Explorer's Tea: Cultivation in Western Sichuan


On the Tea Cultivation in Western Ssŭch'uan | A. De Rosthorn | 1895

Arthur von Rosthorn was a professor of Chinese culture and an Austrian Diplomat, serving as counselor and envoy in China.

He discusses the tea industry in western Sichuan: how it grows, how it’s processed, how it’s sold, and more. The book is short and quite dry, but he mentions a few interesting points that I thought were worth noting.

All emphasis in the text is mine. Read the full book here.



The Yangtzu refers to the Yangtze river, the third longest river in the world which flows across Central China. This passage was the most fascinating to me - boats collecting water from a spring underneath the river? We all know water is important for making tea, but it’s pretty incredible they went to these lengths. And a secret spring too! I wonder if anyone is aware of the location of this spring nowadays. Chinkiang is modern day Zhenjiang, which sits right next to the Yangtze river.

It is a popular saying that, in order to get a first rate cup of tea, you must take "leaves from the Mengshan, and water from the Yangtzu". Now, whereas the Ssuch'uanese have no difficulty in placing the Meng-shan, they are all adrift about the Yangtzu, and, preposterous as it may seem, I have often been asked if I had ever come across a river of that name in my travels. Setting aside the much debated question as to the origin of the name yangtzu and the range of its applicability, it is obvious that for the purpose alluded to the ordinary river water can not be meant. Where then is the famous Yangtzu water to be found? I take leave to conclude this Introductory chapter with a reminiscence of my own which may possibly suggest an answer. Whilst residing at Shanghai I had occasion to pay a visit to the magistrate of that city. I was entertained with tea which I pronounced excellent, whereupon my host dilated upon the necessity of using good water for its preparation, and added that he himself used none but Yangtzu water. I enquired whence he obtained it, and was told that it was brought down from Chinkiang by the daily steamer. Some time afterwards,— I had almost forgotten the incident, — I visited Chinkiang, and happened to cross over the bay which divides the foreign settlement from Golden Island, when I saw a number of small boats pull out into deep water, the crews fill their buckets, and return to the shore. I made enquiry and was informed that there was a famous spring at the bottom of the stream, which had been known ever since a time when the bed of the river was dry land. I forget the name of the spring, but it was said that a stone tablet with an ancient inscription had been standing by its side, and had been removed to another spring farther inland, when the Yangtzu began to wash over the old site. The new spring has since inherited some of the celebrity of the old; but those conversant with its history are not thereby deceived, and continue to draw their water for tea drinking purposes from "the bed of the Yangtzu."


A short passage on brick tea, a common theme of the books I’ve been looking at. One thing to note is that Rosthorn claims the tibetan brick tea didn’t use any of the same grade leaves the Chinese were drinking at the time. It was literally the harshest material available. Most would hardly call it tea nowadays.

For the manufacture of the so called " brick tea " for Tibet, the first and second qualities are not employed at all, and the third quality enters into it to a very limited extent. The bulk of the material is made up of the lao-ken, consisting of stems, branches, and the coarsest of leaves only, admixed with a great quantity of twigs and branches of certain other trees and shrubs, such as the scrub oak (cKing-kang) , a vitex (huang-ching) , a tree called chuan-tzu, and others, which are not planted at all, but the branches of which are simply cut off and collected like brush wood in the forests. This brushwood is known as ye-ken, and is collected all the year round.

*To declare, as some have done, that the Chinese keep all the better teas for themselves, and supply the merest refuse to the Tibetans whom they regard as savages who know no better, is, I need hardly point out, a shortsighted view to take. The Chinese, so far as I know them, would be only too glad to sell to the Tibetans, or to any other savages, whatever these will pay for. It has never before been clearly shown how dirt cheap the stuff is, which the Tibetans drink, compared even with very common Chinese tea. Moreover, it seems really as if the Tibetans did not care for better teas, even if they could pay for them.


A short paragraph on the political role commodities such as tea play in the relationship between China and Tibet. The supply of brick tea was purposefully below the demand so as to maintain leverage over Tibet.

Commodities so necessary to a state as tea and salt, may, if the supply thereof be monopolised by any one country, become a powerful lever for maintaining the political influence in that country. Without distinctly formulating that principle, the Chinese seem to have acted upon it. They have not forced their produce upon the Tibetans, but have conceded to them as a privilege that they might come and purchase it at their frontier towns; and this privilege has even been with drawn once or twice, temporarily, in the case of principalities which had proved refractory. Again, instead of flooding the country with tea as we should be inclined to do, the Chinese have limited the supply and kept it below demand. The exclusive dependence on China for this important commodity seems to me a political factor not to be underrated, and I believe that, if the monopoly of the tea trade were to be done away with, much of the Chinese influence in Tibet would be gone also.