Reading the Tea Leaves in Hangzhou

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People who visit China often do not have the chance to travel outside the first-tier cities, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, and Shenzhen. While these financial and cultural centers can be wildly impressive in their sheer size and flashiness, there is much more to China than the Big Four. Last week the Chinese Program had the opportunity to travel to Hangzhou, a smaller 3rd tier city of 8 million people a few hours’ train ride from Shanghai. Hangzhou is known these days mainly for being the home of Alibaba, now a world famous company listed on the NYSE. At first glance it looks very similar to Shanghai with large shopping malls and luxury cars lining the streets. Foreign brands, well-heeled residents, and a host of bars and restaurants belie a city that is actually home to some of the country’s most traditional industries, such as silk and tea. A report issued by China International Silk Forum shows that Hangzhou provides a quarter of the world’s silk product. We had the opportunity to visit Wensli, Hangzhou’s largest silk manufacturer that supplies the likes of Hermes and Louis Vuitton with the raw silk to produce their world-famous scarves. We also visited a tea plantation and had the opportunity to learn about China’s most beloved export. Longjing tea, which grows in Zhejiang Province, can be some of China’s most expensive and was once known as the Imperial tea, as it was favored by the Qing Emperor. At the Longjing Tea Auction where every year the first harvest of the finest tea is sold, a kilo of tea can go for USD $2500. Because both silk and tea typically serve as very high end gifts, both industries have been hit by the recent anti-corruption campaign under President Xi Jinping and the current Party Leadership.

IMG_5769Another way Hangzhou stands apart is its emphasis on the environment and creating a beautifully green city. In Hangzhou, according to our tour guide, on average there is one person per ten trees. By contrast Shanghai has ten people for every one tree. And indeed it feels a world away from the bustling metropoli of Beijing and Shanghai. The city’s most famous site is the West Lake, a beautiful freshwater lake in the middle of the city that was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. For centuries the West Lake has served as inspiration to poets, writers, and painters. It also served as the backdrop to legends that have been passed down for generations. In order to better understand the history of the lake, the Chinese Track broke out into teams and did a scavenger hunt around the area. We had to accomplish such tasks as asking a local about the regional lore, learning some of the local dialect, and scouting the oldest Traditional Chinese Medicine shop in the city (if anyone finds themselves in need of snake bile to treat rheumatic pain, let us know!).

An old saying in China says just as there is a heaven above, there is Hangzhou here on earth. Visiting Hangzhou was a wonderful experience for us. Now we are on to Beijing!

Maggie Diehl, Chinese Track ’17