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Archive → October, 2015

Yunnan Tea and Life in the Slow Lane: An Interview with Ms Xia Xue

Ms Xia Xue

Ms Xia Xue (夏雪) is the President of the Yunnan Chamber of Tea Commerce (云南省茶叶商会). She is of Hui (回) descent and hails from the greater Kunming region. [image by Doug Smith, all other images by Gary Sigley]

The interview took place in Kunming in late September 2015. It was conducted in Chinese and translated here into English. Thanks to Gong He (Mark) for transcribing the original recording. The interview was conducted by yours truly, Gary Sigley.

 

  1. Ms Xia thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. When compared to tea from other regions of China what is special about Yunnan’s teas?

Xia: I know you have visited China’s other tea production areas and I’m sure you have seen with your own eyes the major differences between Yunnan and the rest of China. Firstly, the ecological environment in Yunnan is exceptional. Our ecological environment has been well preserved. Many tea areas in Yunnan continue traditional methods of cultivation and production that do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

Secondly, because Yunnan is situated at a high elevation [the average height of Yunnan is 1,980 metres, with basins near the Tibetan border at 3,000 metres and Mekong valley basins much lower at 600 metres; tea is typically grown at altitudes of 1,000 or so metres] and low latitude [the Tropic of Cancer passes through Yunnan] we have long periods of sunlight. Thirdly, our kind of tea tree is the large leaf variety [Camellia sinensis assamica] which contains many elements not found in the small leaf variety [Camellia sinensis sinensis].

In summary, the first is the ecological environment, the second is sunlight and the third is the internal elements that collectively determine how Yunnan’s teas are different to those from other parts of China. But two more things need to be added. Firstly, the large leaf tea variety in Yunnan is most well known for being processed into puer tea, but it also can be processed into any other forms of tea, such as green, yellow, white, dark and even wulong (oolong). By contrast the small leaf variety cannot be made into a puer tea. Secondly, Yunnan is the region where humans first began to harvest and cultivate tea. This makes Yunnan tea extra special in my opinion.

Left: Gary with a 400 year old tea tree. Right: A more typical tea plantation. The former exists in a natural ecological environment whilst the latter depends on modern pesticides and fertilisers.

Left: Gary with a 400 year old tea tree. Right: A more typical tea plantation. The former exists in a natural ecological environment whilst the latter depends on modern pesticides and fertilisers.

 

  1. In your judgement what is the current state of the Yunnan tea industry? What direction is it headed in? What are its major challenges?

Xia: Regarding the current state of the Yunnan tea industry I can’t but help feeling a bit concerned and unsatisfied. My major concerns are that government policies are not as supportive as they could be, and that the overall direction of the market – where there are a lot of unscrupulous providers of low quality and fake tea – is not very encouraging. So it is left to us tea entrepreneurs and our chamber of commerce to do what we can and this is very difficult.

With a large area under cultivation and difficulties in getting our product to the right market channels we are confronted by a bottleneck. Our marketing remains weak. Even within China, which is the home of tea, puer tea is not well known. This situation has turned around over the last decade as people seek out more ecological products, such as puer tea, but this has in turn generated high demand for tea from certain regions [such as the villages of Laobanzhang and Bingdao] leading to very exaggerated prices. The market is therefore not very mature.

What’s more the quality assurance process also has some issues. In fact the process is somewhat chaotic! As I already mentioned, there are a lot of low quality teas masquerading as high quality teas. Some suppliers change the place of origin to match those areas of high demand and high prices. This in turn leads the consumer to feel very wary and uncertain as to how to access quality tea.

Nonetheless the overall outlook is positive. We have a very good product that is itself of excellent quality, that is good for one’s health and that over time becomes an essential part of your daily life. Ironically, in China at present with so much concern about food safety our product – given the ecological conditions – has very good prospects for tea drinkers. We just need to address some of the concerns I have mentioned here. In response to these challenges we hope the government will step up and give more direction and guidance, especially with regards to setting up more effective quality assurance mechanisms to protect the true ecological puer tea. We also need to consider how to more effectively promote puer tea, especially to a younger generation of tea drinkers.

Pot and cup

Is your tea actually what it claims to be? Best to purchase from a reputable supplier.

 

  1. Now that you mention young tea drinkers, if you look at places like Shanghai it seems that coffee has made big inroads and become the most fashionable beverage. Tea, by contrast, appears a bit out of step with modern trends. How can you make tea more appealing to the younger generation?

