Archive → July, 2013
In February 2013 I traveled with Dr Ed Jocelyn to Mengla County (勐腊县) in Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna 西双版纳). We were keen to learn more about tea culture and history in one of the oldest tea growing regions in the world. Indeed some would argue that Mengla, or neighbouring Menghai (勐海), is the very origin of human cultivation of tea. We were also curious to see what remained of the ‘old tea road’ between the historic tea village and administrative centre of Yiwu (易武) (now a small and prosperous town) and Yibang (倚邦) (once the seat of dynastic and local ethnic power in days gone by, now a forgotten one street village on a lonely hilltop). We did originally plan to get all the way to Puer but, as is usually the case, the hills and forests had other ideas (for which we are very grateful). Part of this is was an endeavour to prove that it is possible to hike along sections of the old tea road and in turn demonstrate that the tea groves and tea mountains contain sustainable hiking and ecotourism resources that should therefore be properly preserved (and not cut down to make way for rubber plantations, as I explain below). As I noted in the previous blogpost, we will be exploring this theme in more detail at a special workshop in Perth in September (2013). You can see images from this field trip on my Flickr website here. You can see where Yiwu is located on Google Maps here. If you expand out the map you will see that Yiwu is only a few kilometres from the China/Laos border.
‘Mengla’ is local Tai (Dai傣) meaning ‘the place of tea’. Given that the county is home to many tea trees well over 1,000 years old I think the place name is very apt indeed. For much of recorded history Mengla was part of the small kingdom/principality of ‘Sipsongpanna’ – a primarily Tai (Dai 傣) community living in the rich and fertile basins near or along the Mekong River, and cheek by jowl the rest of the time with the many other ethnic communities in the luscious sub-tropical rain forests and hills. ‘Sipsongpanna’ was larger than its current namesake of ‘Xishuangbanna’. Borders don’t stand still, they have a way of moving over time. Up until 1729 Sipsongpanna included much of Puer as well (in 1729 the Qing government implemented direct dynastic rule and displaced the local ruling families) (see C. Patterson Giersch’s 2006 Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier). After 1949 Sipsongpanna became one of Yunnan’s ‘autonomous prefectures’ (自治州). Chinese socialism was on guard and the borders were closed. The once thriving border traffic with neighbouring countries and kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia more or less ended. The revolution came and ushered in the full shock waves of modernity Maoist style.
Tea was still there. The tea farmers were still there. But under the auspices of the socialist planned economy and the dictates of ‘taking grain as the main [agricultural] pursuit’ (以粮为纲) the price of puer tea fell steeply. During the Maoist period it was less than five yuan per kilo (it is approximately 300 yuan a kilo at present for an average quality crop and up to 6,000 yuan per kilo for the very finest puer). Many farmers, under local village/government direction, uprooted and destroyed their ancient tea trees to plant rice. It seemed that puer tea’s days were numbered and that its time of glory as an exotic commodity desired far and wide had come to an end.
But if the declining price and fortunes of puer tea was not enough to knock the wind out of it, in the 1960s the central government began a project that would not only threaten the existence of camellia sinensis assamica but also the very biodiversity of Sipsongpanna itself. What is it that appeared so forcefully to put the boot in? Rubber! Rubber – and in particular latex – was regarded as vital to the security of the fledgling People’s Republic of China. Modern industries need latex. And of course the four million or so soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) needed their ‘liberation shoes’ (解放鞋), the soles of which were made of rubber of course. Indeed, it was the PLA that opened up the first rubber plantations in Sipsongpanna (using the age old system of ‘military colonies/farms’, bingtuan 兵团, and using primarily Han Chinese labour from other parts of China). The ranks of the plantation workers were increased during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) by the ‘sent down youth’ (xiaxiang zhiqing 下乡知青) from urban China, and in particular a large cohort from far away Shanghai. As far as urban Chinese were concerned in those days Mengla was a frontier zone at the end of the world. Sweltering heat. Innumerable insects and creatures that want to bite and eat you. Tropical diseases such as malaria that could strike at any moment. Strange tribal peoples living outmoded lives. All of which was to be transformed by the blood, sweat and tears of Maoist socialism.
