FEATURE: Reading between the leaves

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - A new book accompanying a documentary series about the history of Chinese tea and its global cultural significance has just been published.

In the middle of 19th century, Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune famously stole tea plants and seeds from China and took them to India, from where they traveled to the rest of the world.

The tea Fortune purloined from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province used to be known by the trade name Bohea in English, which is a derivation from the Fukienese pronunciation of “Wuyi”.

The history of Bohea tea was told in the first season of the documentary, Chinese Tea, which began airing on Jiangsu TV in August and contains more than 100 interviews with tea planters, tea makers, tea sellers and tea-culture buffs.

“Every story from tea to taste bud is a story of people and emotions,” says Liu Jia, chief director of the 10-episode documentary.

A book of the same name was published at the end of March, adding a wealth of background information to the documentary series.

Liu, who is also the chief editor of the book, says that preparation for the book started during the shooting of the documentary.

“The planning and shooting of the documentary took two years, and we had collected a large amount of material about Chinese tea,” says Liu. “But the information included in the documentary is limited by its format, so I wanted to present this information in the form of a book.”

Liu started researching and planning the series in 2016, and had visited more than 10 provinces in China. The crew also shot sequences in Britain, Japan and Kenya.

“Chinese tea is actually an international cultural symbol, so we chose some countries that have been greatly influenced by Chinese tea,” says Liu.

Graduating from Peking University in 1991, Liu later worked for China Central Television and Xinhua News Agency. He realized that there were not many Chinese documentaries about tea. Most instead focus on China’s culture and customs.

“I think because there are too many aspects of knowledge about tea, it’s complicated to explain everything,” Liu says. He then decided to tell his audience about high-quality tea in season one-What is high-quality tea? Where is it made, and how did it make its way around the world?

Unlike food documentaries that show a variety of ingredients, locations and cooking skills, making an engaging series about tea proved more difficult-especially since the tea plants and tea making processes in different areas often appeared the same.

“Aerial footage of different tea gardens tended to look pretty similar, which sometimes even confused our editors. So we only chose footage that added a visual impact to the stories we were telling in the documentary instead of relying on them to show the full picture,” Liu says.

“The limitations of the documentary format were made up for in the book. Since the book follows the same logical lines as the series, we were able to include much more background information in the publication.”

Liu chose the China Light Industry Press to produce the book as they had already published a series of titles about tea, and their team was knowledgeable on the subject. “The editing process takes longer because you need to verify all the information and stories about tea. We found that some of the stories were actually made up by tea merchants,” says Liu. “In retrospect, some of these should have been left out of the documentary.”

As a tea lover, Liu learned a great deal about tea during the documentary’s production and the editing stages of the book. “Planting and producing tea is actually a heavy work, and not at all like the usual impression of pretty young women picking tea leaves in the mountains. So we wanted to show our audience it is really not easy to produce high-quality varieties of tea.”

The documentary has been airing on Friday nights, a prime slot usually reserved for reality shows, and is now being aired on international routes by Air China.

For the second season of Chinese Tea, which is due to air in the second half of the year, Liu is planning to focus on the flavours of tea.

Liu Wei, former deputy chief editor of the Guangming Daily, says the book reminds him not only about the different flavours of tea, but also the stories he enjoyed when drinking tea with people.

“The documentary is like a journey with tea ambassadors, like a modern Silk Road trip,” says Liu. “The book will spread the journey farther and wider.”

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