Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

What Does “Ming Qian” Tea Mean?

At this time of year, much is made of Ming Qian teas at tea markets in China.  “Ming” refers to the grave sweeping holiday that comes in the spring, Qing Ming (Clear Bright).  “Qian” means before or prior to, so this term refers to teas finished before the Qing Ming holiday.  This year Qing Ming fell on April 5th (2014), and this meant a long holiday weekend for many (non agricultural) workers.

Qing Ming rites among the Dong minority

Typically, families gather at gravesites to sweep, clear the area of weeds, and place foods as offerings for ancestors.  Paper money is burned, and firecrackers are set off.  White is the color of funerals in China (burlap for immediate family members), and the colorful foil flags staked into the ground (in the photo below) show the Dong minority at Qing Ming in southwestern China.

In some parts of the country, the ceremony is much abbreviated; I even heard of city workers out-sourcing the task of visiting the graves.  But in rural areas, the occasion is another much anticipated event for feasting, when poultry and pork, which do not appear in meaningful quantities in the daily diet, are in abundance.  Families may picnic near the grave site, by a river bank (see photo below), or in the village center.

Families picniciking after Qing Ming

The following day, to mark the end of Qing Ming, may be observed with more communal feasting, as shown in the neighborhood scene below, in a Dong market town.

A shared meal at a market town after Qing Ming

In the region I was traveling recently in SW China, roads usually followed one river or another, and terraced rice paddies rose from the valley up the hills, and higher up where clouds are suspended, tea bushes can be glimpsed.

Noon feast in the neighborhood after Qing Ming

The work is lonely, with the daily trek from the dwellings (very high up) down to the paddies and then up again at the end of the day.  Planting might be done in groups but the preparation, the repair of the walls, and weeding are solitary tasks.  We usually see groups of women plucking tea, but they are not always working closely together enough for sustained conversations.

Plucking before Qing Ming

This routine, dictated by the seasons, must make the sight of huge woks filled with food, deep cauldrons of stews, and a deep barrel of rice a highlight of the season. The happy convivial atmosphere was evident, which was in sharp contrast to the remoteness of the villages.

Little wonder so many teas are named for "clouds & mist"

How does all this have any bearing on tea? The weather at Qing Ming is expected to be grey, with drizzles misting the cloudy days, appropriate for the somber remembrance.  Pre Qing Ming teas, or Ming Qian Teas, are the earliest flush, with sproutings developing before the rains.

These ming qian pluckings consisted of one bud and a leaf.

As with the first appearance of other comestibles, these teas fetch very high prices.  The Du Yun Maojian shown below was priced at USD175/LB wholesale at a tea market; an Emerald Sprouting tea (Cui Ya) was listed at USD165/LB; and a Silver Ball Green was priced @ USD145/LB.  These teas consist of single bud teas, good for no more than two infusions.

These teas carry much cachet, but this timing should not be taken to mean that post Qing Ming teas are not as worthy.  In fact, one tea maker explained his anticipation of a high quality season this spring because of the relatively long period of cool, rainy days.  As I drafted this, it was April 8th, and I could sense the tension he felt between the hope for some sunny days when he can begin processing and his appreciation for the fact that during this rainy period, the tea plants are storing up components that will bloom to optimal effect when the leaves are finally harvested. Too much rain, of course, and the buds will not be robust.  Too much sun too early, and the tender buds will unfurl, to diminished effect.

The last two weeks were sent in provinces in southwestern China, where spring arrives earlier, and tea production was already underway. Contrast this to the coastal tea provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, where we will have to wait until mid to late April and early May in some instances for the first appearance of renowned teas from those regions.

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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung