The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao


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The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby Poohblah » Apr 9th, '12, 23:59

So the story goes like this:
When Nixon visited China in 1972, Chairman Mao gifted Nixon four liang (in total, 200g) of Da Hong Pao. Insulted, Nixon asked Premier Zhou Enlai why he received such a seemingly small amount of tea. Zhou replied that this amount constituted half of that year's harvest of Da Hong Pao, and so the President actually received an incredibly valuable gift.

As we all know, the harvest from the original Da Hong Pao bushes is exceedingly slim and usually reserved as a gift for heads of state or other important figures. Only twice in recent years has the harvest from the original DHP bushes gone on public sale, and both times the harvest fetched an exorbitant price. Given this, the story of Nixon's Da Hong Pao seems entirely plausible.

In fact, this story has spread quite far and wide. A Google search for this story returns thousands of results and it shows up on the Wikipedia page for Da Hong Pao as well as this CCTV-produced documentary on Da Hong Pao.

The problem is, this story is likely a myth.

Today, I went to my university library to research this story, hoping to add it to a paper I'm working on. For hours, I worked with the library researchers, scouring newspapers from late February of 1972, Department of State records, official government publications, biographies of Nixon, journalistic accounts of Nixon's trip, and books about Sino-US relations focusing on Nixon's 1972 trip (Nixon's official memoir is not available in any local library, and so remains unchecked). One of the researchers even e-mailed the official White House historian looking for records of gifts given by heads of state to the President. We turned up not a single trace of Da Hong Pao (though it does appear that the President and the First Lady purchased some Long Jing while visiting Hangzhou).

While I can't conclude definitively that Nixon never received DHP from Mao - we're still waiting to hear more from the White House historian, and I'd like to be able to check Nixon's official memoirs - my suspicion is that this story is apocryphal. My best guess is that, somewhere in the 40 years since Nixon's historic visit, some tea vendor made up this story to sell DHP.

What do you think, fellow teachatters? Does this story sound like something lost in the records among more important matters like politics and diplomacy, or was it simply created out of thin air? Of course, I would be eternally grateful to anybody who can pull out solid evidence of the true nature of this story.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby gingkoseto » Apr 10th, '12, 01:25

It's in many Chinese articles too. But usually when they tell the story, they say, "it's said that Nixon...", meaning the story tellers weren't sure if it really happened. :wink:

I feel it's mostly likely a myth, because the conversation just doesn't sound one between politicians. Besides, many Chinese articles also tell about Nixon's comments on Phoenix Dan Cong. I can't believe Nixon would be that interested in Chinese teas that were not at all popular in the States at that time.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby gingkoseto » Apr 10th, '12, 01:37

There is another DHP politics story that has a better chance to be true. It's said that the guy who raised Bei Dou #1 once was visited by a Hong Kong merchant annually for his tea. After several years, the merchant came to the tea guy and said, "to tell you the truth, it was Mr. Jiang Jingguo (Taiwan president before 1988) who has been enjoying your tea. Now Mr. Jiang has passed away, but Mr. Li Denghui (Taiwan preident after Jiang) asked me to keep buying tea from you." The tea guy said, "For Mr. Jiang, I would give as much as I have. But sorry, I have no tea for Mr. Li."

There is a chance for this story to be true (also a chance of exaggeration), because during the year the story was being told, the tea guy was still alive. The story is also found in a book called Wuyi Yan Cha written by a friend of this tea guy.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby Poohblah » Apr 16th, '12, 19:49

More information, courtesy of the Nixon Library:
The research from our exhibit tech, Feliz Padilla, showed that the only tea listings we have is a gift of Lung Ching [Long Jing/Dragonwell] Tea, Jasmine Tea (four tins) and China Green Tea tins, all products of the People's Republic of China. Our gift cards do not show the weight of the tea in the tins. We don't have information about how many Lung Ching tea or Green Tea tins were received. We have only inventoried on tin of Jasmine tea in the collection. Usually edibles are discarded as they can pose problems in pest management - it may be that most of the tins were discarded and one remained in the Presidential collections.

There are other collections from the Nixon staff that visited China in 1972 with President Nixon, namely Ronald Walker who was a White House aide and was the advance man for the China trip - he was later appointed Interior Secretary in 1972 by President Nixon until 1974. Attached are some images of the tins we found in his collection of donated material showing gifts of 200 grams of Jasmine Tea and Green Tea. The one tin we did find in our own presidential collections is similar to the yellow can of Jasmine Tea as pictured for Mr. Walker's collection.

There is no record of Nixon having ever received any DHP.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby wyardley » Apr 16th, '12, 19:55

Wikipedia cites a (now not-public) WSJ article about this
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Da_Hong_Pao#cite_note-2
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142 ... 27120.html

But it does seem like the story is very widely repeated without much actual proof.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby Poohblah » Apr 16th, '12, 20:25

That is not the only WSJ article that mentions this story. There is at least one other, too.

