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XIX. A TRIP TO THE TEA COUNTRY,
1. Waking next morning, we found our boat moored to the bank of the canal, opposite a long, rambling, one-storied building, which proved to be the “hong" (warehouse) of the tea merchant to whom the neighboring plantations belonged. We were in the tea country at last. On every side of us,
as far as the eye could reach, the dark green plants were growing in their beds of reddish sandy soil.
2. Notwithstanding the urgent appeals of the cook to wait till “chow-chow” was ready, we jumped ashore and into the midst of a crowd of noisy coolies moving in every direction, each with his load slung at the ends of a bamboo across his shoulders, and
singing a monotonous “Aho! aho! aho !” which appears to be to the Chinese carrier what the “ Yo, heave, ho !" is to the English sailor.
3. Long, narrow junks were lying at the bank and being rapidly loaded with the familiar tea chests ; crowds of men, women, and children were coming from the plantation, each bringing bags of the freshly picked leaves, or baskets on their heads, in which the more delicate kinds were carefully carried.
4. We stepped into the building, and there witnessed the assorting and firing of the teas, and even the manufacture of the chests. Breakfast over, we jumped ashore again, and, desiring to conduct our sight-seeing systematically, wtarted for the fields.
5. We walked first to the foot of a hill a little distance off, where some men were laying out a new plantation. The ground was accurately marked off, and in one or two places the little plants were just showing above the ground. In another field the seeds—little round balls they looked like—were being planted in the rows. Passing another field, where some men were at work with their hoes in true Chinese style, we came at last to where the plants had attained some size, and the actual picking was going on.
6. The plants were from two to six feet high, ac
cording to age, and, from repeated cuttings, had grown into dense masses of small twigs. Many of them were covered with small flowers, somewhat similar to the jasmine flower, and seeds inclosed in a casing not unlike that of the hazelnut, but thinner and full of oil.
7. Charley thought they looked like little laurel bushes; to me, those that had been well picked were not unlike huckleberry bushes, except that the leaves were of a much darker green.
8. The first picking, usually in April, is when the leaves are very young and tender, commanding a much higher price than those gathered later. The second is after a month, when they have attained maturity; and, as unpropitious weather would ruin them, great expedition is used in getting in the crop, the entire population turning out to assist. A third, and even a fourth, picking follows, but the quality rapidly deteriorates, and only a small proportion of these last pickings is prepared for the foreign market.
9. The plantations were filled with a merry crowd, all engaged in stripping the bushes as rapidly as possible, yet with great care and dexterity so as not to bruise the leaves. Following some of the coolies who, with filled bags, were trudging off to the curing house, we saw the most interesting operation of all. Here at least thirty girls were
engaged in assorting the leaves, picking out all the dead and yellow ones, and preparing them for the hands of the rollers and firers.
10. Our entrance excited quite a commotion among them, as we were probably the first barbarians they had seen; but a word from Akong reassured them, and Charley was soon airing his little stock of Chinese, more, I thought, to their amusement than to their edification.
11. Leaving this room we went to another, where on one side was a long furnace built of bricks, with iron pans placed at equal distances and heated by charcoal fires below. Into these pans leaves by the basketful were poured, stirred rapidly for a few minutes, and then removed to bamboo frames, where they were rolled and kneaded until all the green juice was extracted. They were then scattered loosely in large flat baskets, and placed in the sun to dry.
12. After this drying, they were again to be carried to the furnaces and exposed to a gentle heat until they should curl and twist themselves into the shapes so well known to us all. Some of the finer kinds are rolled by the hand before firing. The great object seems to be to prevent the leaf from breaking: in the commoner kinds, which do not receive the same care, the leaves are found to be much broken.
13. Under the same roof men were employed in one room in making boxes, and in another room were lining them with thin sheets of lead; while farther on the boxes were being covered with paper, on which were stamped the name of the tea and the maker's business title. Finally, they were being filled, soldered up, and carried to the boats, not to be opened until they reached the shop of some merchant grocer.
14. The object of our friend Akong's visit was to convoy with his mandarin boat a fleet of tea junks to Hankow, so that but a day was given to our visit. The boats being ready, it was arranged that we should start on our return on the following morning
15. The evening was devoted to a dinner and 'sing-song "given for our entertainment by the tea men. We were seated at small, square tables holding four persons each, the Chinamen all dressed in state costumes.
16. And such a dinner! First came dishes of sweetmeats. Then followed bowls of bird's-nest soup, with the jelly-like substance floating about in it in company with bits of chicken. nice, although we did all eat from the same dish, using little porcelain spoons.
Then came more sweetmeats, followed by dishes of sea-slug and fat pork; this we passed, but not until an over
This was very