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Mingqian: Deepest Dive

Today, we are one month out from the Qingming Festival, and the Qingming solar term (April 4th-18th) that follows it. Green tea picking has already begun on many plots across Southern China, and commercial production will be in full swing virtually every where within the next two weeks. The most valuable Chinese tea of the whole year is about to be produced. Farmers are listening to the evening weather forecasts with great anticipation, factories have begun to start promoting the new year’s first pick tea, and large wholesalers are already on the road to the earliest producing areas where tea pickers are waiting with full baskets and stuffed sacks. For the sake of both your wallets and taste buds, it is worth interrogating why the tea between now and April 4th, the so-called “Mingqian” or first flush tea, is so expensive and why you should think twice about paying big for it.

Historical Origins

For at least the last 18 centuries, pick time has been important for Chinese tea drinkers. Two characters that are now synonymous for tea, tu (荼) and ming (茗) once were separate concepts. An Eastern Han Shuowen Jiezi dictionary records: “tu is bitter tu; ming refers to tu buds.” An early commentary on the Han Era Erya dictionary that is quoted in the Kangxi Dictionary makes it clear that “tu” is the precursor for the almost identically written character “cha” (茶) which is still used today. That same commentary records: “today the early [tu] leafs are called cha and the later picked leafs are called ming.” Other pre-Tang sources interestingly provide conflicting definitions, explaining ming to refer to the early buds and cha (or tu) to refer to the later picked leaves(Zhou 2014). Either way, it is clear that the distinction is a temporal one, referring to the pick time and maturity of the leaves. Already by the Jin Dynasty, forgetting the distinction between the two was used in one story to demonstrate that a gentlemen scholar was not in their right mind. Well before the Tang Dynasty universalized tea consumption, those scholar officials who enjoyed tea in prior centuries already treated knowledge of tea pick time as a basic demonstration of one’s erudition and thus deservingness of occupying their given official position.

March-picked tea gained a place in ritual feasts as early as the Tang dynasty, while Mingqian tea itself became solidified as a privilege for the highest aristocracy in the northern Song Dynasty.

Tea was first part of the religious sacrifices offered on the Hanshi, Qingming, and Shangsi festivals, all celebrated in what is now the month of April. This final, now almost forgotten holiday would later be marked by a secular, but still highly ritualized “tea feast” enjoyed by Tang and Song Dynasty literati. The emperor's tribute tea, which was at this point still bricked tea closer to what we would now consider yellow tea or dark tea, needed to arrive in time for the Qingming feast, about a week before the Shangsi festival. An official who could bring some imperial tribute tea to the party during Shangsi would have major bragging rights. One Song official, Ou Yangxiu, spent twenty years at the Song court in the emperor’s service before getting a brick of his own to drink, leading to the expression: “one can acquire gold but not [Mingqian] tea.”

  Not every literate gentleman was part of the Mingqian hype. The high clergy of Song dynasty Buddhist temples seem to have been usually gifted Guyu (mid-April) tea, which some have taken as an indicator of their preference for Guyu over Mingquan(Zhou 2014) Some members of the Ming dynasty’s ruling elite would be much more explicit in their preference for Mingqian tea. Ming-era literati Tu Long opined that tea “has no need to be picked too small or green, and is best gathered around Guyu, when some amount of stem and darker leaf color develops.” Zhang Yuan, in his 1595 Tea Records says even more precisely that tea should be picked no earlier than five days before or five days after the start of the Guyu solar term. Finally, the better known 1597 Cha Shu by Xi Cishu explicitly says that “Qingming is too early, and Lixia (Early May) is too late.” It worth noting that these later Ming Dynasty writers, unlike their Song or Tang predecessors, were drinking tea in a form and style basically the same as modern Chinese green tea. Despite these well-known Mingqian haters, March picked tea continued to constitute much of the what was supplied to the imperial court until the end of Qing Dynasty. It would remain a selling point for merchants well after the end of the tribute tea system.

Despite the Communist revolution in 1949, the mystique and market demand for Mingqian tea never faded away. When KMT-operated tea factories and research institutions became communist-ran, standardized grading system for green teas remained. Although “one leaf one bud” had been renamed to the more revolutionary sounding “one rifle one flag,” official standards of high quality for green teas like Mogan Huangya, Enshi Yulu, or Longjing still included a Mingqian pick.” Sun Changde, who worked in the Wuyang People’s Commune Tea Factory from 1974 to its closure in 1985, recalls that quality standards were incredibly strict and elaborate, as they remain for Chinese tobacco producers who still sell to the state monopoly collection stations today. The first flush March pick made the highest standard of green tea in Wuyang, which was sold by the commune to the state collection station in Xiaping. Some of this tea would go abroad to wealthy members of the Chinese community outside of China in Malaysia, Singapore, or Hong Kong, helping the new Chinese state gain hard currency. These outside consumers never forgot the alleged value of a Mingqian pick. As Fred Egnst recalls however, some of the highest grade tea also went to top cadres in Beijing. Even during the peak of the Cultural Revolution, when a greater degree of equalization in benefits became realized in the urban factories and rural communes, the best tea, tobacco, and liquor continued to be reserved for state celebrations and indeed the personal consumption of national leadership. Thus, the prestige and mystique of Mingqian survived. Ironically, in one the most egalitarian societies in human history, Mingqian green tea retained it almost tribute tea like status throughout the Mao Era.   

