Knowing Longjing Part II: The Origins of Xihu Longjing aka Dragon Well

Xihu Longjing- often Anglicized as a somewhat cumbersome “Dragon Well”- is probably the best known green tea in China and all over the world. Numerous luminaries from Emperor Qian Long in the Qing Dynasty to Dr Sun Yat Sen- the founder of the Republic of China- to Chairman Mao Ze Dong (who of course needs no introduction) had nothing but praise for this historic tea.

When did it begin and how did Hangzhou’s most famous export captivate tea drinkers in China and over the world?

The evolution of Xihu Longjing as we know today has 3 stages.

The Advent of Xihu

Xihu which is literally translated as West Lake is located in Hangzhou, northern Zhejiang, just over 2 hours car ride from Shanghai.

The first written account of tea production in Hangzhou can be found (like so many other nuggets) in Lu Yu’s Cha Jing or the Classics of Tea written from 760-780 CE. In it, Lu Yu describes Qian Tang which forms part of modern day Hangzhou as one of the tea producing areas. In particular he singles out Tianzhu and Linying temple.

The renowned Song Dynasty poet Su Shi or better known as Su Dong Po (1037-1101) wrote that the poet Xie Li Yun who lived from 385-433 had written about Tian Zhu temple’s tea production.

Of course the production of tea during Lu Yu’s era (and earlier) was markedly different from the Longjing of today. The teas were steamed rather than wok-roasted and if anything, the tea in question were likely to resemble Japan’s sencha more than the distinctive Longjing we know today.

Moreover, Tianzhu temple, though is located in what is classified as modern ‘Xihu’ (see this article for the various types of Longjing) is not ‘Longjing area’,

The Rise of the Dragon

During the Song Dynasty- 1079 CE to be precise- Bian Cai monk went from Tianzhu temple to a temple in Longjing village, Shifeng. Thereafter, tea production in Longjing village and Shifeng commenced.

Today, in Shou Sheng Temple in Longjing village, you can find a monument erected in memory of Bian Cai monk and his contribution in ‘founding’ Longjing tea.

However the Longjing tea of that time is still a far cry from the beloved flat leaves we know today.

Yuan dynasty poet Yu Ji (虞集) who lived from 1272-1348 wrote this line in a poem dedicated to Longjing tea:

“烹煎黄金芽,不取谷雨后”

Translated it means “decoct golden buds picked from before the harvest rain (circa 20th April)”.

While the latter couplet is still relevant- the highest grades are picked before the harvest rain, Longjing is not decocted today. The word for decoct 煎 (jian) is in fact the same word that appears in 煎茶 or sencha.

Hence while the exact location had been firmed up, it was still not ‘Longjing’ that we know.

Wok-roasting the flat leaves

The missing piece in what characterizes Longjing came centuries later, when exactly we are not certain but there are 2 written documents that reveal that the Longjing of that era is similar to the tea we know so well today.

Firstly, Ming Dynasty scholar Gao Lian published a collection of tea writings which was completed in 1591. In his treatise on spring water, he described the wok-roasted process of Longjing tea.

Secondly towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (circa 1644), Peng Sun Yi(彭孙贻) wrote in a poem about Longjing tea which included the words “杯中瓣瓣立周遭” which can be translated as “(each) petal stands and surrounds the cup” which is a depiction of the flat shaped leaves.

Most likely, the wok-roasting and flattened leaves are adapted from the production of Dinggu Dafang in Anhui which was believed to be in the middle of the 16th century. The similarity in leaves appearances continue till today.

Since the Qing Dynasty, with a little boost from Emperor Qian Long, the fame of Longjing continues to spread. While technology and technique may have been refined since then, the fundamental production techniques of Xihu Longjing has a heritage spanning at least 4 centuries.

See Xihu Longjing in stores today

See other articles related to different varieties of green tea here

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