Austin Hodge has already written a fantastic article about Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong that contains all the historical information you could reasonably want to know about the topic. I suggest you all read it before proceeding. I am going to write not about the tea, but about my experience accidentally stumbling upon Tong Mu having no idea what it was.
We went to Wuyi Mountain looking for oolong: Big Red Robe, and the mysterious pantheon of hardy cliff teas collectively known as Yan Cha. Our connection to Fujian, and Wuyi Mountain, was through Ms. L* *** ***, our white tea contact, who I knew through Yu Xi Hong, who I knew through Zhuang Peng, all the way over in Chengdu. We had followed the rainbow road of guanxi all the way to a subterranean wholesale tea shopping mall filled with dozens of stores, each specializing in something very specific. One store sold fermented Hunan jinhua tea bricks, another only teapots. Ms. L* *** ***’s place was the cleanest and most brightly lit of these tea caves and it was there that she introduced us to the opulence of Fuding white tea; a story for another day.
She also introduced us to the proprietors of a neighboring store specializing in Wuyi teas. After a few hours of the customary tea tasting and cigarette smoking contests, the proprietors agreed to put us in touch with their farmers on the mountain. These farmers produced both Yan Cha and Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, which I knew only to be the Chinese name for Lapsang Souchong. They gave me the phone number of some vague relative. They told me the relatives were from a place called Tong Mu. I just smiled and nodded and put my last cigarette out in a clay frog’s mouth.
A long train ride later and we were in the city of Wuyishan, essentially a bleak suburban slum nestled amongst the outsized infrastructure of what was supposed to be a much bigger town. Outdoor food vendors set up stalls two rows deep in the unnecessarily wide streets. These businesses flocked in well before the sun set to hawk giant fish balls filled with pork. Enormous teapot statues marched parade-like down the broad median.
We met our mystery contact one misty Saturday morning. He came to our hotel and we stood smoking and smiling in the lobby as the hotel staff patiently mopped around us. He said it was too foggy to safely ascend the mountain, and that we would have to turn around and go back if we tried. He promised that the weather would be better, “tomorrow.” But he warned gravely, “if we plan to go tomorrow, we have to go tomorrow, because we might not have another chance.”
What I know now, that I didn’t then, is that Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong is remarkable not only for being a smoked tea, but also for being the first black tea in history. Its birthplace is a narrow valley called Tong Mu on Wuyi Mountain. Our guide explained all this to me on the car ride up, but everyone in China tells you that their special local thing is the “oldest,” or “the best,” or, “the only one.” Early on I learned that this claim is not necessarily true; also I was distracted by the increasingly improbable-looking cliffs that rose like Escherian towers from the woods as we approached the mountain.
We ascended a road built alongside a blue and white mountain stream that cut through the rock. With its pine forests and huge white boulders, it looked like northern California except for the bamboo and monkeys. As we approached Tong Mu, the little wood houses built on the mountainside became more and more sparse. Finally we reached a checkpoint with armed guards: the entrance to Tong Mu. This is why our guide had been so adamant we stick with our plan. I later learned, when my friend Mike tried to go to Tong Mu, that “foreigners aren’t allowed in Tong Mu,” because it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and access is restricted. Our liaison had cleared our visit ahead of time, and if we had failed to take advantage of it in a timely fashion we probably wouldn’t have been able to reschedule; and more importantly, it would reflect poorly on him, our sponsor. We waited in the car as he showed the documents to the guards.
Once past the gate, the little settlements all but disappeared from the landscape. An unbroken wilderness, the kind of place that is beautiful not just because of the things you see but because of the weird, fantastical animals that you feel – rather than see – their presence. Eventually we turned a corner beyond which was a strikingly beautiful little valley, with a small settlement along one side with a large, traditional wooden building facing the creek and the tea laden hills beyond. This was our destination, and we were greeted by a friendly, cartoon-like dog and the taciturn Mr. Chen, the tea master. A man in his late 50’s, dressed in mismatched Chinese military garb, Chen had already been growing and processing Xiao Zhong (their abbreviation for it) for decades when the valley became a UNESCO site in 1999. He says the farm had to appeal to the government – and the UNESCO foundation – to be allowed to continue growing and smoking tea in the delicate, protected ecosystem.
We followed him to the great wooden smokehouse, three stories tall, that we had seen from the road. The structure was situated on a raised stone furnace. Huge chunks of raw, unseasoned pine lay in front of it in neat stacks. The wood used to be local, he said, but since the area became protected (originally by the Chinese government in the 1970’s) they’ve had to start bringing their pine in from outside the area. By way of demonstration, he stabbed a huge iron pitchfork into one of the chunks and tossed it into the shimmering fire.
He took us up the creaking wooden stairs onto the first floor, where smoke was seeping from underneath the bolted door. Chen opened it and clouds of smoke came billowing out. The floors were made of woven bamboo to allow the rising smoke to permeate them. Tea leaves lay in thick drifts on the floor like black snow. He disappeared into the miasma and reappeared with a handful of fragrant tea. The tea would spend varying amounts of time on different floors, absorbing varying amounts of smoke as the leaves completed particular steps of the curing process. We went back to his little cabin down the road and he tossed his handful of freshly-smoked tea into a plain white porcelain gaiwan. We sat and drank cup after cup of the sweet, smoky, rich-tasting tea that lends that peculiar effervescent tingle to the throat that the Chinese call “bing leng.” It tasted like fire, stars, wood, rock, the bamboo and the monkeys, and the mountain stream. The kind of tea that you keep tasting long after you’ve swallowed it.
Loading and images 2, 3, 4 provided by contributor. Image 1: