Sunday, April 8, 2018

Pu’er Tea in Xishuangbanna

                                  by Jim Goodman

Jinuo tea farms in Youleshan
       When tea cultivation began in Yunnan is difficult to pinpoint.  Local legends say that Zhuge Liang, the famed strategist from the Three Kingdoms era in the 3rd century, popularized tea cultivation in Yunnan after he conquered the province.  But no record exists of him ever reaching Xishuangbanna.  That he popularized it rather than introduced it implies tea cultivation was already going on in Yunnan.  In Banna, the Jinuo people may already have been residing there, and their origin myth says the goddess Yaobai gave seeds for both tea and rice to the first Jinuo couple.  So the cultivation of tea in Xishuangbanna may well have begun around 2000 years ago.
tea gardens near Menghun, Menghai County
The main growing areas in Xishuangbanna, all inhabited by non-Dai ethnic minorities, were the ‘six major tea mountains’ of Yiwu and Kongmingshan in Mengla County, Youleshan in Jinuoshan district and Nannuoshan, Bulangshan and Xiding’s hills in Menghai County.  The type cultivated was Pu’er tea, named after the town in southern Pu’er Prefecture (formerly called Simao) where the tea was packed and shipped north to Tibet along the famous Tea and Horses Road.
       Tea gardens, factories and ancient tea trees are among the contemporary tourist attractions in Xishuangbanna, especially among Chinese connoisseurs of fine quality tea.  Way up near the summit of Nannuoshan, just east of Menghai, stands the oldest extant cultivated tea tree in Banna, said to be at least 900 years old.  Today it is accessible on a trail that takes about a half-hour’s walk from the nearest Aini village, passing numerous, generations-old tea trees one to three meters in height, which local workers climb up to pick the leaves.  The ancient tree, festooned with chains of linked bamboo loops, is off-limits for tealeaf pickers.  So is the oldest living wild tea tree, said to be 1600 years old, which stands in a mixed forest above a small reservoir several km west of Bada, in southwestern Menghai County.
oldest wild tea tree (1600 years) near Bada
oldest cultivated tea tree (900 years) at Nannuoshan
       Tea bushes grow in long, evenly spaced rows on the mountain slopes.  After four years their leaves are ready for picking.  Unlike rice fields in the mountains, created by slash-and-burn agriculture, and only used for an average two years before being abandoned in favor of new ones, tea gardens are permanent.   They do not deplete the soil of nutrients the way rice cultivation in the hills does.  In fact, as time passed and the hills became more densely populated, fields could not be left fallow long enough to insure, when prepared again by slash-and-burn, a rice output similar to the previous yield.  So rice cultivation became impractical and people switched to tea as a cash crop, for which they didn’t need to periodically make new fields.
Aini girl in a tea tree in Nannuoshan
picking from the bushes south of Menghun
       Compared to the work of rice farming—plowing fields, planting and harvesting—it’s not very laborious.  Harvesting starts in late summer, when the rains have somewhat subsided.  Because they were far from the population centers, tea cultivators did not get involved in the marketing of it.  They kept a portion to use themselves and sold the rest to middlemen from the plains.
Dai tea garden in the plains near Menghai
From the 1909 foundation of the first tea company in Menghai, the tea trade turned into a more organized business.  Over the next two decades seventeen more started operations.  All of these were Han-owned, but Dai nobles often acted as middlemen between the companies and the growers, arranging the annual collections in the hills and deliveries to the towns, earning a 10% fee for their services.
       Tea merchants from the different companies belonged to an association in the towns, which met annually to determine prices and allocate collection zones.  Sometimes merchants advanced money to growers in the spring, when the hill people’s food stocks and cash were in short supply, enabling the merchants to collect the harvest at a reduced rate when picking season commenced in August.  They also advanced loans, at a monthly interest rate of 8-10%.  The presence of Chinese military units and administrators helped guarantee the Han monopoly in the tea trade
drying tea near the top of Nannuoshan
drying tea in Yiwu
