“In Chinese, when you write Chá [the word for tea] you write three parts” says Rui Liu.
“The top part is ‘Grass’, the bottom part is ‘Tree’, and the middle part is ‘People’... it’s a message that our ancestors have been telling us - that the people are in the centre, responsible for the balance.”
Since founding Grass People Tree, (her natural tea company) three years ago, Rui has embarked on a journey back to her roots in the province of Guizhou, and is championing a form of wild agriculture that owes as much to her ancestors as it does to the rhythms of nature.
Rui recalls showing photos of Guizhou to an old colleague from her time working in the fashion industry.
“They were like - ‘what? It looks like Avatar!’ They couldn’t believe it.”
You would be forgiven for mistaking the two, as the Southwestern region of China has a truly otherworldly beauty to it. The dramatic landscape is defined by staggering mountain ranges, lush green forests and weaving waterways - all blanketed in a rolling mist throughout the year.
A far cry from the hectic world of international fashion, Guizhou always represented a sense of balance in Rui’s life. And it was the chaos of her new world that actually led her back to her roots.
“It was just getting all these burnt out friends together to drink tea … That’s how I got started” she explains, “it opened a window for me to show what my culture is and where I come from”.
Rui’s description of her childhood paints a picture of harmony with nature.
“I climbed each one of the mountains, swam in the rivers with the water buffalo and waited in the waterbed for the birds to dive in to catch the fish”.
However, beside the Disney-esque vignette of her formative years, she stressed that the people are also an integral part to the balance of this pastoral idyll.
“A lot of indigenous tribes live there [with] their own rules and their own ways - the Miao, Buyi, Yi - all add a vibrancy and diversity to the region”, and tea is central to the way of life for all these groups.
“In my province we don’t have a greeting to say ‘how are you?’, we say ‘have you eaten?’ and the second thing is ‘would you like to have some tea?’"
Camellia Sinensis (or tea to you and me) has grown in the Guizhou area for millennia, but only relatively recently have humans begun to impose themselves on the once-wild plant.
“The tea we know today is very much based on the colonized history, which is about two hundred years”, she says, “nowadays, tea has gone really far from its roots.”
China is the largest tea producer in the world but much of the modern manufacturing process was brewed up by the British Empire. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Brits' insatiable thirst led to ever larger farms, more mass-produced crops, and a more chemically refined end-product.
Rui explains that while the colonists began by copying the local growing techniques, they also started to expand these natural enterprises into mechanised juggernauts to keep up with demand. Over time China progressively adopted more and more of this new behaviour towards tea as well, “Now the west is influencing the East!”
But what about the period before Camellia Sinensis became a globalised commodity?
“This is a story that has more than three thousand years of stories and craftsmanship”, she says, “So I constantly ask myself - what happened to those two thousand years that we don’t know anything about?”, and this question is where the ethos of Grass People Tree truly begins.
As she started to look back through these stories, Rui realised that there are still areas where the traditional philosophies of tea making are alive and well. And it is this willingness to go “in tune with nature” that defines their tea.
“So it’s like making wine, the tea has to do with the soil, the ecosystem, the trees” she explains, “the youngest trees will be four hundred years old. The oldest will go on for fifteen hundred years.”
Expert agriculturalists known as tea masters go out into the mountains and test the tea through “touch, smell or even taste”, but the act of cultivation is so much a part of nature that “nobody knows what the tea is actually going to turn out to be.”
Patience is definitely the name of the game here, and Rui explains how the process of sun-withering is one that has almost been lost within the world of tea production.
“Nowadays … it’s omitted from tea processing [because] it takes too long” she says, “but it’s always our process, whatever the pace nature gives, we follow.”
Grass People Tree is unique in this regard. In an industry full of automation and bioengineering, Rui’s two main commodities are tea and time.
“We should always listen to what nature is telling us.”
In many ways, it would be easy for Rui Liu to be pessimistic about the future of tea, with global demand slowly eroding the ancestral customs of her home province.
“Every year I go back, I see ancient trees being cut down” she says, “tea plantations are farmed and that just seems to be the way it goes”.
But Grass People Tree shows that there are still people willing to learn and relearn from wisdom passed down through the ages. And where better to reconnect with the heritage of tea than in the tea house itself.
“So I guess a teahouse would be the equivalent of a pub here in the UK?” she laughs, “It’s a bit like a culture centre … there’s a flow of people, but also a flow of people’s living wisdom and experience constantly getting passed down around the tea table”.
Rui wants to extend the culture of the tea house a little further though. As more and more people pull up a seat at the proverbial tea table, they also bring with them a willingness to learn.
“I think it’s about awareness. Getting your consumers to go and ask questions at the shop, so then the shop owner and then the suppliers and then everyone will start asking questions.”
In the modern age, it’s all too easy for us to lose connection with the produce we consume.
Once your tea has been roasted, reconstituted and wrapped in plastic, you’d struggle to see how it once sprouted out of the ground as a living thing. But for Rui Liu, and more and more people like her - severing this connection is much more than a storm in a teacup.