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Archive → February, 2013

Christmas in the Other China: The Ancient Tea Road and Ancient Tea Trees of Jinggu

In 1978 botanists and geologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences working in Jinggu (not far from the county seat) discovered a fossil which they believe to be an of the modern tea plant (camellia sinensis). The fossils, found in a small area on the edge of a pine plantation, are estimated to be 35 million years old. Pictured here is part of a fossilised leaf.

In 1978 botanists and geologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences working in Jinggu (not far from the county seat) discovered a fossil which they believe to be the ancestor of the modern tea plant (camellia sinensis). The fossils, found in a small area on the edge of a pine plantation, are estimated to be 35 million years old. Pictured here is part of a fossilised leaf.

Over the 2012 Christmas break I travelled to Jinggu Dai and Yi Nationality Autonomous County (景谷傣族彝族自治县) to undertake preliminary fieldwork. I was primarily interested in getting a better understanding of the ancient tea trees, modern tea industry and potential for outdoor tourism along the remnant tea road. This is part of a larger research project exploring the theme of the ‘New Ancient Tea Horse Road’, a concept I will detail in the near future. As I will explain below Jinggu lived up to its reputation as a hidden treasure with great potential in all three realms of my research focus.

You can see where Jinggu is located on Google Maps here. You can see a selection of images taken from the fieldtrip on my Flickr site here.  Each of the images has a basic explanation but please feel free to leave comments and/or questions if you so desire (either here on directly on the Flickr site). Jinggu is part of the prefectural city of Puer. I have visited Puer on a number of occasions – see an earlier report on Puer here – but this was my first visit to Jinggu.

Jinggu is home to an important section of the 'Ancient Tea Horse Road'. Here I am pictured with two colleagues from the Jinggu Tea Factory on an ancient bridge over a very impressive gorge (unfortunately it was quite difficult to get a good picture of the gorge itself). There is quite a lot of remnant road in Jinggu. A great deal of potential for hiking tourism (the gorge is already part of an impressive day walk mainly catering for the weekend jaunts of locals).

Jinggu is home to an important section of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. Here I am pictured with two colleagues from the Jinggu Tea Factory on an ancient bridge over a very impressive gorge (unfortunately it was quite difficult to get a good picture of the gorge itself). There is quite a lot of remnant road in Jinggu. A great deal of potential for hiking tourism (the gorge is already part of an impressive day walk mainly catering for the weekend jaunts of locals).

The Tropic of Cancer runs through the middle of Jinggu. The highest elevation is 2,290 metres and the lowest 600. There is thus a mixture of highland tropical and subtropical environments. The forest coverage in Jinggu is above 70% making it one of the most forested counties in China (and hence as you might imagine the Forestry Department (林业局) is particularly prominent). The forests are a mixture of nature reserves and timber plantations. Given the warm climate and plentiful rainfall the lowlands and basins are perfect locations for growing sugar cane, bananas, and tropical fruit (especially mangoes for which Jinggu is quite famous). With a large loan from the World Bank a modern sugar refinery has just been completed near the county seat (which is also called ‘Jinggu’). The agricultural sector is the main industry in Jinggu, but the local county government is, like many other places I have described in this blog, drawing up plans to attract tourists.

The total population of Jinggu is approximately three hundred thousand. The overall minority nationality population amounts to approximately 46% of the entire population (which in addition to Dai and Yi consists at least ten other groups including the Lahu and Ha’ni). The Dai costume in this area is somewhat different to that in nearby Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) and I gather that the local Dai dialect is also rather distinct. As I will explain below Jinggu is certainly at a cultural border zone between the southern reach of Han Chinese culture and the northern extent of Dai culture. Such cultural zones are always  very interesting and Jinggu turned out to be no exception in this regard.

Jinggu is the northern most extent of Theravada Buddhism (which in China is known as 'Southern Buddhism'). The Dai people are predominantly Theravada Buddhists. Jinggu is also the southernmost extent of Daoism in the mainland (Daoism spread to Southeast Asia via the Maritime Silk Road). In this sense Jinggu seats on an important 'religious border zone'. Pictured here is a famous Buddhist shrine. The giant handprints are said to belong to the Buddha himself. Pilgrims from as far away as Thailand visit this shrine.

Jinggu is the northernmost extent of Theravada Buddhism in China. The Dai people are predominantly Theravada Buddhists. Jinggu is also the southernmost extent of Daoism in the mainland (Daoism spread to Southeast Asia via the Maritime Silk Road). In this sense Jinggu rests on an important ‘religious border zone’. Pictured here is a famous Buddhist shrine. The giant hand prints are said to belong to the Buddha himself. Pilgrims from as far away as Thailand visit this shrine.

Jinggu: Past, Present and Future

Jinggu is home to many ancient tea trees growing in picturesque mountain villages such as the one I shall describe below. It also contains one of the important tea horse routes coming north out of Puer and continuing to work its way northwards towards Fengqing (凤庆) (famous for its Yunnanese black tea (滇红)), Midu (弥渡) and Dali (大理). Given the high proportion of forest coverage and relative low population density – 38 persons per square kilometre – there are still many sections of well preserved remnant tea road.

Based on my preliminary observations Jinggu is eminently suited to outdoor leisure pursuits. The Jinggu government has also recognised the potential and is actively encouraging the development of outdoor tourism and leisure. Jinggu currently hosts an annual rally racing competition and international paragliding event. I was fortunate enough to meet with officials in the tourism, culture and sport departments – quite an ‘enlightened’ group in my opinion and I hope to return to Jinggu in the future for more extensive fieldwork. I would like to thank them for their hospitality, patience with my endless questions, and encouragement for my research.

