The History of the Development of Taiwanese Tea
In terms of the size of the tea plantation and its yield, Taiwan plays but a minor role in the world tea industry. However, the uniqueness of its semi-fermented tea has put it in a class of its own – with a prominent presence then and now, it holds an important position in the world history of tea.
According to the “State Diary of Zhu Luo” (1717 A.D), the forefathers of Taiwan have begun roasting wild tea leaves for brewing since the early Qing Dynasty. However, Taiwanese tea today is of the cultivated instead of wild variety. During the reign of Emperor Jia Qing in the Qing Dynasty (1796 – 1820 A.D), Ke Zhao brought tea cultivar from the Wuyi Mountain of the Fujian Province back to Taiwan. He planted it in Yu Keng (Now Rui Fang, Taipei), and this was said to be the origin of tea plantation in Northern Taiwan. Dating to nearly two hundred years ago, it marked the beginning of Taiwan’s tea history. In the late Qing and Early Min Dynasties, Taiwan’s three largest export industries were summarized as ‘Southern sugar, Northern tea and Camphor’. Tea topped the list, not to mention that its output was the sum total of all other industries. Tea shops of different sizes multiplied in Da Dao Cheng, which was replacing Meng Jia as a major trading hub. Da Dao Cheng became a tea processing and export area almost overnight. There were more than 10,000 people picking and discarding unwanted twigs among the harvest tealeaves every day when the Taiwanese tea development reached its peak.
During the Japanese Occupation, the golden age of Taiwanese Tea continued with the policy of developing Japan’s Industries and Taiwan’s agriculture. In 1973, Taiwan’s raw tea production recorded a capacity of 28,000 tonnes, among which more than 23,000 tonnes were exported. 78% was green tea. This set the highest record in the history of tea production in Taiwan. Then the export took a sharp downturn.
In 1974, the global oil crisis broke out. The exchange rates of New Taiwan Dollars went up. At the same time, wages rocketed and there was a scarcity of labour. Outside of the country, tea plantations of China and India were fast catching up. Taiwanese tea started to lose its competitive edge internationally. In 1986, exports were reduced to 10,000 tonnes, equivalent to less than 42% of the gross production. This may well be a blessing in disguise -- what the country has lost in its export revenue was made up by domestic consumption. Some people with foresight began to encourage fellow countrymen to consume more tea. Promotion of ‘kung fu” tea and ‘small pot’ tea drinking went in full force, accompanied by the mushrooming of modern tea art centres and classic tea houses.
Meanwhile, tea became a household beverage. Over time, this has developed into Taiwan’s unique tea culture, which is as widely recognised as the tea ceremony of Japan. Quality Taiwanese semi-fermented tea has won wide acclaim the world over. With this fine offering and the thriving tea art and tea culture, Taiwanese tea is poised to soar higher in this new century.