The first step to understanding the state of China’s tea industry is to examine its relationship with other tea producing countries, and the contributions of mainland Chinese tea-producing provinces.
By itself, China produces nearly half of the world’s tea. According to the UN’s FAO Intergovernmental Group on Tea, China’s production increased 6.3% between 2011 and 2020. In 2021, China’s tea production accounted for 47% of global production, or 3.06 million metric tonnes. The next highest producer, India, produced less than half of China’s volume- 1.33 million metric tonnes (20.5%) of total global tea. Rounding out the top 5 global producers were Kenya (8.3%), Sri Lanka (4.6%), and Turkey (4.3%). In terms of production gains, overall global production increased by roughly 3% over the previous year, with China increasing production by 2.6% and India by 5.7%.
China’s dominance can especially be seen in its green tea production. The country produced about 1.85 million tonnes of green tea, representing 60.4% of the nation’s total crop, followed by black tea at 14.2% and dark tea at 13%. Historically, China has produced more dark tea than black, but that balance shifted in 2020 when black tea volume surpassed dark teas and has continued to do so. Additionally, black and dark tea production have seen more growth (7.4% and 6.3%, respectively) than green (0.36%) over the previous year. In general, non-green teas call for higher prices, so it is possible that some production may be shifting towards more of these higher value teas.
As trends have shown for several years now, China’s tea production areas are moving westward. The mainland’s top producing provinces can be roughly divided into Eastern, Central, and Western Belts. The Eastern Belt produces roughly one-quarter of China’s teas, and includes Anhui, Fujian, and Zhejiang provinces. These more economically-developed provinces have a long history of tea production, with several well-known specialty teas grown there. The Central Belt, which includes Hubei, Hunan, and Shaanxi provinces, contributes a little over one-fifth (22%) of China’s teas, and has seen further expansion of tea lands. However, the biggest area of growth has been the Western Belt that includes Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou provinces. These provinces deliver over one-third (36%) of the nation’s teas. This move westward is being driven by multiple factors. For one, urbanization in the eastern half of China drives higher labor costs and the need for more land development. At the same time, the western half is the scene of more of China’s efforts at rural development. Tea has been used as a relatively stable, commercial crop that can help economically uplift rural villages and smallholder farmers. While about 60% of the world’s tea production is generated by smallholder farmers, China will have to counterbalance the wave of young labor leaving the countryside for the opportunities in larger cities. This workforce migration has created labor shortages and higher labor costs in some tea harvesting areas.
The trend of western development can especially be seen in the land dedicated to tea production. The Western Belt accounts for 41.5% of all tea fields, followed by the Central Belt with 21.9% and the Eastern Belt with 19.3%. The biggest gains in planting area were seen in the Central Belt, with each province seeing 23-28% gains between 2017 and 2021. For comparison, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Fujian provinces, which are ranked among the top five in terms of tea area, showed less than 10% growth in tea area during the same period.
Up to 11% of China’s tea fields did not yield a crop in 2021. This can be attributed to several factors, including: the addition of new fields where tea plants have not matured enough to produce, and crop damage/failures. Overall efficiency of tea fields is also a factor of production. An estimated 31% of all tea fields in the country contain tea bushes that are over 30 years old, so part of this push for new tea land may allow older, poorer performing fields to be phased out of production and the land repurposed or replanted.