White tea (白茶, Bái Chá, "White Tea") is defined not by its cooking process but rather by its lack of one. White tea is the only category of tea that is, by definition, raw. This means that it cannot be described in terms of oxidation, because it starts off unoxidized (like green tea) and slowly oxidizes over time. White tea suffers, in the West, from two common misconceptions: the first is that it is made exclusively from the buds of the tea plant, the second is that it is meant to be consumed fresh, like green tea. The bud, or tip, of the tea plant is the unopened new leaves that emerge in the spring. They are covered with downy white hairs, which is where the fragrant essential oils of the tea are produced. The classic leaf-bud set is comprised of two leaves and one bud of new growth, meaning that there are roughly half the amount of buds per plant as leaves. Their fragrance and rarity makes them the most valuable part of the tea plant. While there are teas, both white and otherwise, that are made from buds only, it is not a defining characteristic of the category. One of the most famous white teas, Yín Zhēn 银针 ("Silver Needle"), is only buds, which may account for the misconception, along with the fact that only the buds of white tea remain white, while the leaves are dark. The buds, though fragrant, are very light in flavor and many natives of the white tea producing region of Fuding in Fujian prefer the lower-grade, leafier white teas.
The second misconception, that white tea should be consumed fresh, is due to the perception of white and green tea being similar. In its fresh state white tea is light and vaguely floral, and not dissimilar from green tea. As it ages it slowly oxidizes, darkening in color and developing a hay-like sweetness that eventually matures into a rich profile with notes of honey, dates, and figs. The Qi of the tea also increases in depth and potency as it ages, leading to the saying in Fuding “One year tea, three years medicine, seven years treasure.”
As with most things in China, there is little consensus as to the true origin point of white tea, with multiple white tea producing regions all claiming primacy. Fuding, in northern Fujian, retains the most legitimate claim. A line in the seminal tea text Chá Jīng 茶经 (“The Classic of Tea”) by Lu Yu dates white tea to at least the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), saying “600 li to the east of Yongjia County there are white tea mountains.” Tea scholar Professor Chen Yuan comments on the possible “white tea mountains” referred to here, noting that 600 li east of Yongjia County is in the ocean, while 600 li south is Fuding. Chen believes that the original line was in error, and meant to say south, referring to Fuding.