If you ask students of Chinese tea to name who they regard as the most influential person in the tea industry, one of the names that turns up frequently is likely to be Mr. Zhang Tianfu (张天福), commonly known as “The Pillar of Tea Research” (茶学界泰斗) in China and in migrant Chinese communities such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia as well.
Born in Shanghai in 1910 to parents who were both medical doctors, Mr. Zhang moved with his parents the following year to Fuzhou, Fujian. After graduation from high school, he chose the path of agriculture, studying at Fujian Xiehe University and continuing his postgraduate studies at Nanjing Jinlin University. Besides being an assiduous student, Mr. Zhang’s student life was also marked by consistent, concerted campaigns against growing Japanese aggression.
In 1935, after college graduation, Mr. Zhang commenced a lifelong career in tea research, serving at the helm of Chongan Agriculture Vocational Institute as well as Fuan Tea Factory. His goal as an educator was to reduce the hardship faced by tea farmers and producers.
To that end, Mr. Zhang was the first to import black tea processing machines from Japan. From 1940 to 1942, Mr. Zhang invented a machine to automate the shaping process in making tea. Over the course of the next fifteen years, Mr. Zhang would go on to work with researchers and institutes in Fujian, Nanjing and Southern China, establishing and heading several tea research institutes during that timespan.
Alas, during the Anti-Rightist Movement, in 1957, disaster struck: Mr. Zhang was erroneously identified as a rightist and removed from his position. He was exiled for the next 23 years. A lesser man might have crumbled, but Mr. Zhang continued his research and work with tea farmers and institutes in various parts of Fujian. During this period he also published more than 60 theses and papers on various aspects of tea production.
When his innocence was proclaimed in 1980, he was already an elderly 70 years old, but his passion had not diminished. In 1982, he led a team at Fujian Agricultural Science Tea Research Institute to modernize the production of oolong tea.
In producing oolong tea, the most challenging stage is in “zuoqing,”- often inaccurately translated as “partial oxidation”- where producers rely on their training, experience, and discretion to adjust the production intensity, length and frequency in accordance with the prevailing weather. While masters were able to handle this combination of intuition and science competently, this stage proved prohibitive to newer producers and hindered increased production.
Mr. Zhang and his team studied the climate and its correlation to production standards and devised a set of SOP’s, using modern climate control technology to simplify and standardize the process. While there is no substitute for experience, this standardization reduced the main obstacle for new producers, sparking a subsequent growth in oolong tea production.
Thereafter, Mr. Zhang’s career took a new direction as he focused on tea assessment and quality control, presiding over numerous tea competitions and establishing the standard procedures and methodology for tea assessment. He believed in objective assessment of production quality and hence was able to judge teas from all regions and styles with equal aplomb and neutrality.
At a ripe old age of 104, Mr. Zhang remains astute and continues to be held up as a standard bearer for the tea industry. Numerous producers, farmers, assessors – and of course tea lovers – enjoy the fruits of his labor. His name, Tianfu, can be translated as “Heaven’s Blessing.” I doubt anyone would disagree that Mr. Zhang has lived up to his name.
Derek Chew owns and operates Peony Tea S., an online tea store based in Singapore, serving lovers of Chinese tea all over the world.
Information researched from 闽茶概论 by周玉璠、冯廷佺、周国文、吕宁published by 中国农业出版社 and 中国茶经2011 by陈宗懋 published by上海文化出版社