       As in the rest of China, tea in Xishuangbanna was originally considered a medicine.  Only in the last few centuries has tea become an ordinary beverage taken with meals, as a refresher, or served as part of hospitality.  But even today, for people like the Jinuo and Bulang, who have been growing tea for many centuries, tea is not only a beverage, but also something that can be eaten—for good health.
loading up the raw tea harvest
sorting the tea
       To make their mixed cold tea dish Jinuo people collect young tealeaves in the early morning and roast them over a fire for thirty minutes.  Then they mix the cooked leaves with salt, spicy pepper, ginger and garlic paste.  They eat this concoction, slightly sweet and with a distinct aftertaste, with sticky rice.  This particular preparation is supposed to alleviate internal heat in the summer and reduce the feeling of cold in the winter.
selecting the best quality buds
       In Bulang villages a traditional favorite dish served at weddings and other festive occasions is pickled tea.  To make this specialty the people collect new sprouts and young leaves from the tea bushes and spread them out in layers on a mat to dry in the sun.  When the lot begins to darken in color the people rub the still moist leaves and sprouts with their hands, mix salt, ground pepper and other spices with them, then pack them tightly in a sealed bamboo tube.  After thirty days the tea will start to sour and in another thirty days is ready to serve.  The pickled tea retains all its vitamin C and other nutrients, is served cold as an appetizer, tastes slightly sweet and is supposed to aid digestion.
       The tea the Bulang like to drink, though, is slightly bitter.  To process the leaves they either first stir-fry them, then bake them in bamboo tubes, or else stir-fry or boil the leaves and then dry them in the sun.  Most of the tea processed by these methods, similar to the processing done by other tea-growing mountain peoples, goes to the commercial markets.  Freshly picked tealeaves and unprocessed, sun-dried leaves are sold directly to the tea factories, where a more complex form of processing and packing takes place.
filtering chutes
       In a typical tea factory one large room contains sacks of leaves, which workers open one by one and toss the leaves onto a screen to filter out the bigger sticks and pieces.  The tea passes through two more screens of finer mesh.  The portions obtained with each filtering are saved and processed as separate qualities.  Workers remove to another room the leaves that pass through the filter and pile them up, uncovered, raking them frequently, to dry indoors.  In a third room several workers, usually women, sit over big winnow trays of tea and select the best buds for the highest quality brands.
       The tea is allowed to ferment for a period of time determined by the managers, then steamed to halt the fermentation and moved to the packing room.  Several molding machines in this room press the processed tea into different compact shapes, the most common being a round discus, thicker in the middle than at the circumference.  These are wrapped in handmade paper and stacked up in wooden racks until sold or picked up for delivery to the market.  Smaller portions of the processed tea get pressed into shapes of balls, cones, pumpkins and wheels with square holes in the middle, like the old coins, and low-relief Chinese characters on the surface. 
steaming to halt fermentation
       Samples of these shapes of compressed tea will be on display in the factory’s receiving room, where guests and buyers can try out various qualities.  The host prepares the tea almost ritually, over a meter-long, carved wooden table with built-in drains.  After heating the water the host washes the cups with it to warm them up, then brews the tea and serves it in small cups.  With each refill the brew is darker and stronger and after three or four cups the host proceeds to prepare another pot, of a different quality.
       Tea production in Xishuangbanna increased throughout the Republican Era, but by the time the Menghai Tea Factory opened in 1939, the first large-scale processing and packing facility in Banna, trade disruptions caused by the war with Japan had reduced the annual yield.  Production for local consumption continued, but exports out of Banna didn’t resume until after 1949.  But now it was a state-owned enterprise and production stagnated until the reforms of the 1980s allowed private initiatives in the tea business.
stacking discs of packed tea
       Still, as a cash crop substitute for rice cultivation, rubber was a more lucrative business until the late 90s, when prices dropped considerably for several years.  Around the same time a sudden national mania for Pu’er tea developed, spurring the extension of tea cultivation, especially in Menghai County, an elevated plateau that was too high for rubber plantations anyway.  Even the Dai in the plains began switching from rice to tea.
