CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


A Journey to the Tea Countries of China | China Heritage Quarterly

A Journey to the Tea Countries of China [1852]

Robert Fortune

In the wake of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the Royal Horticultural Society hired the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune (1812-1880) to gather interesting and commercially viable plants from the Chinese interior. An account of this journey, recording his observations of the tea industry in the region of the newly-established treaty port at Ningbo, is reproduced elsewhere in Features. In 1848, Fortune made a second lengthy visit to China at the behest of the East India Company, this time charged with obtaining tea seeds and plants, as well as the secrets of tea manufacture, with a view to the establishment of a viable tea industry in British India, a task at which he was dramatically successful. The text below is taken from Chapters IV and V of his Two Visits to the Tea Countries of China, published in 1853. It recounts his visit to the area of Songluoshan 松蘿山 in Anhui provice, near the famous Yellow Mountains 黄山, traditionally held to be the source of China's first tea plants. Apart from tea, Fortune is credited with having introduced more than 200 useful and ornamental plants from China to the West, including the kumquat, the kiwi fruit and the white wisteria. Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China, New York: Penguin, 2010, provides a readable account of Fortune's experiences in China that relies heavily on Fortune's own published records of his journeys.—The Editor


First View of Sung-lo-shan

Fig.1 Frontispiece to A Journey to the Tea Countries of China

Our passage-money was now fully paid up, our luggage packed, and an arrangement made between my two men with regard to the station to which we were bound. When this was all arranged I left the coolie in charge of the luggage, took Wang on shore, and walked onwards to Tun-che [屯溪], which we reached between three and four o'clock in the afternoon. It is a thriving, busy town, and forms as it were the port of Hwuy-chow-foo [徽州府], from which it is distant about twenty miles. It is situated in lat. 29° 48' N., and in long. 2° 4' E. of Peking. All the large Hang-chow and Yen-chow boats are moored and loaded here, the river being too shallow to allow of their proceeding higher up, and hence it is a place of great trade. Nearly all the green teas which are sent down the river to Hang-chow-foo, and thence onward to Shanghae, are shipped at this place. The green teas destined for Canton are carried across a range of hills to the westward, where there is a river which flows in the direction of the Poyang lake.

This part of the country is very populous. Nearly the whole way from the place where we had left our boat was covered with houses, forming a kind of suburb to Tun-che. This place itself is supposed to contain about 150,000 inhabitants. The great article of trade is green tea. There are here a number of large dealers who buy this article from the farmers and priests, refine and sort it, form it into chops, and forward it to Shanghae or Canton, where it is sold to the foreign merchant. Seven or eight hundred chops are said to be sent out of this town annually. I observed also a great number of carpenters' shops for the manufacture of chests, a trade which of itself must employ a large number of men. In fact, this town and the surrounding populous district may be said to be supported by the foreign tea-trade.

Nearly all the way from Yen-chow-foo the river was bounded by high hills on each side. Now, however, they seemed, as it were, to fall back, and left an extensive and beautiful valley, through the middle of which the river flowed. Nearly all this low land is under tea cultivation, the soil is rich and fertile, and the bushes consequently grow most luxuriantly. I had never before seen the tea-plant in such a flourishing condition, and this convinced me that soil had much to do with the superiority of the Hwuy-chow green teas.

The very sandy soil near the river yielded good crops of the ground-nut (Arachis hypogœa).

After spending about an hour in the town we inquired where we could hire a chair to take us onward about thirty le further, and were directed to an inn or tea-house, where chairs are let on hire. A circumstance happened in this inn which gave me some amusement at the time, and which I have often laughed at since. When we entered this house we found a great number of travellers of all ranks; some were drinking tea, others smoking, and the remainder stretched upon chairs or tables sound asleep. Seeing strangers arrive, some of the more restless were rather inquisitive, and began to put a number of questions to us. My man Wang was a native of this district, and of course understood the dialect perfectly, but he evidently wanted to have as little to say as possible. As for myself, I told them I did not understand what they said. One fellow in particular, who probably was sharp enough to detect something unusual in my appearance, was determined not to be put off in this way, and kept asking me a variety of questions. At length the old innkeeper came up and said with the utmost gravity, 'It is of no use your talking to this person, he understands the Kwan-hwa (or Court dialect) only; you do not speak that, and of course he cannot understand you, nor you him.' This seemed to be perfectly satisfactory to all parties, and I was left unmolested.