And rubber indeed did make some headway during the Maoist period (1949-1977). The state farms cleared a great deal of land. But it wasn’t until the reform period (1978 to present), with foreign demand increasing and China’s domestic consumption also on the rise, that the threat really became a reality. However, it was not the state farms doing most of the clearing during the reform period, that activity had shifted to the locals who, ironically were once deemed as unsuitable for a ‘modern’ form of agriculture due to their ‘backwardness’, but who were now fully embracing the opportunities presented by ‘reform and openness’. Since the 1980s the amount of forest converted to rubber has reached the two million mu planned by state agencies as early as 1953 (one mu is approximately 666.7 square metres). The great irony of this is that rubber plantations are counted as ‘green cover’ by the Department of Forestry (the same department generally entrusted to caring for ‘nature reserves’ … conflict of interest, oh yeah!). Janet Sturgeon of Simon Fraser University has written quite extensively about rubber in Yunnan.
I will come back to the hazards of rubber below. Suffice to say that puer tea also makes a major revival in the reform period, rising somewhat like a phoenix from the ashes. Yes, many ancient tea trees were lost – even more were pulled up during the early 1980s when ‘tea experts’ came to advise the villagers that ‘hedge type’ tea was much better than these old decrepit trees – but the price of puer tea began to recover. What’s more, as the borders reopened the tea merchants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia – all of whom had strong historical memories of the tea from the ‘six tea mountains’ of Sipsongpanna – returned searching for the fabled puer tea. The tea merchants, joined also by those from Guangdong and Fujian provinces, went to villages like Yiwu and Yibang and tracked down the remaining famous ‘tea houses’. The puer tea industry was reborn (but it also changed under the influence of an emerging eastern seaboard tea culture which I will document some other time; Dr Zhang Jinghong from Yunnan University has done some very fine work on this ‘transformation’).
In the 1990s the puer tea recovery became a boom. The price of puer tea suddenly skyrocketed and the Chinese media began to ‘stir up’ (炒作) puer tea driving the boom into a ‘puer tea frenzy’ (普洱茶热). Eventually the frenzy became a bubble. In 2007 the bubble burst. Puer tea has since then recovered, again, and is going strongly. But the ecological foundations of puer tea production are shaky. This is the background to my entry, with Ed, on the day we arrived in Yiwu. Yiwu sits at an elevation of 1,300 metres, perfect climate and altitude for growing the large leaf variety of tea. There are still many ancient tea trees in and around Yiwu. As noted already many were indeed lost during the Maoist period and first decade or so of reform. Either they were completely pulled out or bollarded. ‘Bollarded’ refers to the process in which a tall tree has its height significantly reduced by severing the trunk. The idea behind this was to make it easier to access the tea leaves (climbing high in the branches is dangerous and even in recent years tea pickers have died and been injured from falling out of the trees). Once the market for Puer tea recovered the ‘unmolested’ ancient tea trees turned out to have the highest value, followed by the bollarded trees (even though there is no real difference between tea from bollarded and unbollarded trees, it’s an ecological-aesthetic fetish), and then plantation-style hedge tea. The largest and tallest trees – some well over ten metres tall – tend to be in the most inaccessible mountain valleys – and hence evaded the axes – fetch the highest prices. Even from this brief overview we can begin to discern the aesthetics of puer tea, that is, the more remote, the more ‘natural and wild’ the higher the price. In the interviews Ed and I conducted in Yiwu and surrounding villages it was apparent that those farmers with the ‘remote, natural and wild’ tea trees regarded themselves as very fortunate, even though they complained about how bothersome it was to harvest the tea, not to mention dangerous.
