The Wuyi Mountains, located in northwest Fujian Province, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. According to UNESCO, “Mount Wuyi is the most outstanding area for biodiversity conservation in southeast China and a refuge for a large number of ancient, relict species, many of them endemic to China.” Home to the “most representative example of a largely intact forest encompassing the diversity of the Chinese Subtropical Forest and the South Chinese Rainforest,” the Wuyi Mountains are also one of the world’s most ideal locations for the cultivation of camellia sinensis, the tea plant.
The tea grown on Mount Wuyi is unique to all other tea in the world. It is called cliff tea because it grows on the sides and bottoms of mineral-rich cliffs, coddled and protected by steep gorges.
Camellia sinensis is a very sensitive plant. Every element of nature from soil to water to sunlight strongly impacts the final outcome of the tea that we drink. When Luyu, the great Tang Dynasty tea sage, wrote the Classic of Tea (Chajing), he described the perfect conditions for cultivating it—Wuyi contains all of them.
Wuyi’s high cliffs protect its old tea trees from natural hazards and balance the level of sunlight, ensuring that the tea trees don’t receive too much. Wuyi Cliff Tea is highly sensitive, and when I tasted two versions of the same varietal grown on the same mountain, one on the north side and one on the south side, the difference in flavor and qi was unmistakable. The tea growing on the north face had received a more balanced level of sunlight and so its energy, flavor, and fragrance were rounder, smoother, and more even.
The cliffs also help to regulate the temperature in the region. During the day the cliffs absorb heat from the sun, and, at night, when the air cools off, they release heat, keeping the temperature in the valley relatively constant.
Water is crucial to all plants. Each morning the Wuyi gorges guide mist through their humble openings, covering their tea trees in a nutrient-rich veil of moisture. The waterfalls here also seem endless. Even days after the last rainfall, water pours from cliff tops, ensuring that the tea trees are always vitalized.
As I moved along a high mountain pass, weaving in and out of waterfalls and walking alongside fluttering butterflies, it was impossible to ignore the power of the mountains before me. As I took a rest by a water-covered cliff next to a group of old tea trees, I inhaled deeply. The smell of the wet, mineral-rich cliffs and the sweet oolong tea trees intermingled, merging into one great spirit; that’s the taste of true Wuyi Cliff Tea.
In the Song Dynasty, the father of Neo-Confucianism—Zhu Xi—chose the Wuyi Mountains as the setting to revive Confucian thought. It was here that he proclaimed, “The Wuyi Mountains stand like the high pillars at the gates of heaven, supporting all the East. To live is to know the infinite universe, though its creative forces remain forever a mystery.”