Archive → January, 2012
From the 30th November to the 7th December 2011 I travelled to Puer (普洱市) and Xishuangbanna (西双版纳傣族自治州) in Yunnan Province (云南省) to continue my fieldwork into the study of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’(茶马古道) and ‘Tea Culture’ (茶文化). The purpose of this particular trip was to reconnect with contacts in Puer (which I have visited several times in the last year and a half) and to make new contacts in neighbouring Xishuangbanna (hereafter abbreviated as ‘Banna’). I also visited a number of related cultural tourism sites and collected valuable resources (books, monographs, pamphlets, and so on). Both Puer and Banna are famous tea growing regions, most possibly the very place of origin of tea cultivation and tea culture itself. The region is also home to numerous ethnic nationalities (少数民族) many of whom are involved in the tea trade in one way or another. Indeed, it is perhaps through tea cultivation that this region first became integrated into the Han Chinese economy and social/cultural sphere of influence well over a thousand years ago (I’m still gathering concrete historical evidence for this process). In particular I wanted to get right to the source of tea itself amongst the ancient tea tree groves of Menghai County (勐海县). You can see where Menghai County is on Google Maps here. The trip was very fruitful and produced a number of interesting avenues of inquiry, not least of which was strengthening my knowledge of the political economy of tea production and setting up potentially good sites for more detailed observation in the future. You can see a selection of images taken on this trip on my Flickr here.
I was joined in Kunming (the provincial capital of Yunnan) by three companions: Dr Ed (a longtime collaborator on both the ‘tea road’ and ‘adventure tourism’ in Yunnan); Mr Gary P. (a tea and fungi connoisseur and expert) and Jinpa (a Tibetan travel operator and guide keen to learn more about cultural tourism in southern Yunnan). A quick plug: If you’re considering travel in Tibet I strongly recommend contacting Jinpa. he can organise everything, check out his website here. In addition to the company of Jinpa the Tibetan connection was actually quite strong as we were seeking to interview a number of persons who could recollect visits by Tibetan tea merchants many decades ago before the ‘modern’ road network was completed in the 1950s/1960s. Look carefully at the map, Tibet is a long way from Menghai and in the ‘old days’ the journey would have taken at least six months (one way). Once again it reinforces what people will do to get their fix of tea.
On the Kunming to Bangkok International Expressway
We left for Puer on the 30th November taking an express coach on the Kunming – Bangkok International Expressway (昆曼国际大通道), China’s first international expressway (see my earlier posting on this expressway here). A journey that would have once taken several months can be now completed under one day (assuming there are no traffic incidents and ‘leaders’ hogging the road) ( 20 hours to drive from Kunming to Bangkok and 30 hours from Chengdu). As I have mentioned before on this blog, the increased mobility provided by the development of modern transport infrastructure has had and is having a profound effect on all aspects of Chinese society. One of my recent interests in this regard has been the rise of ‘self-drive tourism’ (自驾旅游). Indeed, the first Chinese leisure drivers have already taken the journey to Bangkok. On a Yunnan news portal site dedicated to the expressway there are quite a few items promoting the opportunities of ‘self-drive tourism’ (or what we might call ‘independent motoring’) along the expressway with step by step itineraries. Yet the top item on the news list is actually a warning issued by the Kunming Disease Prevention and Control Centre (昆明市疾病预防控制中心) advising travelers going to Southeast Asia to be wary of dengue fever (登革热). I will continue to keep a close eye on all developments relating to transport and mobility and social transformations, part of a study in the new field of ‘roadology’ (academics love making up new words!).
Revisiting Puer: The ‘Tea City of China’ (中国茶城)
I’ve visited Puer a number of times in relation to my current work on tea culture, cultural heritage and the tea road. You can read about those earlier encounters here. This time in Puer there were two objectives. One, to visit the Puer tea markets and talk to people in the tea business and generally learn more about the market, trends and entrepreneurial activity in this area (part of my interest also lies in a ‘governmentality’ of entrepreneurship). And two, to visit a tea cultural tourism site, in particular ‘The China Puer Tea Expo Garden’ (中华普洱茶博览苑).
