Compressing tea into cultural heritage

Three tea masters from Bai people in Dali, Yunnan made Xiaguan Tuocha, one type of compressed Pu’er tea in front of visitors at 2016 Guangzhou International Tea expo.

The traditional technique of making Xiaguan Tuocha Tea, a kind of dark tea, has been inscribed on the third National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in China since 2013.

Making Tuocha tea, which counts a range of famous teas as its materials, requires the cooperation of three workers. The first one uses an aluminum scoop to take a certain weight of tealeaves and puts them into a bucket. The second then places it on the steaming machine for several minutes and wraps the soft tea with a cloth bag for kneading. The third compresses them with the help of a mould and a special wooden stool. Employing the principle of leverage, the stool allows the worker to sit on one side to shape the tea. Thus, the method is also called “bottom tea.”

The first Tuocha tea was made in 1902 in Xiaguan town, Dali, southwest Yunnan Province. Since the loose tea got damp easily during the long-distance transportation, Yongchangxiang, one of the famous tea firms, created the bowl-shaped compressed tea, countering the problem by leaving tiny room between the tea leaves for moisture. Yunnan people used to call a round lump “tuo,” so it was named “Tuocha tea.” After being compressed, the tea is much better protected against the elements and its convex shape allows free flow of air to prevent mildew.

The tea’s shape resembles a heart. “It was also called ‘Ox-heart tea,’ which has been mainly sold to the Buddhist areas like Tibet since the ancient times,” said one of the masters performing at the Tea expo.

The ox-heart tea was an important offering for Buddha in ancient times, as its short “handle” can just be nipped between worshippers’ fingers. From the 1950s to 1980s, the production of the tea was brought to a halt because of the complicated manufacturing process, labor shortage and its association with feudalism. At the same time that the kneading skill was almost lost in the world, the 10th Panchen Lama, Choekyi Gyaltsen visited the Xiaguan tea factory in 1986. The factory presented the “heart” tea to him. The Panchen Lama ordered nearly 15 tons of the tea after the visit, so the factory resumed its production.

Nowadays even though the production has been widely mechanized, the Tuocha tea making process is still mainly manual work. “Now hydraulic machines have been applied into the compressing procedure, but the kneading definitely not be replaced by a machine,” said Zhang Jincheng, the marketing manager of Yunnan Xiaguan Tuocha Tea (Group) Co., Ltd.

“The craft has been handed down over hundreds of years, and there are three generations of inheritors in our factory now. Since our initiative is to protect this intangible cultural heritage, many young people have joined us,” said Zhang.

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