Chemical Speculations

Food scientists and agronomists have tried to quantify the supposed value of tea pick date for decades now.

Generally speaking, there is solid data to support the claim that spring green tea, which means tea picked before the Lixia solar term (May 5th), has more of the physical attributes that consumers tend to most desire. Researchers in Shandong have provided subjective taste ratings for local green tea picked over different seasons. They scored the overall subjective sensual enjoyment of the Spring, Summer, and Fall picks as 96.68, 81.60, and 86.0, respectively. The researchers correlated these subjective ratings to the fluctuations in caffeine content across the three seasons (Zou et al. 2011). Another Hunan-based study using Baojing Golden Green #1 also found that Summer picks on average had less caffeine content (but interestingly higher catechin content) than Spring or Fall picks. These researchers also scored and ranked Summer picks on average as of lower quality than Fall or Spring picks, with Spring picks again ranked the highest (Huang et al. 2014). Finally, Zhuang Juhua looked at three Anhui cultivars with pick times from April 1st to September 15th, in this most comprehensive study, it was found that Summer and Autumn picked green tea tended to have less L-Theanine and more caffeine, which the author interprets to mean more bitterness. By all accounts, Summer green tea is the worst, Spring is the best, and Fall green tea is of middling quality.

We still have a long way to go in understanding why Summer green teas tend to be more bitter. This last study from Zhuang Juhua also demonstrated that there are much more complicated interactions happening between specific polyphenols, catechins, soluable tanins and other compounds that can produce bitterness in green tea (Zhuang 2020). As Zhuang notes, Caffeine, in isolation, is usually understood to be experienced as bitter. It is thus significant that both Zou et. 2011 and Huang et al. 2014 observe an inverse relationship between caffeine content and the subjective experience of bitterness and taste quality overall. Whatever is turning the scorers off from these teas in these studies, it is not bitterness caused by a higher caffeine content.

Bitterness is also not everything. Looking at aroma components, one research team found that Autumn picked green tea was found to have the least number volatile compounds that might potentially enter your nose, while Spring green tea had the greatest number of components usually associated with umami and grassy flavors, and ketone-rich Summer picks had the most fatty or sweet aromas (Kang et al 2018). If you have ever interacted with green tea farmers in China, it becomes quickly obvious that many elderly pickers and even some producers have a preference for late Spring or Summer picked tea. The reasons for this preference I have heard cited personally are the strong flavor and mouthfeel that such picks usually produce. Additionally, there is a massive quantity of cheap and incredibly bitter first flush bud tea that floods the Enshi and Hankou tea markets from Sichuan annually each Spring. Thus, although it may be generally true that Summer picked green teas tend to be more bitter, it is also not necessarily true that the Mingqian pick which makes it to your cup will be any smoother going down.

 Golden Bud #1 Chemical Composition By Pick Date



Tea Polyphenol

Content %


Content %





3.55 (±0.21)

13.30 (±0.33)




14.06 (±0.55)



3.22 (±0.06)

14.63 (±0.46)


16.13 (±0.68)

3.15 (±0.03)

14.37 (±0.10)

Source: Liu et al. 2022

There is much less evidence to support the idea that a Mingqian green tea pick can deliver better taste or health benefits than a Yuqian (before Guyu) or Yuhou (After Guyu)pick. While the earliest pick is certainly most likely to have the smallest leaves and the greatest quantity of buds, that is about all that a Mingqian pick can guarantee. Researchers in Zhejiang found that while tea polyphenol content, the antioxidant goodness in tea that might help prevent cancer, was highest in the earliest Mingqian picks, so was caffeine. Interestingly, that same study found that polyphenol content moves in the opposite direction for Fuding Dabai between February 28th and April 28th, as did caffeine content for Baiye #1 (Liu et al 2022). Researchers in Hunan, looking at Baojing Golden Green#1, found that polyphenol content and Caffeine Content both rose with later pick times, yet subjective bitterness ratings decreased(Xu et al. 2023). That means that the presence of these compounds peaks at different dates for different cultivars. Assuming you were trying to maximize tea polyphenol content or minimize caffeine content, buying the earliest Mingqian pick may not deliver the desired amount of these chemical compounds. That would however be strange shopping behavior indeed, as there seems to be inconclusive evidence as to whether or not such min-maxing could even help you avoid bitterness or stay cancer-free.   