Xia: I think the answer to this question should be twofold. On the one hand it should be approached in terms of consciousness and conceptualisation. On the other hand are the issues of convenience and speed. Young people in China are undoubtedly much more exposed to Western modes of living which these days has a lot of fashionable appeal. We also live in a society with a fast pace of life in which people seek out that which is convenient and speedy.

I would say in response that China’s tea culture has very deep roots, several thousand years in fact. There is a solid foundation but it goes back to the issue of finding the right marketing and promotion channels. In terms of convenience we can consider further developing more convenient ways to consume puer tea such as this [at this moment Ms Xia raised up a small puer ‘tea drop’ about the size of a thimble wrapped in paper which the consumer can simple place in a cup or pot].

 

4: I think that the media in this regard performs an extremely important function. Take coffee for example. Those coffee companies, and other foreign beverage companies that are also in the soft drink and tea business, are part of very large multinational corporations with deep pockets and a lot of marketing experience. By comparison Chinese tea doesn’t have a single entity that can compete on this level [hence the importance of support from the government to meet this challenge]. [on this and other related points see my article ‘Towards a Manifesto for the Slow Tea Movement’]. How do you see it?

Xia: Yes, I agree with you, this is something our organisation is going to focus on in coming years. Only with government support and the unifying of our forces can we get the scale required to meet the challenge. At present in Yunnan the tea industry is segmented with each company, large and small, doing its own thing. So we have a lot of work to do to create a platform that will attract the interest of young people. This will be the focus of our 2016 Work Report to be submitted to the Yunnan Provincial Government.

 

  1. Sociability is a key characteristic of China’s tea culture and it seems to fit well with the various notions of ‘go slow’ [e.g. slow food, slow travel, slow living, etc] that have become fashionable in some circles. Young people are attracted to a faster pace of life but I reckon once they get to a certain stage they will want to slow down. At this point tea can come into its own. Do you agree?

Xia: The way I see it at this moment in time the tea consumers consist of a key group with money and leisure. Firstly, when they have reached a certain point they have accumulated some wealth, but more importantly they have time for leisure and are seeking to sit down and use tea to attain a kind of stillness. Coffee by contrast is too much of a stimulant to serve this purpose. Tea also has a long standing role in this regard in relation to its close interactions with Zen Buddhism a connection well understood in China through the notion of ‘Tea and Zen are One’ [茶禅一味].

Bulang Village Collage

A Bulang village in Menghai, Sipsongbanna, Yunnan. The Bulang are one of the earliest ethnic groups to drink tea. Pictured here is the ‘purest’ way to brew tea with fresh and unprocessed tea leaves.

 

  1. Given that Yunnan is China most ethnically diverse province, and indeed one of the most ethnically diverse regions on earth, what can you tell us about the significance of tea culture for Yunnan’s ethnic minorities?

Xia: The importance of tea to many of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities cannot be underestimated. It was the ethnic people in this region that first discovered the virtues of tea and began its cultivation. For that we should be eternally grateful and respectful. Tea has thus been an integral part of many local cultures and traditions for hundreds if not thousands of years. Indeed, with the development of the tea trading routes [also known as The Ancient Tea Horse Road on which refer to this link] it could be argued that tea played a crucial role in sustaining the sharing of cultures and ideas between the people of Southwest China and beyond.

With regards to the contemporary period, tea is also an integral part of the ‘green economy’. With the strong growth of the tea market in recent years many ethnic minority regions have experienced strong economic growth and the raising of living standards. This is a good thing but also can bring with it some challenges and problems if the principles of sustainability and ecological protection are jeopardised for the sake of financial gain [as noted above]. Hence this is why the government has enacted laws to protect Yunnan’s ancient tea trees and encourage the creation of cooperatives and knowledge exchange among tea farmers to promote best practice. The government and tea industry is also supporting economic development in neighbouring countries such as Myanmar where some ethnic groups have come to depend on the cultivation of opium. In these areas we are helping local communities switch to tea cultivation in the hope that the cycle of drug production and the harm it does to both the locals and others can be broken.

In conclusion I would say that tea is the greatest contribution China’s ethnic minorities have made to human civilisation and I sincerely hope more foreigners will be aware of this important part of our collective history. Thank you Gary for your efforts to promote a deeper knowledge to a foreign audience.

Tea Fossil Collage

‘Tea fossils’ discovered in Jinggu County, Puer, Yunnan.