a guesstimate, that sounds about right. The names these teas go by are no longer dictated by Imperial or even Communist bureaucrats , and friends of mine who travel regularly to China and buy teas there only shake their heads when I ask for help with classifications. Profusion and confusion take over beyond the point where the Chinese divide tea into six categories: green tea, white tea, yellow tea (all but unknown to us foreign devils), black tea, dark black tea, and scented, or flower tea.

Read next: Green Tea (Lu-Cha): Eyebrow and Gunpowder