During our time in Hangzhou at Qingming Festival, we took a day trip to see Longjing tea, some of the best in China, being harvested in the nearby villages. At the Dragon Well (Longjing 龙井) itself, the Qianlong emperor praised its sweet tasting water. This revered tea is harvested right around the Qingming Festival, which usually falls on April 5. Qingming means Pure Brightness, the name for the Tomb Sweeping Festival and the two week agricultural mini-season in the Chinese calendar. The best grade of tea is picked in the days leading up to the holiday and is called Mingqian (明前), which means before the brightness. Tea leaves picked later will be priced lower and lack the subtlety of the first young leaves of the season.
We visited two farmsteads, one in Meijiawu village and the other in the Longjing village itself. The roads twisted through foothills, covered with knobby tea bushes and on this day swathed in a misty rain. The tea picking ladies (called 采茶女 cai cha nü) bobbed amongst the bushes in straw hats and plastic raincoats covering their traditional patterned uniforms. In Meijiawu, thanks to our private guide for the day, we were able to walk out into the fields, cross a stream by stepping stones, and pick a few Longjing leaves ourselves. Just the three brilliant leaves of each branch’s tips are picked. Inside, the husband and wife bosses showed us how the air dried tea is roasted, and gave us a taste of the latest vintage from two days prior. Green tea’s antioxidant effects are well known, and our guide tells us how Chinese women even use the tea water to beautify their skin and protect their face from the computer screen’s free radicals.
In Longjing we visited a farmstead half way up a hill cloistered in bamboo. Three generations of women do the majority of the work here. The most senior matron leads the charge herself, spreading out the tea leaves just brought up the hill by a young man in two bushel baskets, and laughing about how her daughters worry she works too much. We finish our tea on the porch and look out over potted green orchids and listen to the rustle of the bamboo. The afternoon fades to a pale green as the young spring leaves steep in the cup and our spirits are revived.