I have access to the WSJ online through my school. The parts of the articles in question (first is from the article mentioned in the post above, second is the one linked to in this post):
Ilaria Maria Sala wrote:Tea connoisseurs appreciate Da Hong Pao's finer qualities, but it commands high prices for another reason: the thrill of enjoying something that used to be reserved for the most exclusive elite due to its rarity. Previously, other than imperial and Communist Party big shots, the tea was reserved for visiting dignitaries. An oft-quoted story recalls that Richard Nixon was given 50 grams of Da Hong Pao by Mao Zedong in 1972. Shortly afterward, Nixon quipped with his aides that the Chinese leader must be quite stingy to part with such a small amount of leaves, but he understood the value of the gift when someone told him that what he had been given was half of the whole harvest of top-grade Da Hong Pao for that year.

Amy Ma wrote:A national treasure: Said to be the “king of all Chinese teas,” da hung pao teas are often given as gifts to heads of state. U.S. President Richard Nixon was famously presented with da hung pao by Mao Zedong during his visit to China.
However, the credibility of the second article as a source of information on tea is questionable, for several reasons, as one commenter pointed out:
math is not the only problem with this article.

the name of the tea is da hong pao (not da hung pao), but we can all mistake the Chinese pinyin. also however, the photo headlining this article is of tieguanyin, a different type of tea from an entirely different region. da hong pao is an oolong; it is not similar to an oolong. but finally, the article is so obviously an advertisement for a second-rate tea house – anyone who imagines there is a tea on this earth that can be re-steeped sixty times is just silly.
I would contend the point that "anyone who imagines there is a tea on this earth that can be re-steeped sixty times is just silly," however, for reasons that I'm sure all of us are aware of. I bet you there are a few of us on this board who have managed to come across a tea which holds flavor for that long, and I wouldn't be surprised if the "true" da hong pao also could manage that feat.

To Sala's credit, she prefaces the Nixon story with "oft-quoted," suggesting that it is not necessarily true. Furthermore, she does better justice than Ma to DHP with regards to its categorization and its brewing longevity:
Catherine Tam, shop manager at Fook Ming Tong, one of Hong Kong's best-known tea shops, explains that Chinese customers are buying up a variety called Da Hong Pao, or "Big Red Robe." From the oolong (or semi-fermented) family, it's grown in the fabled Wuyi mountains in northern Fujian province. Shrouded in mist during most of the year, this area comprised of 36 stony peaks has been used to cultivate "rock teas" since the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907).

Rock teas brew a dark, reddish liquor, with an initially bitter, slightly woody flavor, that quickly metamorphoses into a sweet and lingering aftertaste, with delicate hints of honey and fruit. The leaves, long and twisted, can be infused up to 15 times. As is common with many products in China, Da Hong Pao is believed to have health benefits: "It helps fight cholesterol, and has antioxidant properties," explains Ms. Tam.

So there you have that. I, for one, am not trusting of most accounts of tea from the point of view of vendors or journalists, especially ones written by Westerners. It seems the truth is out there, but these two groups of people don't have much vested interest in "the truth."

But let's face it: tea is a product, and its value only increases as a result of marketing. We can't escape that, and so there are always going to be stories and wild claims circulating. Maybe there are some of us genuinely interested in history, but I think most of us just want to drink a nice cup of tea and ignore the vendors yelling in our ears.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby Poohblah » Apr 16th, '12, 20:42

By the way, wyardley, while I was researching this, I came across an article in the LA Times that featured you. Congrats on making the news :)
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby MarshalN » Apr 19th, '12, 00:51

You mentioned that you were looking for gifts "from heads of state to the President". I'd like to remind you that if the gift were from Zhou Enlai, it would not be from the head of state and therefore you wouldn't find such gifts using such a criteria. State gifts had to be preserved, but since this was tea and was likely given in a personal capacity or some such, I'm not sure if the records will put it down. Is there anything such as an official diary of the trip while they were there?

You may also want to try scouring the People's Daily during Nixon's visit to see if there's any record of such a gift. If ZEL gave it to Nixon, it's possible it was recorded in the press there somewhere. You may also want to look at some other newspaper - from what I know, NYT, WaPo, etc all used a lot of space for their coverage of Nixon's visit, so it might be interesting to see what's there too.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby Poohblah » Apr 19th, '12, 01:12

MarshalN wrote:You mentioned that you were looking for gifts "from heads of state to the President". I'd like to remind you that if the gift were from Zhou Enlai, it would not be from the head of state and therefore you wouldn't find such gifts using such a criteria. State gifts had to be preserved, but since this was tea and was likely given in a personal capacity or some such, I'm not sure if the records will put it down. Is there anything such as an official diary of the trip while they were there?