The China Puer Tea Expo Garden is located 30 kilometres from ‘downtown’ Puer. The site contains 24,167 mu (one mu is approximately 666 square metres) of terraced tea plantations. It claims to be an ‘organic tea plantation’ (有机茶园). A small section of this large site is given over to a tourism venture which consists of an exhibition hall, a small mock ‘ethnic village’ (村村寨寨) displaying the housing and culture (mainly singing and dancing) of various different local minorities, a puer tea production centre (outlining the life cycle of tea and the process of making puer tea cakes) (茶作坊), and a puer tea tasting centre (at which you can of course make purchases if you wish). The site also includes picturesque gardens and walking paths through some of the tea terraces with panoramic views of the surrounding area. The venture is run by the local government authorities with some external investment. The professed aim is to develop a puer tea tourism site that supports and sustains local community development. Total investment in the site on completion was 57 million Chinese Yuan. This was just a preliminary visiting and scoping survey. I will look to conduct interviews and gather more concrete data in a future visit. I’m quite interested in exploring the tangible benefits of tourism and community development.
I did glean some interesting information from the on-site China Puer Museum (中华普洱茶博物馆). The museum (technically it is an ‘exhibition’ rather than ‘museum’) divides the history of puer into four periods:
1) Initiation and Development Period (发轫于发育时期): The Three Kingdoms (3rd Century AD) to 1733. This is the stage where the Puer/Banna tea growing regions are incorporated into the Chinese tea economy.
2) Establishment of the ‘Tea Factory/Producer Brands’ Period (‘号记茶’ or ‘古董茶’): 1733 – 1938. Many tea factories were modeled after the ‘Tongxing Tea Factory’ (同兴号茶庄) first established in 1733. Puer tea also enters the imperial court as gift/tribute tea. Tea production also becomes a common and unified business/farming activity for many different ethnic groups in the region. And finally, puer begins to be exported abroad.
3) The Mechanical Impression Period (印记茶): 1938 – 1973. The first factories to use modern and semi-mechanised production methods begin to be established in Yunnan during this period.
4) The Development of ‘Ripe’ Puer Period (熟茶): 1973 – to present. Refers to the invention of the induced fermentation process to manufacture large quantities of ‘ripe’ puer (which prior to this was aged naturally over many years, the induced process reduced aging to several months). The technique was first developed in Hong Kong, then further developed in Guangdong, and finally introduced on a large scale to Yunnan in 1970s. ‘Ripe’ puer is particularly popular in Guangdong, Hong Kong and parts of Southeast Asia.
I find this time line a bit odd as it skips out one of the most important developments in the tea industry in China, that is, the collectivisation and nationalisation of tea plantations and factories post-1949 (the year the Communist Party of China came to power). The exhibition also refers to the concept of ‘Humanity Puer’ (人文普洱) which it claims to be a combined function of ‘science’ (that is, a scientific approach to the production of puer) and ‘culture’ (that is, selectively linking puer tea with the rich culture/s within which it is embedded). This reflects a willful combination of ‘material’ (物质) and ‘spiritual’ (精神) aspects, a strong theme within contemporary Chinese concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’. This is not the first time I’ve come across this concept of ‘Humanity Puer’ so it seems to have gained some traction (although it may mean different things to different people).