Our chairs being ready, we got into them, and, passing through the town, crossed the river and took the road for Sung-lo [松蘿]and Hieu-ning [休寧]. We reached our destination a little before dark, and I had the first view of the far-famed Sung-lo-shan [松蘿山], the hill where green tea is said to have been first discovered.


Fig.2 Tea plantations, View in the Green Tea District

Sung-lo-shan — Its priests and tea — Its height above the sea — Rock formation — Flora of the hills — Temperature and climate — Cultivation of the tea-shrub — Mode of preserving its seeds — The young plants — Method of dyeing green teas — Ingredients employed — Chinese reason for the practice — Quantity of Prussian blue and gypsum taken by a green-tea drinker — Such teas not used by the Chinese — Mr. Warrington's observations.

The hill of Sung-lo, or Sung-lo-shan, is situated in the province of Kiang-nan and district of Hieu-ning, a town in lat. 29° 56' N., long. 118° 15' E. It is famous in China as being the place where the green-tea shrub was first discovered, and where green tea was first manufactured. In a book called the 'Hieu-ning-hien chy,' [休寧縣志] published A.D. 1693, and quoted by Mr. Ball, there is the following notice of this place: —

'The hill or mountain where tea is produced is Sung-lo mountain. A bonze of the sect of Fo taught a Kiang-nan man, named Ko Ty, the art of making tea, and thus it was called Sung-lo tea. The tea got speedily into great repute, so that the bonze became rich and abandoned the profession of priest. The man is gone, and only the name remains. Ye men of learning and travellers who seek Sung-lo tea may now search in vain, that which is sold in the markets is a mere counterfeit.'

Sung-lo-shan appears to be between two and three thousand feet above the level of the plains. It is very barren, and, whatever may have formerly been the case, it certainly produces but little tea now; indeed, from all I could learn, the tea that grows upon it is quite neglected, as far as cultivation is concerned, and is only gathered to supply the wants of the priests of Fo, who have many temples amongst these rugged wilds. Nevertheless it is a place of great interest to every Chinaman, and has afforded a subject to many of their writers.

The low lands of this district and those of Moo-yuen [], situated a few miles further south, produce the greater part of the fine green teas of commerce; hence the distinction betwixt hill-tea and garden-tea, the latter simply applying to those teas which are carefully cultivated in the plains. The soil here is a rich loam, not unlike the cotton soil of Shanghae, but more free in its texture, being mixed with a considerable portion of sand.

When forming our ideas regarding the low lands, or plains, where the fine garden-tea is produced, it should be kept in mind that the level country here is not in reality low, but is a very considerable height above the level of the sea—much higher, for example, than the plain of Shanghae. From Hang-chow-foo to Hwuy-chow-foo the distance is about 800 le (150 to 200 miles); and, when we take into consideration the rapidity of the current, we see at once that the plains about Hwuy-chow-foo must be a very considerable height above those of Hang-chow or Shanghae, which are only a few feet above the level of the sea.

The rocks in this part of the country are chiefly composed of Silurian slate, like that found in England, and resting upon it is a red calcareous sandstone similar to the new red sandstone of Europe. This sandstone has the effect of giving a reddish tinge to the barren hills, as it crumbles to pieces. I met with no fossil organic remains in these rocks, but my time and opportunities did not permit me to investigate them very minutely.

All these hills are very barren and wholly unsuited to the cultivation of the tea-shrub, and hence their geological formation can have little to do with the success which has attended its management on the plains. Their vegetable productions, however, depending as they do in a great measure upon climate, afford us some valuable information, and to these I paid particular attention.

