Position as leading global exporter has been lost, report Tang Yue and Zhang Yuchen in Beijing.
The practice of drinking and serving tea has been part of the Chinese cultural identity for centuries. The beverage, and its complicated serving ceremony, have inspired poets, writers and artists down the ages.
Along with silk, gunpowder, paper and porcelain, the drink is one of the country's most famous products. Tea and China are synonymous, so much so that the British, noted tea drinkers themselves, use the phrase "Not for all the tea in China" to describe something they believe has great value.
Tea is the world's most widely consumed beverage after water, and Chinese teas are still highly prized: A pre-sale 500-gram batch of West Lake Longjing, a renowned roasted green tea, drew a bid of 180,000 yuan ($28,500) at an auction in Hangzhou last week. Weight for weight that made the tea 25 percent more expensive than gold on the day.
Despite the long and illustrious history, however, China is no longer the world's biggest exporter of tea.
In 2010, Kenya was the world leader, with 441,021 kilograms, while China's 302,419 kg only secured second place.
What's more, in the age of multinationals and branding, China is fast losing its name as the cradle of the drink because of a dearth of world-famous brands.
China sold 320 million kg of tea last year, earning $96.5 million in the process, amounting to roughly $3 per kg, almost 50 percent higher than the price five years ago as a result of the appreciation of the yuan and rising labor costs.
Pickers select the first batch of leaves this year for West Lake Longjing tea in Hangzhou. [Li Zhong / for China Daily]