First Ancient Tea Tree Groves: Mount Nannuo (南糯山)
After Puer the next stop was Jinghong (景洪), the prefectural seat of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture (西双版纳傣族自治州). The total population of Banna is approximately 900,000. The Dai are the largest ethnic group in this prefecture (approx 30%), with the Han (approx 29%) a close second. Many Han Chinese moved to the region during the Maoist period as part of efforts to populate the peripheries (a security strategy) and to open up rubber and banana plantations. The Dai are very closely related to the ‘Thai’ peoples in Thailand (and Laos and northern Burma as well). They are Theravada Buddhists (with many animist beliefs as well) and have retained a strong ethnic identity. The women still tend to wear their beautiful silk gowns, even in the fields. Along with Han culture it is fair to say that Dai culture has also had a very strong influence on the other ethnic minority cultures in the region (especially in terms of architecture and religion). There are another eleven ethnic groups, including Hani, Yi, Blang (Bulang), and Yao, making this one of the most ethnically diverse regions not only in Yunnan but in China itself. The area is particularly fertile with many basins suitable for growing rice (most of these are occupied by the Dai) and a tropical environment well suited for agriculture (including tea of course, but also rubber which has expanded rapidly much to the detriment of local forests and ancient tea groves). The name ‘Xishuangbanna’ (Sípsɔ́ŋpǎnnǎ in Dai) literally means ‘twelve thousand rice fields’. The Lancang River (澜沧江- the Mekong) cuts right through the centre and is the dominant ‘life force’ along with a very rich biodiversity (including populations of wild elephants). Banna is very hot in summer and best avoided, but winter is quite pleasant. When it’s freezing cold in most of central and northern China it is always thongs and t-shirt weather in most of Banna. It really has a tropical feel and you get the distinct feeling that you’re close to Southeast Asia what with the various sites, sounds and smells. One of my favourite things about Banna is the endemic presence of passion fruit vines (indeed a local variety known as Passiflora xishuangbannaensis). It reminds me of the tropical fruit flavours that I grew up with in Queensland.
We stopped over in the prefectural capital of Jinghong for one night. Jinghong is something of a boom town (actually in China all cities seem to be ‘booming’ and it is hard to tell what is ‘real’ and what is ‘fake’ in terms of legitimate construction). It is certainly no longer a ‘sleepy backwater’ and this time, after an absence of several years, I was quite shocked by the changing skyline. Like everywhere else in Yunnan, Banna is undergoing rapid change, but it still has managed to maintain its charms sitting as it does on the Lancang with streets lined with palm trees and the smells of Dai barbeque (some of the best in China) floating in the air. Whilst in Jinghong I took the time to renew my acquaintance with Ms Lin of the Yunnan Mekong Travel Group, one of the biggest commercial tour operators in Yunnan, and certainly a dominant player in Banna. The company has a project on the tea road that I hope to visit in 2012. Ms Lin has been in the cultural tourism industry in Banna for many years and is a valuable source of information. The company she works for is by far the dominant player in Banna owning a number of the top tourist/scenic attractions (oddly enough the parent company is a Zhejiang based pipe manufacturer … I should have known …). In following further in my inquiries into ‘adventure tourism’ Ed and I (both who are keen researchers and enthusiasts in this area) interviewed Sara and Stone, brother and sister from Guangxi who have been leading treks in Banna for seventeen years. They run the ‘Forest Café’ in Jinghong which is the base of their hiking operations. Sara was able to describe in great detail the various challenges and changes taking place in the small-scale eco/hiking tourism area in Banna. We also bumped into Frank Hitman who has just started organising treks through ‘Zouba Travel’ in the neighbouring region of Honghe. I will be incorporating some their insights into a new paper I’m writing entitled ‘Small is Beautiful: A Time and a Place for Community Based Tourism’. So you can see that I was able to straddle both sides of the tourism industry fence … ‘big’ and ‘small’. Both have their place in the market and have different roles to play in community development. If only government policy was a bit more accommodating for the latter …