The flora here has a northern character, that is, the genera common in England or in the northern parts of India are common, while those shrubs and trees which are met with only in tropical countries are entirely unknown. The only plant seen here which has any resemblance to those of the tropics is the species of palm which I have already noticed, but it seems much more hardy than any other variety of its race. A species of holly not unlike the English is common; and various species of the oak, the pine, and the juniper are also found in great abundance. The grasses, ferns, and other low-growing bushes and herbaceous plants of northern countries are here represented by various species of the same genera.

If we were to draw our conclusions from the flora of the country only, we should be apt to suppose that the tea-shrub might be successfully cultivated in some parts of Great Britain; but this would be erroneous. We must examine the climate as well as the soil and its natural productions, and thus obtain a view of the question in all its bearings.

Shanghae is the nearest place to the green-tea country at which observations that can be relied upon regarding climate have been made to any extent.

The following table, prepared in Shanghae (lat. 31° 20' N.) from daily observations with Newman's best maximum and minimum thermometers, will give the requisite information as regards temperature:—



Mean Maximum.

Mean Minimum.

Highest during Month.

Lowest During Month.





























































It is necessary to state, in connection with these observations on temperature, that the winter of 1844-5 was unusually mild. I have no doubt that in ordinary seasons the thermometer may sometimes sink as low as 10° or 12° of Fahrenheit. The winter months are not unlike those which we experience in England; sometimes heavy and continued falls of rain take place, at other times the frost is very severe, the rivers and lakes are frozen over, and the ground is covered with snow. The spring is early and pleasant. In April and May, when the monsoon changes from north-east to south-west, the weather is generally very wet; in fact, this is what is commonly called the 'rainy season.' From June to August it is often oppressingly hot, the sky is generally clear, little rain falls, but vegetation is often refreshed with heavy dews at night. The autumnal months are cool and agreeable, and about the end of October slight frosts are not unfrequent.

Fig.3 Green tea, from J.C. Lettsom, The natural history of the tea-tree, p. i (1799).

When we consider that Shanghae is 9° 30' further south than Naples, the extremes of heat and cold will appear excessive. But in order to account for this we must bear in mind the observations made by Humboldt many years ago. 'Europe,' he observes, 'may be considered altogether as the western part of a great continent, and therefore subject to all the influence which causes the western sides of continents to be warmer than the eastern, and at the same time more temperate, or less subject to excesses of both heat and cold, but principally the latter.'

Shanghae is situated on the east side of the large continent of Asia, and is consequently liable to extremes of temperature—to excessive heat in summer and extreme cold in winter—such as are unknown in many other places in the same degree of latitude.

But Shanghae is near the sea, and the extremes of heat and cold are therefore less than in the green-tea district of Hwuy-chow. I have no doubt that the thermometer rises several degrees higher in summer in the town of Hwuy-chow-foo than it does either in Shanghae or Ning-po, and in like manner sinks much lower during the winter. If we allow eight or ten degrees each way we shall probably be very near the truth—quite near enough for all the purposes of this inquiry.

In the green-tea district of Hwuy-chow, and I believe in all other parts where the shrub is cultivated, it is multiplied by seeds. The seeds are ripe in the month of October. When gathered they are generally put into a basket, and mixed up with sand and earth in a damp state, and in this condition they are kept until the spring. If this plan is not pursued only a small portion of them will germinate. Like the seeds of the oak and chestnut, they are destroyed when exposed to sudden changes in temperature and moisture.

In the month of March the seeds are taken out of the basket and placed in the ground. They are generally sown thickly, in rows or in beds, in a nursery, or in some spare corner of the tea-farm, and sometimes the vacancies in the existing plantations are made up by sowing five or six seeds in each vacant space.

When the young plants are a year old they are in a fit state for transplanting. This is always done at the change of the monsoon in spring, when fine warm showers are of frequent occurrence. They are planted in rows about four feet apart, and in groups of five or six plants in the row. The distance between each group or patch is generally about four feet. The first crop of leaves is taken from these plants in the third year. When under cultivation they rarely attain a greater height than three or four feet.

When the winters are very severe the natives tie straw bands round the bushes to protect them from the frost, and to prevent it and the snow from splitting them.