Is it worth the price?

The vast majority of mid-market Chinese green tea consumers are buying late Mingqian, Yuqian, or Yuhou green tea for their own personal consumption. They are doing so for good reason. Researchers in Anhui demonstrated they could correctly identify the sequence of pick times over the four days before the Qingming Festival using infrared spectrum analysis, however they found these samples were almost identical materially speaking (Zhang et al 2019). While physically and chemically almost identical, the price of tea picked on March 30th versus April 5th could vary in the tens of RMB. More extremely, the Huangya Golden Buds mentioned in Liu et al. 2022 could drop from more than 1000 RMB to less than 200 RMB between February 28th and April 28th, yet chemically speaking the changes in caffeine, catechin, or polyphenol content has been far less drastic. That variation in price has little do with anything detectable by a spectrometer, and a lot to do with the lingering prestige of Mingqian tea. It is just as much a Veblan good, a status symbol, as it was 100 years ago; conspicuous consumption in tea, and elitist attitudes about “knowing tea” are just as alive today as they were 1000 years ago. China still has a culture of gift tea, and the green tea one sends to an elder relative, leader, or someone else otherwise up the food chain best be labeled Mingqian, with the notable exception of certain production styles like Lu’an Guapian.         

International consumers unburdened by a gift tea culture have no reason to pay big bucks for tea that might just be marginally better in aroma or flavor than Yuqian tea which is half the price of the first pick. Unless you strongly enjoy the shape of bud-heavy green tea or the clean and crisp mouthfeel it often delivers, don’t invest in it too strongly either. There is also an ecological cost to consider. To get the maximum Mingqian yield, the ideal conventional methods have long included traditional items like fall pruning and 3-4 rounds of weeding per annum, as well as more problematic practices like summer pesticide spraying and winter chemical fertilizer application (Zhang 1999). If the mystique of Mingqian tea and the market demand for it were to disappear, pickers would not have to push the soil, tea plants, and themselves so much to ensure the greatest possible March yield. Fall green tea, despite being chemically similar to Spring picks and scoring almost as well in blind taste testing, has all but disappeared. Now, most Fall new growth is buzzed off by electric pruners and discarded by green tea growers, myself included. The market grants the highest prices the earliest Mingqian picks, and much like the QWERTY keyboard I am typing on now, the market may continue to let high priced Mingqian tea survive much longer than the rational mind can comprehend.

Chinese Research Articles Cited

  • Huang Xiuqiong, Chai Shuo, Li Na, Xiao Lizheng. 2014. The Seasonal Changes of Quality of Baojing Golden Tea. Journal of Tea Communication 41(02): p.22-24.
  • Kang Suyoung, Zhu Yin, Zheng Xinqiang, Liang Yuerong, Lin Zhi. 2018. Multivariate Statistical Analysis of Volatile Compounds in Green Tea From Different Harvesting Seasons.Food Science (14)p.268-275.
  • Liu Jian-jun, Chen Meng, Luo Ying, Gao Qiuyan, Zhang Jinyu, Li Meifeng. 2022. Study on Quality Composition of Green Teas at Different Times During Spring. Food Research and Development 43(16): 146-155.
  • Xu Zhixiong, Huang Chunyong, Qin Tingfa, Liang Xue. 2023. 2021 Nian Huangjincha Pinzhi Fenxi Baogao. Agricultural Development and Equipment 258(06): p.153-157.
  • Zhang Yanfei, Jin Huijin, Xuyunyun, Liu Jianwei. 2019. Judgement of the Time Sequence for Green Tea Harvesting with Infared Spectrum By the Dual-Index Sequence Method. Wuyi College Journal (01): 49-53.
  • Zhang Zhongming. 1999. Mingqian Cha Gao Biaozhun Zaipei Jishu. Fujian Agriculture (04) 10-11.
  • Zhou Aidong. 2014. Reflection on the Symbolic Consumption of MIngqian Tea in Ancient China. Journal of Research on Dietetic Science and Culture(03): p. 20-24.
  • Zhuang Juhua 2020. Study on Bitterness and Astringency Compounds of Green Tea. Phd Dissertation.Anhui Agricultural University.
  • Zou Jiajia, Ding Lichun, Liang Qing, Ding Xin. 2011. Comparison on Taste Quality Analysis of Rizhao Shandong Green Tea with Two Evaluation Methods. Journal of Anhui Agricultural Science  39(22):13524-13526.