Today is Mr. Zhang Tianfu’s 107th birthday. It’s a name that is rarely mentioned in the western tea world, but almost every Chinese tea person knows him. Some people call him the modern tea sage and that is not an exaggeration. Every time you sip a cup of delicious oolong, you should think of this man. That cup of tea exists because of his massive contribution.
For more than 80 years, he devoted himself to tea. In 1935 he was the first one who combined tea making (factory), tea research (academic study), and tea study (education). He was the one who invented the economic wooden hand push rolling machine, which ended the centuries-old practice of farmers using their feet to make oolong. This machine was affordable for farmers and was responsible for an increased production of oolong in Fujian Province.
Even in the hard times of the cultural revolution (from the 1950s to 1970s), he still was on the front lines of tea production pushing his contribution beyond just oolong teas. He was responsible for several revolutionary studies regarding white and black tea that ultimately resulted in elevated quality and quantity of tea produced in all of Fujian province.
At 70 years old, retirement age for most, he led a team of researchers and conquered a vital part of the process that affects oolong quality – Zuo Qing (making the leaves). His innovation here greatly reduced the dependency on the weather when making oolong, pushing forward tired practices that had reigned for hundreds of years.
In his 90s and even early 100s, he was still very active in the Chinese tea scene. Since the 1990s, he was the appraiser for the 4 most influential Tie Guan Yin King Competitions – 1996 King of Tea in Guangzhou, 1997 King of Tea in Shanghai, 1998 King of Tea in Beijing, and 1999 King of Tea in Hong Kong. He is widely recognized as the master of appraising in China. The gold winner of the 1999 King of Tea in Hong Kong went for 600,000 RMB (approximately 90,000 USD) at auction.
His influence on tea goes beyond himself. Many of his students are now leading figures in Chinese tea. Mr. Wu Zhenduo is one of them, the father of Taiwanese tea, the creator of Jin Xuan and Cui Yu oolong.
He advocates a simple and peaceful Chinese tea spirit (俭清和静) and he lives by his words, drinking all kinds of tea from all over the world (Japan, Korean, India, etc.) every day. On his 100th birthday, Zhang Tianfu Tea Development Foundation was founded. Mr. Zhang donated all of his holdings to the foundation, dedicated to promoting tea production, study, education and cultural development.
As a family friend for almost 20 years, we always visit him when we are in Fujian province. He is a fun and rewarding man to talk with. This year during our tea trip we visited him again. He was so kind to give me a book he had personally inscribed. He also encouraged me to continue reading and learning more about tea since I’m “officially” in this area. “Never stop learning”, were his words to me. We even spoke some English when he found out I now live in Canada. Haha!
Mr. Zhang is an icon that every serious tea person should look up to.
He has a deep connection with the land and the leaves. Always on the frontier of tea, studying the soil and planting methods on the farm, pushing the envelope on the factory floor, and mastering tea evaluation. These connections are the source of his innovation and profound knowledge. There are tea masters who are good at telling legends and stories about tea. But one cannot be a true master if he never touches the soil, tastes the leaves in the garden and experiences every detail of the tea process. Without such knowledge, how can somebody identify the source of the flavours of the tea – which part is from the origin, which part is from the cultivar and which part is from the process?
Looking at today’s Chinese tea market, there’s no lack of innovation. Tonnes of tea farmers and producers are making new teas and trying different things. But only a few of them can be called innovations. Many of the so-called innovations seem new, different and fun to some tea drinkers. But it’s not hard for tea professionals to figure out the true purpose of the changes just with a sip of the tea or the little information about their new twist on the tea. Mr. Zhang’s improvements to tea not only effected the quantity but also the quality. We love new things and fun teas, but not at the price of quality. Bad tea is bad tea, no excuses.
In the age of ‘masters’ everywhere, it’s hard to find a title worthy of Mr. Zhang’s contribution to tea. Maybe just simply ‘Charen’ (tea person in Chinese, 茶人) Zhang Tianfu.