Who wrote the book on Rock Wulong?

Newsletter Archive Sep. 17, 2021

A man in a formal red jacket shaking a round bamboo tray to toss the tea leaves on it back and forth.
Rock wulong master Liu Guoying performing the traditional tray-shaking technique of wulong oxidation by hand.

This weekend we’re featuring Shui Jin Gui (Golden Water Turtle) and Tie Luo Han (Iron Monk), two classics of Wuyi Rock Wulong. Both were produced by the tea workshop of the great Liu Guoying and finished with a traditional charcoal roasting.

If one person deserves the title “Tea Master” it’s Liu Guoying. He wrote the book on Rock Wulong. Actually, it was a series of manuals. Mr. Liu compiled the technical volumes known as Wuyi Rock Wulong Cultivation and Production《武夷岩茶的栽培管理与加工制作》in 2002 and in the nearly 20 years since, it’s become the textbook of Wuyishan’s break-away successful tea industry. In that span of time Mr. Liu’s become a break-away success himself.

He started as a student of the great Yao Yueming, who along with Chen Dehua, was one of the great researchers and teachers of Wuyishan wulong. Continuing in that tradition, Mr. Liu has since taught literally hundreds of tea makers in Wuyishan. His influence was recognized when he was among the first people to be honored with a national level title of Inheritor of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The prestigious title represents a so-called “living treasure” who possesses mastery of a traditional skill.

A man holding a large round bamboo tray and lightly tossing the tea leaves on it. Many more such trays rest on vertical racks in the background.
This deceptively simple-looking technique of tossing the tea just so on the tray to gently bruise the leaves and encourage oxidation takes many years to master.

If that’s not enough to convince you of Mr. Liu’s mastery of tea, take it from his wife, Ms. Huang, who jokes “my husband looks so dark and skinny, he’s practically a tea leaf.” Mr. Liu is “one with the leaf” indeed!

But “Tea Master” probably isn’t the right term, after all. It’s used in English to describe everyone from decades-long veteran teachers and tea makers like Mr. Liu to those of us who are just really good at making ourselves a pot of tea at home. What’s a better term, then? In common Chinese, people address Liu Guoying as Liu Laoshi, meaning teacher. That seems to fit. Mastery is learning. For Mr. Liu, the purpose of learning is not only making better and better tea, it’s teaching others to do the same.

About a dozen people clustered around a brightly lit tea tasting table covered with dozens of gaiwans and tasting cups. 
Liu Laoshi (center, with glasses) tasting wulongs with some of his many students.