Lost in translation in Fujian


Getting immersed and confused by the various dialects in the province, the birth place of Chinese tea

WHEN I received an invitation for a visit to the Fujian province, I got pretty excited as I would be going to the southern region of China where most ancestors of Malaysian Hokkien came from.

A week before leaving, I started brushing up on my Hokkien dialect, which I picked up from friends, songs and Taiwanese films.

I listened to songs and talked to myself in the dialect.

When I arrived at the south-eastern Chinese coastal province, I met up with officials from the provincial government at a welcome reception in Fuzhou city.

“We speak Fujian hua (Hokkien dialect) too, ” I said, trying to impress them while showing off Malaysians’ language talent.

They looked confused and stopped talking.

“Do you mean Minnan hua (Minnan language)?” a woman official broke the silence two seconds later.

It was then that I realised what I knew as Hokkien all this while is actually known as Minnan.

Minnan refers to the southern region of Fujian province where cities like Xiamen, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou are located.

“Fujian is very unique, ” said another official, adding that the province – about one-third the size of Malaysia – has a population of nearly 40 million and more than 10 common Chinese dialects.

Unlike the Dongbei hua – spoken in the north-eastern Liaoning, Heilongjiang and Shenyang provinces –, Sichuan hua, Shanxi hua and Yue yu (Cantonese, which is also known as Bai hua in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), there is no Hokkien dialect in China.

All the spoken languages here are named after the respective city due to the vast variety of dialects in the province.

“Even a Fujian native like me has problem understanding them because the dialects could sound totally different from one another, ” explained the official.

From Fuzhou, I travelled up north to another city called Ningde and I noticed that the locals speak another dialect which sounds like Mandarin but I could hardly understand it.

I asked an official from the provincial’s Foreign Affairs office and he said he does not get it either.

Food was another reason I looked forward to this trip.

Fed up with the super salty and oily northern region cuisine in Beijing, I had hoped to get something light for a change.

Unlike Chinese from the northern region, who could eat 30 jiaozi (dumplings) at one go for breakfast, the southern people are relatively small eaters.

Being the birthplace of Chinese tea, Fujian is one of the biggest tea producing states.

Apart from the top range da hong pao (big red robe) oolong tea, the province is also the native land for jasmine tea and an assortment of white tea.

Da hong pao is known as the King of Wuyi rock tea where the trees are grown on the rocky terrain of Wuyi Mountain in the north-western region of Fujian.

Due to its growing environment, it is said that the tea-plucking job was performed by trained monkeys in the ancient days.

Today, the six “mother trees” of da hong pao, which are over 350 years old, are still green on the steep cliffs of the mountain but their leaves are prohibited from being harvested.

According to folk tales, an emperor had awarded a red robe to protect the trees through the chilling winter when his wife, who was seriously ill, regained her health after drinking tea produced from the tree leaves.This is how the tree species gained its name.

Some said it was the emperor himself, who fell sick while travelling in the Wuyi area.

Another type of oolong tea (partly-fermented tea), the famous tie guan yin tea, is also a product of Fujian and mainly produced in the Anxi region.

Jasmine tea, which has jasmine flowers mixed into tea leaves and kept until both scents blend together, was first produced in Fuzhou, a city built in 202BC.

Compared to these three types, white tea, which is very lightly fermented, is less popular among Malaysians.

It is widely produced in Fuding and its varieties include bai hao yin zhen (silver needle) and bai mu dan (white peony).

“White tea has high medicinal value due to its high percentage of flavonoids with antimicrobial effect, ” said Zhuang Changqiang, who runs a tea plantation and factory in the She minority tribe village at Fuding of Ningde city.

The locals believe that white tea help to promote youthfulness and boost one’s health, he added.

Zhuang pointed out that Chinese tea has no expiry date as long as the product is well-kept in a dry place and away from sunlight.

“The longer it is preserved, the higher its flavonoids content, ” he said.

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