You may also want to try scouring the People's Daily during Nixon's visit to see if there's any record of such a gift. If ZEL gave it to Nixon, it's possible it was recorded in the press there somewhere. You may also want to look at some other newspaper - from what I know, NYT, WaPo, etc all used a lot of space for their coverage of Nixon's visit, so it might be interesting to see what's there too.
Ah. Good point. However, this is merely a question of semantics. In the actual e-mail exchange, it was clear that the goal was to find any and all tea given to Nixon during his visit, not just that given by heads of state. Furthermore, the story posits that Mao gave the tea to Nixon, not Zhou, so this question is irrelevant, since Mao was a head of state.

Finally, the researchers and I performed a nearly exhaustive search of stateside newspapers that recorded the trip in February of 1972. The number of articles was limited, thankfully, since only a small number of reporters and members of the press were permitted on the trip. Attempting to find records of this exchange in the People's Daily would have not been worth the efforts, because it would have been too difficult to source such articles and then to read them, since my Chinese reading is not yet fluent enough to read People's Daily articles without some time and elbow grease and a little bit of dictionary work. Furthermore, I think it's safe to assume that if there is no stateside record of Nixon's DHP, then it doesn't exist at all. I don't see any reason to believe that it was only recorded in the Chinese press.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby mbanu » Apr 19th, '12, 02:17

Did Chairman Mao ever give President Ford any tea?
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby Poohblah » Apr 19th, '12, 02:39

That's a good question. Ford's visit to China was certainly not as iconic as Nixon's.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby MarshalN » Apr 19th, '12, 08:23

Poohblah wrote:
MarshalN wrote:You mentioned that you were looking for gifts "from heads of state to the President". I'd like to remind you that if the gift were from Zhou Enlai, it would not be from the head of state and therefore you wouldn't find such gifts using such a criteria. State gifts had to be preserved, but since this was tea and was likely given in a personal capacity or some such, I'm not sure if the records will put it down. Is there anything such as an official diary of the trip while they were there?

You may also want to try scouring the People's Daily during Nixon's visit to see if there's any record of such a gift. If ZEL gave it to Nixon, it's possible it was recorded in the press there somewhere. You may also want to look at some other newspaper - from what I know, NYT, WaPo, etc all used a lot of space for their coverage of Nixon's visit, so it might be interesting to see what's there too.
Ah. Good point. However, this is merely a question of semantics. In the actual e-mail exchange, it was clear that the goal was to find any and all tea given to Nixon during his visit, not just that given by heads of state. Furthermore, the story posits that Mao gave the tea to Nixon, not Zhou, so this question is irrelevant, since Mao was a head of state.

Finally, the researchers and I performed a nearly exhaustive search of stateside newspapers that recorded the trip in February of 1972. The number of articles was limited, thankfully, since only a small number of reporters and members of the press were permitted on the trip. Attempting to find records of this exchange in the People's Daily would have not been worth the efforts, because it would have been too difficult to source such articles and then to read them, since my Chinese reading is not yet fluent enough to read People's Daily articles without some time and elbow grease and a little bit of dictionary work. Furthermore, I think it's safe to assume that if there is no stateside record of Nixon's DHP, then it doesn't exist at all. I don't see any reason to believe that it was only recorded in the Chinese press.


That's not a safe assumption by any means. Whereas a box of tea might be seen as a relatively trivial gift by the American press, who already had plenty of things to write about given the restriction on length of what they can submit, the Chinese press is, if anything, more likely to talk about formalities such as gifts exchanged and the full texts of speeches given. In fact, I know the coverage in the People's Daily included some really mundane details that no reader of an American paper would want to see.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby Poohblah » Apr 19th, '12, 12:29

MarshalN wrote:That's not a safe assumption by any means. Whereas a box of tea might be seen as a relatively trivial gift by the American press, who already had plenty of things to write about given the restriction on length of what they can submit, the Chinese press is, if anything, more likely to talk about formalities such as gifts exchanged and the full texts of speeches given. In fact, I know the coverage in the People's Daily included some really mundane details that no reader of an American paper would want to see.

Then this would be a good route to pursue. It appears that my school has digital records of 人民日报 from 1946 (were the Communists distributing newspapers even before the fall of the KMT?) to 1977 and again starting in 1997. The earlier records are not available online, so I haven't checked them yet.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby MarshalN » Apr 19th, '12, 13:50

Poohblah wrote:Then this would be a good route to pursue. It appears that my school has digital records of 人民日报 from 1946 (were the Communists distributing newspapers even before the fall of the KMT?) to 1977 and again starting in 1997. The earlier records are not available online, so I haven't checked them yet.


Of course, it doesn't mean you'll find anything, but I think it's worth checking anyway, during the visit.
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Re: The Myth of Nixon's Da Hong Pao

Postby tingjunkie » Apr 20th, '12, 00:51

One thing's for sure... if Nixon did get some original DHP, it was a giant goddamned waste of tea!
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