Whilst in Jinggu I visited the Jinggu Tea Factory, which according to the owner, has the largest stockpile of puer tea on the planet. After walking through the many storage facilities I think that claim seems quite credible.

Whilst in Jinggu I visited the Jinggu Tea Factory, which according to the owner, has the largest stockpile of puer tea on the planet. After walking through the many storage facilities I think that claim seems quite credible.

Jinggu became an autonomous county on 11 July 1985. The first actual political meeting to launch the ‘autonomous county’ was held on 25 December of the same year. Hence the celebration of this political achievement (‘autonomy’, whilst not equivalent to what we would usually equate with the term, does confer considerable benefits in terms of local management of finances and resources) is held every year on ‘Christmas Day’. As there are very few, if any, Christians in Jinggu, and given the relative isolation, the commercialised form of Christmas that is making its way across China does not yet have much traction in Jinggu. Let’s hope Jinggu can maintain its ‘purity’ for the foreseeable future.

The Ancient Tea Groves of Kuzhushan (Bitter Bamboo Mountain) (苦竹山)

At the invitation of Mr Wang from the Jinggu Tea Factory (景谷茶厂) I visited a village west of the small town of ‘Little Jinggu’ (小景谷) (approximately 30 kilometres to the north of the county seat). The village is known as Kuzhushan (Bitter Bamboo Mountain) (苦竹山). Kuzhushan specialises in ancient tea tree tea. Ancient tea trees are not only found in groves near the village, but also within the village itself, a situation I have not encountered previously. The villagers of Kuzhushan are all Han Chinese. This is quite interesting given that most of the other villages on the mountain are Yi. In an interview with one of the village elders I was told the fascinating story of how they originally migrated to what was, at the time, a particularly remote and ‘wild’ place.

I visited a village called Kuzhushan (Bitter Bamboo Mountain) (苦竹山). The village is home to dozens of ancient tea trees which range from several hundred years to what the villagers claim is one specimen over 1,000 years. The tea trees grow in groves and also throughout the village itself. I was able to learn a lot about the seasonal working life of a tea farmer.

I visited a village called Kuzhushan (Bitter Bamboo Mountain) (苦竹山). The village is home to dozens of ancient tea trees which range from several hundred years to what the villagers claim is one specimen over 1,000 years. The tea trees grow in groves and also throughout the village itself. I was able to learn a lot about the seasonal working life of a tea farmer. Pictured here is an ancient tea tree behind a modern satellite dish, an interesting contrast of ‘old’ and ‘new’.

The villagers claim to be descendants of soldiers who were loyal followers of the Han general Wu Sangui (吴三桂) (1612-1678). Wu Sangui rose in the ranks of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) army during its final years. He is famous for capitulating to the Qing and opening the gates at a pass in the Great Wall north of Beijing thereby allowing the Qing army to take the capital (there is a complicated love twist in this story involving Wu Sangui’s concubine and a peasant uprising led by Li Zicheng). Wu Sangui went onto fight for the Qing in pursuing the remnant armies of the Ming in Yunnan (the Ming court eventually fled to Burma seeking political refuge, but later they were betrayed, sent back to China and executed by Wu Sangui). Wu Sangui was awarded by the Qing with Yunnan as his ‘fiefdom’, quite an honour and sign of trust on the part of the Manchu rulers of the Qing. Later, however, when that trust began to wane Wu Sangui rebelled against the Kangxi Emperor and attempted to establish his own dynasty. He was eventually defeated and executed. Wu Sangui is quite a notorious figure in Chinese history having betrayed both the Ming and the Qing.

The village elder explained that those soldiers loyal to Wu Sangui had little choice but to flee to Jinggu. They hid their identities for many generations only telling the true story amongst themselves. This is not the first time I’ve encountered stories of whole families and communities migrating to the southwest to escape persecution, nor is it the first time I’ve heard of families/communities hiding their identity for fear of persecution (as the descendants of the rulers of the Nanzhao Kingdom did for many generations). The village is still relatively poor. Given the mountainous region within which it is located transport has always been difficult. A new road – as yet unsealed – has just been completed and this will no doubt bring many benefits and changes (good and bad in my opinion). The villagers, in a number of interviews I conducted, constantly went back to tea as the only resource they have to develop reasonable amounts of cash. In the recent (Maoist) past the ancient tea trees – some of which are well over 800 years old – were regarded as worthless as the price of puer tea was quite low. The situation has changed in recent years as the price has increased considerably. There is a lot more to this story concerning the revival of puer tea and I will discuss in more detail in the next blogpost when I briefly recount a visit to Yiwu (易武) and Yibang (依邦), one of the major centres of ancient tea tree farming.

The circus is alive and well in China. All across Yunnan, and I assume most of Western China, rural towns hold market days. These market days are important for locals from nearby villages to come to town to sell their own produce, meet friends and relatives, and generally have a good time in the 'big smoke'. Merchants travel from market day to market day. Along with the merchants are the entertainers and food stalls which give market day a festive atmosphere. At the end of each day (some market days may run for several days in larger towns) you can all ways spot a few people, who perhaps have had too much of a good thing, stumbling down the lane.

The circus is alive and well in China. All across Yunnan, and I assume most of Western China, rural towns hold market days. These market days are important for locals from nearby villages to come to town to sell their own produce, meet friends and relatives, and generally have a good time in the ‘big smoke’. Merchants travel from market day to market day. Along with the merchants are the entertainers and food stalls which give market day a festive atmosphere. At the end of each day (some market days may run for several days in larger towns) you can all ways spot a few people, who perhaps have had too much of a good thing, stumbling down the lane.