The other factor in determining the price of puer tea is ‘geographical fame’, that is, those regions which have historically been renowned for their tea fetch higher prices even though in terms of actual quality there is little distinction between the best tea from one region when compared to another (this has resulted in the widespread practice of ‘fake place of origin branding’ by which tea from a less famous region is misleadingly branded as tea from a more famous region – hence always purchase your tea from a trustworthy vendor). In addition to Yiwu – by which I mean the actual town of Yiwu and the surrounding villages – the most famous tea production region we visited was Mansong (曼松). Mansong was reputedly the site of imperial tribute tea gardens (I say ‘reputedly’ at this stage until I can witness firmer historical evidence that this is the case. In all the hype around tea and cultural heritage I have learnt to be very cautious when addressing certain claims). We were informed that the spring tea of Mansong could fetch up to 6,000 yuan per kilo.
The actual ‘ancient’ town of Yiwu, which for a long time was the local seat of government, is still perched on the side of a hill. There are many traditional courtyard houses which are the homes of some of the most famous tea families in Yiwu. However as is the case all across China the wrecking balls of development are present, in this case mainly to ‘modernise’ the infrastructure so as to facilitate a larger influx of visitors and tourists in years to come. We spoke at length with the current head of the Che family, Mr Che. The Che family are one of the long established and famous tea families of Yiwu – five generations. Their claim to fame is a calligraphic engraving given to them by the Guangxu Emperor (pictured above). Mr Che explained that tea production in Yiwu was severely disrupted for much of the 20th Century. The first major downturn took place during the Japanese invasion of China’s southwest. The Japanese troops did not attack Yiwu directly (although Mr Che recollects that there were some Japanese planes flying overhead), but their presence nearby disrupted all trade. The Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and Communists that followed (1945-1949) was also not very conducive for getting trade restarted. Then after ‘liberation’ in 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, as noted above, puer tea production was not emphasised under the new ‘collective economy’. Individual farming families had to comply with production directives and were not at their own discretion. All the land and tea trees were collectivised. The price of puer tea was also set by the state at a very low and unattractive rate. The prevailing policy was to ‘plant grain as the mainstay’. This was part of Maoist efforts to raise grain production in China thereby enable China to ‘feed itself’. The situation for puer tea did not improve until the reform period began in 1978. So from approximately 1937 (the year of the full scale Japanese invasion of China) until 1978 puer tea production in Yiwu came to a virtual halt (and as noted above many tea trees were destroyed). Nearly 40 years – one entire generation. Indeed, Ed and I met a few people born during this period who had little direct knowledge of how to grow and produce puer tea. Fortunately, however, many of the old tea farmers were able to pass on their knowledge to the younger cohort once production was restarted.
Mr Che informed as that historically the tea was not pressed into the distinctive tea cakes in Yiwu (although there may have been some cases when this did happen). Instead, as was the common practice throughout the region, the tea in loose leaf form (毛茶) was sent via mule or ox caravans to Puer (then called ‘Simao’). Depending on conditions, whether or not there was warfare or banditry nearby for instance, the tea could also be transported to Southeast Asia (via Laos) from where it was then shipped to Guangdong, Fujian and Taiwan (following in the wake of what is now known as the ‘Maritime Silk Road’). Mr Che was also adamant that tea merchants from as far as Dali and Tibet did come to Yiwu to purchase tea prior to 1949.