In Jinghong we also met up with Mr Li who was our primary contact for a visit to the ancient tea tree groves of Mount Nannuo (南糯山). Mr Li owns a tea factory on Mount Nannuo (and incidentally has just acquired a scenic tourist attraction in Shangrila of all places!). Banna is very famous for its ‘tea mountains’ (there are ‘six famous tea mountains’ (六大茶山) and also many other ‘not so famous’ mountains as well). Mount Nannuo is in Menghai County, just about one hours’ drive from Jinghong (approximately 30 km). It sits at an altitude of about 1,400 metres. Mount Nannuo is well known for its long history of tea growing, well over a thousand years. An interesting legend connects the emergence of tea with the arrival of the famous Three Kingdoms strategist Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) (181 – 234 AD). In fact Mount Nannuo is also sometimes known as Mount Kongming (another name for Zhuge Liang). The same kind of legend is also repeated in Puer (that is, Zhuge Liang during his military campaign to suppress the ‘southern barbarians’ brings the tea plant and shows the locals how to cultivate it). Of course the locals were no doubt cultivating and drinking tea well before the arrival of Zhuge Liang. The legend instead seems to confirm the Han Chinese arrival on the scene so to speak and the incorporation of the local tea economy into the wider Chinese economy. It also suggests the sense of ‘imperial grace’ in which the Han Chinese share ‘their culture’ with uncivilised barbarians (and hence over time making them become ‘Chinese’, a theme that is common amongst many dominant cultures around the world). No doubt the tea production skills of the Han Chinese (already well advanced in growing tea elsewhere) had some impact on the commercial/trading culture of tea production in Puer and Banna. This is certainly something worthy of further investigation.
The main attraction at Mount Nannuo are the groves of ancient tea trees (the product of which in Chinese is known as both ‘ancient tea tree tea’ (古树茶) and ‘qiaomu tea’ (乔木茶)). There are approximately 15,000 mu of ancient tea tree groves belonging to a number of different villages (here ‘village’ refers to an administrative entity made up of several ‘natural villages’). Unlike your average plantation variety of tea (台地茶) which is grown and trimmed to maintain a ‘hedge’ shape, the tea trees in Mount Nannuo (and elsewhere in Banna as we shall see) are left to grow freely in true ‘tree’ form. The most famous specimen is aged at over 800 years old and itself has become a major international tourist attraction. This tree is also often cited as evidence that Banna/Menghai is the origin of tea cultivation (and another ancient tree that tragically was destroyed in a storm in 1967 and later aged at 1,700 thousand years). On the day we visited the ‘King of Tea Trees’ (茶树王) I counted four different tour groups hiking their way to the tree (not a very long or arduous hike, quite pleasant actually), at least one Japanese, two Chinese and another possibly European (British?). This was my first true encounter with these kind of tea trees and a bit more of the puzzle fell into place as a consequence. The trees are treated completely organically, in line with hundreds of years of local farming tradition. Such ancient tea trees have become extremely valuable as the tea they produce can attract a very high market price. And yet it was only thirty years ago that some Chinese tea experts advised removing these trees and replacing them with conventional tea hedges (台地茶) or rubber trees. In the two places we visited in Banna where ancient tea trees are grown this story was repeated much to the anger and frustration of the locals who now regret what happened. In any case the trees fortunate to have survived the early stages of ‘reform and openness’ are now well protected.
The local ethnic group on Mount Nannuo are the Aini (爱伲人- classified as a branch of the Hani 哈尼族) and we interviewed an elderly gentleman (who I will refer to as ‘Mr Wang’, born in 1950) about the history of tea and his life experiences. One of our main interests was to learn more about the stories we had previously heard of Tibetan merchants visiting the area (and he also drew upon the recollections of his father in this regard). Mr Wang told us that he remembers as a child seeing the Tibetan merchants coming to trade tea for salt (the merchants would have readily been able to acquire salt, which was also pressed into transportable shapes, from one of the many salt wells along the way). He was also able to tell us about the different routes they must have taken to get to and from Menghai. Once the road (albeit a very basic road) was completed between Yunnan and Tibet in 1956/1957 the Tibetan merchants and their horse/mule caravans no longer made the journey.