       Pu’er tea has long had a good reputation among tea connoisseurs for its flavor and salubrious properties.  It is supposed to aid digestion, balance the internal body temperature and relieve hangovers.  Unlike other brands, like Longjing, which is good only for a short period after processing, Pu’er tea improves with age.  Indeed, for the maximum benefit to the health, it should be consumed only after having been kept for five years.  Newly rich Chinese at the beginning of the 21st century, looking for a domestic product in which to invest their money, suddenly took a keen interest in Pu’er tea.
preparing tea cakes for shipment
       The mania took hold after a cabal of speculators cornered Banna’s tea market, bought everything available and drove up prices.  Ambitious investors from other parts of China arrived to contract for some of the expanded production and set up tea factories of their own.  By mid-decade there were 3000 tea merchants and manufacturers in Xishuangbanna, intensely competitive and suspicious of one another.  And the price of Pu’er tea had risen to ten times what it sold for at the start of the century.  The top grade aged variety was going for over $300 a kilo. 
       Besides the speculators, pickers and growers also saw their incomes soar.  At the peak of the frenzy ordinary farmers could get 200 yuan per kilo for fresh leaves and 300 yuan per kilo for leaves sun-dried in one of the village squares for a few days.   Much of this new income they spent on improving their lives, beginning by building a new, “modern” house. So they demolished their traditional stilted houses and erected cement and brick houses that sat on the ground, shaped like a box, with flat roof and no open-air balcony.  They basically copied the design of the immigrant Han houses around the state rubber plantations, a type actually inappropriate for the tropical climate.  In some places they retained the angled roof and perhaps the open-air balcony, but in most newly rich villages what formerly consisted of nothing but traditional stilted wooden houses were now transformed into villages of nothing but virtually identical concrete boxes.
balls of compressed Pu'er tea
       In the spring of 2008 tea prices reached their highest level.  Pu’er tea had such an inflated reputation that counterfeits began entering the market.  Tea producers from other parts of the country shipped their tea to Xishuangbanna to have it repackaged and sold as Pu’er tea.  Government intervention followed and suddenly hoarders started selling off their stock and in no time the prices fell precipitously.  By the end of the year Pu’er tea fetched prices comparable to that in the mid-90s; i.e., less than 10% of the peak earlier that year.
       Over a third of the new tea factories closed down permanently.  The six-story new tea emporium built in Menghai for buyers and producers was nearly empty.  Visitors stopped coming to the fancy new tea museum.  Buyers from other parts of China, who had been flocking to Xishuangbanna, stopped coming.  Cobwebs gathered on stacks of unsold bricks of tea, for which merchants had paid premium prices and now couldn’t sell at all. 
       In general, the bursting of the tea bubble was less disastrous for the cultivators than for the speculating merchants.  While they could no longer garner the returns they once did, the market didn’t die completely and at least they had new houses to show for their luck during the boom years.  Those who had just started new tea gardens uprooted the immature bushes, plowed the fields over and planted rice or corn in them instead.   
shaping tea cakes
preparing Pu'er tea
Tea prices eventually recovered, but nowhere near the figures during the boom.  The frenzy had faded forever, but Chinese people still drank tea and Pu’er tea, with its fine taste and therapeutic value, is still a connoisseur’s favorite.  Culturally associated with philosophy, creativity and good health, drinking tea is a national habit and venerable custom.  There will always be a market for Pu’er tea.
tea gardens south of Mengxing, Mengla County
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for more information on Xishuangbanna, see my e-book Xishuangbanna  the Tropics of Yunnan

Overnight  in a tea garden is on the itinerary of one of Delta Tours Vietnam’s routes in Yunnan—Xishuangbanna and the Wa Hills.  See the whole schedule at 


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