The other important story behind the history of puer tea in Yiwu is of migration. When inquiring into the family origins of the tea farmers we interviewed we were surprised at the high number of households who said their ancestors came from the town of Shiping (石屏). For much of dynastic Chinese history the ruling authorities actually attempted to restrict the influx of Han Chinese migrants into certain border regions fearing that migration could lead to conflict between ‘old’ and ‘new’ families (as indeed it did on many occasions and is regarded as one of the major catalysts for the devastating Panthay Rebellion of 1856-1873). At other times the dynastic authorities also encouraged migration or even forced families to migrate to the border regions (for example, exile was a common form of punishment and many soldiers also brought their families with them). In recent years the process of migration has continued. This includes of course merchants who come to the towns to open general stores, hotels, restaurants and so on. Nothing surprising here. But it also includes large number of people, many from the Miao (苗族) ethnic group, who have been ‘forced’ to move from neighbouring prefectures (in this case mainly from Honghe) into Yiwu and surrounding regions. The migrating families are given small parcels of land – but no tea trees! – and some assistance in building very basic accommodation. This is part of a more common strategy in China to use migration as a form of poverty alleviation (异地移民). We were told by the locals that the new comers were generally quite welcome as they could now be employed in taking on basic agricultural tasks such as growing crops and raising pigs, activities the locals find to time consuming now that puer tea deserves their full attention. Unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to speak to any of the new migrants as this would have been seen as quite politically sensitive. Certainly a topic to persue in the future if circumstances are more obliging.
Ed and I walked for several days trying to use as much of the remnant ‘tea road’ as we could. Unfortunately not much remains. There is a good section from Yiwu to Mahei. But unfortunately much of the old road was neglected and pilfered for stones once the modern roads were built (a process beginning in the 1950s and still in progress in some places). We also discovered that rubber plantations had formed large monocultural zones. Walking through the forest and tea groves is pleasant, but trying to make your way through a rubber plantation is definitely not! But what is perhaps more disturbing is that a lot of chemical fertilizers are used in establishing rubber plantations. Inevitably the run off will find its way into the water table and the tea groves and plantations. We are seriously concerned that even the tea groves that claim to be one hundred percent organic may now be polluted by such run off, especially if rubber and tea are grown in close proximity (as we did indeed observe in a number of places).
We also visited the tea groves of Mansong (曼松). Mansong is the most famous and highly valued tea producing region that we passed through. In days gone by it was said to be officially designated as ‘Imperial Tribute Tea’. By this is meant that all of the best tea from Mansong was sent to the Emperor in Beijing as tribute. The officials in Beijing would then redistribute the Mansong tea as gifts throughout the empire. Of course as with all things these days it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. I’m still in the process of finding out more detail about Mansong suffice to say at this stage that it does seem that in 1735 (the Yongzheng period) the dynastic authorities order annual tribute of the best tea from Mansong (as recorded in the Puer Gazette). Of interest is the purchase of the original Mansong tea groves by a very large puer tea company that plans to turn the area into a five star tea resort and spa. We visited the site and spoke to some of the very friendly local foremen (it is at this stage a very rudimentary construction site). It contains approximately 400 ancient trees on 10,000 mu of land. One of the foremen complained that the Mansong tea was so famous that even to this day locals sneak in and steal the tea during the harvest season. He smiled and suggested that they will need to appoint guards just like the old days when it was an imperial tea garden.
We finished our fieldtrip and inspection in the historic tea town of Yibang (倚邦). After a full day trying to find the old trail into Yibang (our guide got lost and we had to cut our way through some thick forest and traverse quite a few steep hillsides) we finally arrived. Yibang is in a great location on top of a mountain ridge. It is still relatively ‘unspoilt’ as far as tourism is concerned. Indeed the road to Yibang was only completed a few years ago, and is just a dirt track (the sealed road will be coming in year or two). Yibang was once the seat of the local ethnic ruling clan (the ‘tusi’ (土司) in Chinese) who governed on behalf of the ruling Qing dynasty. Yibang was burnt to the ground on a number of occasions, the most recent – and still in historical memory – being in the 1930s during the Republican period (1927 – 1949). We were told that the local ethnic farmers joined forces to burn Yibang due to heavy taxation – a theme that resonates with poor farmers worldwide and throughout history.
Postscript: The heritage value of the ancient tea trees of Puer has recently been recognised by Chinese authorities. A number of puer tea relics and heritage sites, including an area containing hundreds of ancient trees, has been officially protected. Read about it here. A submission has also been made for these items to be recognised as World Heritage (UNESCO).