The Ancient Tea Horse Road Theme Park
Equipped with our new knowledge of local tea production and transportation routes we were keen to get to a more remote corner of Menghai and in a very serendipitous way that often accompanies fieldwork we were somehow drawn to the Blang (Bulang – 布朗) village of Mannuo (曼糯), a journey that took us two days, much of it over very rough roads taking a pounding from trucks laden with sugar. But before doing so we first visited the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Theme Park’ (茶马古道景区), the third cultural tourism attraction to visit on this trip. It was in Jinghong that this particular theme park came to our attention by way of the designated shop promoting the attraction. We spoke to the shop attendant and acquired the phone number of the owner/manager who was fortunately on site in Menghai when we arrived. The owner/manager, who I will refer to as Mr Zhang, greeted us upon arrival and we spent the next two hours inspecting the ‘theme park’ and learning about his motivations to create this attraction. Incidentally this is not the first Ancient Tea Horse Road I have visited, you can read about my visit to the tea road village at Nakeli on a previous blog posting here.
Mr Zhang is an experienced tour site operator having run a national heritage protected attraction in Qinghai for many years. In searching for a new business opportunity he came across the tea road and spent several years traveling over 5,000 kilometres from Menghai to Lhasa in search of artifacts and inspiration. He finally settled on a site about four kilometres from the Menghai county town. The site actually belongs to the Tea Research Institute of the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Science (云南省农业科学院茶叶研究所) and the theme park is in fact a joint venture between the Institute and Mr Zhang’s company (unfortunately on this occasion I was unable to visit the Institute but will do so later in 2012). It sits on over 1,500 mu, much of which is occupied by the Institute’s experimental tea plantations (which also contains every variety of tea grown in China and many from abroad as well). The site opened on 1st January 2010 so by the time we visited it was nearly one year in operation. The total investment was 60 million Chinese Yuan. The park is designated as a National Four Star Tourist Site (Five Star being the top rating).
Mr Zhang claims that the tourist attraction serves a pedagogic function insofar as it aims to educate visitors about the cultural and historical significance of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. Part of this seems to me to be a specific response amongst the Chinese tourist, especially those from urban areas, for a ‘picture perfect’ nostalgia of times past which at once creates a sense of progress (‘see how far we have come’) and a sense of lost innocence (‘life was simpler then’). The site consists of a number of attractions spread out over a large area, these include a ‘tea market’, ‘a caravan inn’, ‘a tea farmer’s house’, ‘a tea merchant’s villa’, ‘a county magistrate’s mansion’, ‘a horse and mule stable and farrier/blacksmith’, ‘a tea road ferry crossing’ and ‘exhibition/event centre’. There were some interesting original artifacts on display but overall I have to say the experience was pretty lackluster. Feedback from other colleagues in the industry have also come to the same conclusion. One thing the site does that no doubt irritates our friends in Puer is that it claims Menghai as the beginning of the tea road and origin of tea itself (and probably rightly so on both counts in my opinion). Puer in its tourist promotion claims to be the ‘source of tea and the start of the road’ (茶之源, 道之始). It appears that the Menghai County Government is right behind such projects with a detailed tourism development plan in place that focuses on both tea culture and the tea horse road. And interestingly enough this was the only place in Banna that we came across any horses. Four in total, on ‘display’ as examples of the Yunnan horse (滇马) in the ‘stable’.
Second Ancient Tea Tree Groves: Mannuo Village (曼糯村)
After visiting the theme park we followed one of the main roads out of Menghai up a meandering valley through a number of small rural towns and villages until we reached Mengwang (猛往), a small rural community with a population of approximately ten thousand consisting of Dai, Lahu and Blang. The area is quite poor, predominantly agricultural (rice, maize, rubber, sugar and tea, along with one sugar refinery and some small-scale handicrafts) with an average annual household income of 2,500 Chinese Yuan (most people in Shanghai make this amount per month, so you get a sense of the wealth gap in China). The town of Mengwang is at the end of the line as far as the sealed road is concerned, so you can imagine how isolated it is in the scheme of things. But in fact it is not far from the ancient Lancang River port of Simaogang (思茅港). And it is that which sparked our interest as we surmised that the local tea produced in this area was in the past transported to Simaogang where it was sold at market as loose leaf tea later to be pressed into puer tea cakes. This assumption (well done Ed!) turned out to be correct.
