~ Intro ~
It is not uncommon for people to go to a reputable tea shop, or to a tea store’s website, and see Dà Hóng Páo (大红袍) for sale. However, chances are that even though the tea that you’re being sold might be some very good tea, it’s not “real” Dà Hóng Páo.
In an attempt to prevent people from being misinformed about what they are drinking, I’ve written the post below. However, before you start to read it, I need to be clear about something.
What I have written is based on what I know about tea, and I don’t know everything. If you see something that you disagree with please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or to contact me directly and let me know. If I’ve made any mistakes in the post, I want to be made aware of them so that I can correct them, and learn from the experience.
~ So what is “real” Dà Hóng Páo?~
Let’s start with the myth of Dà Hóng Páo…
Legend tells of a time when someone who was of great importance to the Ming Emperor fell very ill. In most cases, the ill person is the Emperor’s mother, but not always. As a result of their close relationship to the Emperor, the sick individual received the very best medical care that was available at the time. However, in spite of this lavish medical care, the illness did not abate.
As word of both the illness and the doctors’ inability to cure it spread throughout the land, some monks who lived in the Wuyi mountains of Fujian heard of the situation. These monks took pity on the patient and brought a very rare and special tea to help ease the illness. This particular tea had been harvested from wild tea bushes that grew directly out of the rock of the mountain.
When the ill person drank this tea, their sickness vanished. The Emperor was overjoyed and ordered that magnificent red robes be brought to cover the tea bushes. In Chinese culture, the color red symbolizes luck, long life, and vitality. However, whether these robes were for protection, honor, or both has never been made clear to me. Ever after their cloaking in crimson, this particular type of tea has been known as Dà Hóng Páo, which translates into large red robe in mandarin Chinese.
What makes this story interesting is while some of it is made of pure myth, many people believe that the four of the Dà Hóng Páo bushes from this legend are still alive today in the Wuyi mountains. Tea which is harvested from these four bushes is referred to as “real” Dà Hóng Páo.
Needless to say, this “real” Dà Hóng Páo is very rare. Nowadays, this rare tea is only offered to VIPs who have the good fortune to be presented with it by the Chinese government. I’ve heard that in 2002, 2/3 of an ounce was sold for $23,000 USD.
A funny modern “myth” comes from President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Upon his arrival, Nixon was given fifty grams of 100% real Dà Hóng Páo as a gift. Rather than seeing this as the high honor, Nixon was reported to have been somewhat insulted by the “small” gift, and his staff needed to explain to the President how generous the gift really was [source].
~ What is “real” Dà Hóng Páo? ~
- Tea that was harvested from one of the four original Dà Hóng Páo bushes.
- Grows out of rock in the Wuyi mountains.
- This tea will cost a ridiculous sum of money.
- Chances are that unless you are a VIP visiting China or a important person in China, you’re not going to be drinking 100% “real” Dà Hóng Páo.
~ If it’s not Dà Hóng Páo what is it? ~
Calling tea Dà Hóng Páo has become a marketing tool to sell tea to people who don’t know any better. Chances are, tea that is called Dà Hóng Páo and sold outside of China today is one of two things…
- Tea that was harvested from a genetic clone of one of the original four Dà Hóng Páo bushes.
People have taken clippings from the original Dà Hóng Páo bushes and used them to make genetic clones of said bushes. However, it is important to keep in mind that even though these clones are genetically identical to the original bushes, they are being grown in different locations. This means the environmental conditions that these clones are growing in can be very different than the environmental conditions that the original bushes are growing in. This can be explained by looking at a grape vine from France. Even though the vine has it’s origins in France, calling its product a”French wine” after it has been cloned and grown in California soil and conditions, would be quite disingenuous.
The correct name for this kind of tea is Xiao Hong Pao, which means Small Red Robe.
I’ve been lucky enough to try some Xiao Hong Pao, and I thought that it was very good.
The Xiao Hong Pao that I sampled was harvested from a tea bush that is grown very close to the geographic location of the original four Dà Hóng Páo bushes.
In my mind, Xiao Hong Pao tea that comes from the same area as the original Dà Hóng Páo is closer to being “real” Dà Hóng Páo, because these tea plants are going to be drinking the same ground / rain water, getting the same light, breathing the same air, and growing in the same soil as the four original Dà Hóng Páo bushes.
As I’m sure you can imagine, while Xiao Hong Pao is not as costly as true Dà Hóng Páo, it is still very expensive.
I’ve also heard Xiao Hong Pao be referred to as simply Hong Pao, which means “red robe” in mandarin Chinese.
~ So if it’s not “real” Dà Hóng Páo, is it bad? ~
No. There is lots of “fake” Dà Hóng Páo out there which is still really good tea.
You’ll notice that I keep using quotation marks around words like “real” and “fake” throughout this post. That’s because in the end, I don’t really think the difference matters that much to the vast majority of tea drinkers here in the West. My rule is that if I like something, I don’t really care what they call it, or if it’s “real” or “fake”.
So if you have something that is labeled as Dà Hóng Páo, and you like it, keep enjoying it! Just don’t make the mistake of going around telling people that it is tea grown from one of those original four bushes that are over 300 years old in the Wuyi mountains.
Lao Ren Gorman enjoying some "fake" Da hung Pao
And if you want to show off a bit, the next time you’re offered some Dà Hóng Páo, smile and ask the person if what they are offering is really from one of those four original bushes which were honored by the Emperor of China and see what they say.