In my former work [1] I offered some remarks upon the preference which many persons in Europe and in America have for coloured green teas, and I will now give a 'full and particular account' of the colouring process as practised in the Hwuy-chow green-tea country upon those teas which are destined for the foreign market. Having noted down the process carefully at the time, I will extract verbatim from my note-book:—

The superintendent of the workmen managed the colouring part of the process himself. Having procured a portion of Prussian blue, he threw it into a porcelain bowl, not unlike a chemist's mortar, and crushed it into a very fine powder. At the same time a quantity of gypsum was produced and burned in the charcoal fires which were then roasting the teas. The object of this was to soften it in order that it might be readily pounded into a very fine powder, in the same manner as the Prussian blue had been. The gypsum, having been taken out of the fire after a certain time had elapsed, readily crumbled down and was reduced to powder in the mortar. These two substances, having been thus prepared, were then mixed together in the proportion of four parts of gypsum to three parts of Prussian blue, and formed a light-blue powder, which was then ready for use.

This colouring matter was applied to the teas during the last process of roasting. About five minutes before the tea was removed from the pans — the time being regulated by the burning of a joss-stick — the superintendent took a small porcelain spoon, and with it he scattered a portion of the colouring matter over the leaves in each pan. The workmen then turned the leaves rapidly round with both hands, in order that the colour might be equally diffused.

During this part of the operation the hands of the workmen were quite blue. I could not help thinking that if any green-tea drinkers had been present during the operation their taste would have been corrected, and, I may be allowed to add, improved. It seems perfectly ridiculous that a civilised people should prefer these dyed teas to those of a natural green. No wonder that the Chinese consider the natives of the west to be a race of barbarians.

One day an English gentleman in Shanghae, being in conversation with some Chinese from the green-tea country, asked them what reasons they had for dyeing the tea, and whether it would not be better without undergoing this process. They acknowledged that tea was much better when prepared without having any such ingredients mixed with it, and that they never drank dyed teas themselves, but justly remarked that, as foreigners seemed to prefer having a mixture of Prussian blue and gypsum with their tea, to make it look uniform and pretty, and as these ingredients were cheap enough, the Chinese had no objection to supply them, especially as such teas always fetched a higher price!

I took some trouble to ascertain precisely the quantity of colouring matter used in the process of dyeing green teas, not certainly with the view of assisting others, either at home or abroad, in the art of colouring, but simply to show green-tea drinkers in England, and more particularly in the United States of America, what quantity of Prussian blue and gypsum they imbibe in the course of one year. To 14 ½ lbs. of tea were applied 8 mace 2 ½ candareens of colouring matter, or rather more than an ounce. In every hundred pounds of coloured green tea consumed in England or America, the consumer actually drinks more than half a pound of Prussian blue and gypsum. And yet, tell the drinkers of this coloured tea that the Chinese eat cats, dogs, and rats, and they will hold up their hands in amazement, and pity the poor celestials!

Two kinds of Prussian blue are used by the tea-manufacturers—one is the kind commonly met with, the other I have seen only in the north of China.[2] It is less heavy than common Prussian blue, of a bright pale tint, and very beautiful. Turmeric root is frequently employed in Canton, but I did not observe it in use in Hwuy-chow.

I procured samples of these ingredients from the Chinamen in the factory, in order that there might be no mistake as to what they really were. These were sent home to the Great Exhibition last year, and a portion of them submitted to Mr. Warrington, of Apothecaries' Hall, whose investigations in connexion with this subject are well known. In a paper read by him before the Chemical Society, and published in its 'Memoirs and Proceedings,' he says, —

Mr. Fortune has forwarded from the north of China, for the Industrial Exhibition, specimens of these materials (tea dyes), which, from their appearance, there can be no hesitation in stating are fibrous gypsum (calcined), turmeric root, and Prussian blue; the latter of a bright pale tint, most likely from admixture with alumina or porcelain-clay, which admixture may account for the alumina and silica found as stated in my previous paper, and the presence of which was then attributed possibly to the employment of kaolin or agalmatolite.


Robert Fortune, A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, London: John Murray, 1852, pp.83-95.


[1] Three Years' Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China. [A chapter of this work is extracted in the current issue.]

[2] I formerly mistook this for a kind of indigo.