From Mengwang it was a half day walk to the Blang (Bulang – 布朗族) village of Mannuo. It is the most northerly of the ancient tea groves in Menghai County (altitude 1,200 m). The Blang, with a total population of approximately 92,000 are primarily found in Banna, but with some communities in Thailand and Burma. One local Chinese official (who shall remain anonymous) once described the Blang to me as the ‘Africans of China … because they are dark, poor and like to dance’. Oh dear! I’m pleased to report that I found my first interaction with a Blang community very rewarding. When we arrived unannounced in the village it wasn’t too long before we befriended the village chief who gave us a personal tour of the tea tree groves and introduced us to some of the locals. The village chief was also the head of a newly established tea marketing cooperative. He explained to us that when the tea was harvested (April/May) each year many tea merchants from all over China and even Southeast Asia came to the village to buy directly from individual households. The local villagers, being somewhat cut off from the outside world, were at a disadvantage when it came to price negotiations. Hence, following the lead of some other ancient tea tree grove communities, they have established the cooperative to negotiate the price on behalf of the overall community. They also hope to help develop the local ‘tea brand’. At the moment the tea is sold as loose leaf variety to the merchants who then make their own tea cakes under their own labels. Some unscrupulous merchants we were told take the Mannuo tea and brand it as tea from other ancient tea growing areas (that is, places which receive a much higher price). The community is still very poor and this tea road to prosperity seems paved with obstacles. I’m very interested in this ‘cooperative’ development, it fits well with my interest in entrepreneurial activity in relation to ‘tea culture’ and the ‘tea road’, and hope to be able to follow the fortunes of the cooperative and this community over time. I think it might also make a good development project with opportunities for creative marketing by some bright students out there.
The village chief, along with a few village elders, told us much about the history of the community and especially of tea. The village consists of 110 households, primarily Blang but also with a small attached Han village. How and when the Han villagers arrived was not made clear but we did visit one Han household. The Han villagers also have ancient tea trees (the trees were allocated to households during the process of decollectivisation in the 1980s). The largest tree, with a trunk diametre of 54 cm, is said to be 600 years old, although the age has not been scientifically verified (I think the locals are afraid to do so after the famous case where a Japanese tree surgeon tried to operate on an ancient tree only to end up killing it). As I mentioned above, during the 1980s many ancient tea trees were cut down to make way for rubber. The irony is not only did they lose precious trees but the quantity of rubber is quite low compared to other places due to the altitude. I also regret to report that there has been a far bit of natural forest removed to make way for rubber and sugar cane.
We spent one night in Mannuo in what in reality was a preliminary visit. It would be ideal to return during harvest time but this may be delayed until 2013 due to teaching commitments. With local knowledge of how the villagers used to transport the loose leaf tea we then hiked for two days from Mannuo to Simaogang making our way through many ethnic villagers and over one significant range into the Lancang (Mekong) valley. Our path took us through some good sections of natural rainforest and gave us a sense of how difficult transportation was in this region before the advent of ‘modern’ roads. In what took us two days the villagers in times past did in one single day, quite an achievement considering most of the time they were carrying large sacks of tea with them (horses it seem were not so common amongst the Blang). The village chief told us that some of them even didn’t event stay at the market very long and return the same day!
In this fieldtrip I was fortunate to physically make contact with the very origins of tea cultivation and tea culture and to see firsthand developments as they relate to the political economy of tea production (I have now examined firsthand the chains of production from the grass roots in Yunnan all the way to the markets of Beijing and Shanghai) and the cultural tourism industry based on tea culture and the tea horse road. A great deal of potential but still a long way to go. As the Chinese saying goes ‘the task is as onerous as the road is long’ (任重道远).