On the 1st April 2014 – and this is definitely not an April Fool’s joke – the President of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party – Mr Xi Jinping, gave a speech in Brussels in which he contrasted the cultures of the West and China by comparing the former to wine and the latter to tea. President Xi’s purpose seems to have been to note the different cultural and political traditions in East and West and figured that, in the case of China, nothing better than tea could highlight the unique features of Chinese sociability. The West, he was reported as saying, celebrates friendship and important occasions with wine, whereas in China tea has been the beverage of choice. The President’s choice of tea for China is somewhat disingenuous as we all know that wine in Chinese culture has also lubricated many a festive occasion, indeed some of China’s greatest poets did their best work ‘under the influence’. But we get the point and there is no point pursuing the matter any further (not here at least), suffice to say that in my opinion East and West can both be characterised as ‘tea cultures’, albeit with different connotations and nuances. Western style wine is just making its mark in China whereas tea, by contrast, has shaped the interactions of China and ‘the rest’ for well over a thousand years.
To learn more about the true nature of tea in world history we are well advised, of course, to turn to the expert opinion of those who devote their lives to its study, and invariably if he or she is wise enough, to its consumption. In this blog I have previously provided transcripts of interviews with some of contemporary China’s most influential tea and tea culture scholars, notably, Professors Mu Jihong and Shen Dongmei. Today it is my pleasure to share with you the abbreviated transcript of an interview with Zhou Chonglin. I met Chonglin several years ago when I commenced my research on Southwest China’s ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. At that time he was working closely with Professor Mu Jihong in the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute’ at Yunnan University. We had long discussions, many cups of tea, and a few memorable (sic!) bouts with Chinese wine. Chonglin introduced me to the world of the young Chinese scholar. It was so refreshing and enlightening to meet someone so passionate about their research and, of course, about tea and China. Chonglin published the book The Tea War in 2012. The book, which is a reassessment of the Opium War (1840) through the lens of tea, was a huge success and catapulted Chonglin onto the national stage. To put this in context we need to understand that as China is rising there is much discussion about the nature of cultural change, and what kind of ‘culture’ China needs to develop in the 21st Century. Of course the role of ‘traditional culture’ in this scheme of things is very important. In Chonglin’s case the question is what is the role and place of tea in Chinese culture and society? As you shall see in the interview below there is much more to this than just the pleasant feeling you get when drinking quality tea in aesthetic surrounds with your friends – it also speaks to the anxiety many people have in China, and around the world, about the pace of change and the disruption modernity brings to our daily lives. Personally I detect here the beginnings of a great work on political economy that takes tea and its production, distribution, branding and consumption as its focus. More on this in the future.
Most recently Chonglin, along with support from the Chinese tea industry and research community, has established an organisation aimed at promoting the development of Chinese tea in China. The movement – as they refer to such things in China – is called ‘The Tea Revival’ (茶叶复兴). I like to think of it as a movement dedicated to ‘reviving China through tea’. One of the great ironies of China’s engagement with the West since the so-called ‘Opium Trade’ (in which, to put it crudely, the British traded opium from India for Chinese tea) is that now, as the Chinese economy is opening to the outside world, that the company with the largest market retail for tea in China is Liptons. This represents a humiliating slap in the face to the Chinese tea industry. It is also a reminder that as China embraces global capitalism it will have to think quite creatively about how to protect and promote its own industries, including tea, in the face of multinational behemoths that have almost unlimited resources and decades of experience in market competition. A lot more could be said on this front but let’s ask Chonglin to do the talking for now.
Just a few quick words about Zhou Chonglin’s background. Chonglin is from Yunnan Province, a native of Shizong (师宗) in eastern Yunnan near the border of Guangxi and Guizhou. He attended the Chinese Faculty at Yunnan University. Upon graduation he was a journalist in Beijing for one year whereupon he returned to Yunnan. Since then he has been intimately involved in all things tea-related. His books include The Tea War and The Tea Secret. He is a Research Fellow in the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute at Yunnan University, and one of the Founders and Directors of the ‘[China] Tea Revival Movement’ In 2013 he was nominated by an influential Chinese magazine as one of the young and upcoming people to keep an eye on. He is in his 30s and is the recent proud father of a baby girl.
Note: The interview was conducted in Chinese and has been translated into English by yours truly. The text has been back-translated into Chinese and be found here.
1. I know that tea has always featured strongly in your life since the day you were born. What are your earliest recollections concerning tea?
I started drinking tea when I was just a child, but it wasn’t a regular daily habit at that time. Nonetheless the stage was set for tea to become a lot more central to my life later on. My most vivid recollection is the holding of the ritual offering ceremonies to the family ancestors. My father would get the tea ready for the offering. The everyday ritual items and food were always the very vest we could offer, and tea and alcohol couldn’t of course be forgotten. I remember that there were always people who aren’t tea drinkers but needed it for the ritual offering – they would come around to our house to ‘borrow’ some tea. Hence it is clear that the ritual offering couldn’t be done without tea. The fact that in our lives tea occupies such a very important position is thus one of the deepest motivations for me to do tea culture research.
2. Why did you decide to write The Tea War (《茶叶战争》)?
There has been a consistent position in the Chinese tea and cultural worlds, that is, to describe the Opium War (1840) as a tea war. Of course evidence was needed to make the argument stronger. It was only later that I learned that in Western academia the Opium War was also highly controversial. I spent several years looking for the evidence and during the 2012 European Cup wrote the manuscript in one hit.
3. What has been the reaction of the reading public to The Tea War?
Within one year the book sold several ten thousand copies when it was published on the mainland. It was well reviewed in the media and won numerous book awards. It was also very well received when it was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many said such an influential book in the tea history field had not been seen for many years. As a result I received many invitations, went on television, and gave countless lectures. In fact the book is still generating interest. So The Tea War has certainly put me in the spotlight. I couldn’t have imagined the success and popularity of this book, especially since the style is a bit bookish. I wrote it without the intention of it being a popular-type book. So I’m very satisfied and honoured by the success.
4. Please speak to us a bit about the ‘Tea Revival’ project. What is the idea behind it? What are its objectives? And what form does it take?
China has been studying the West for over a hundred years. China’s GDP is now ranked number two in the world. But people still aren’t satisfied or happy because the environment is polluted and the villages are disappearing. We studied and adopted parts of the Western style of economic development, but China hasn’t adopted the Western political system or yet developed a good system of social welfare. Scholars like me need to eliminate the anxiety that modernity brings and concentrate on reviving traditional culture, and bring out the beautiful things in life, and thereby let people live a life of security and dignity. In China all the people in the tea business are very idealistic and spirited, with the finest tea vessels, ceremonial attire, mountain tea, pure spring water, and fine fellow travelers with who to chat; it’s an exciting and stimulating field to work in with many pleasures along the way.
Since I started the Tea Revival Movement I’ve encountered many like-minded people who are concerned about China and hope that tea’s traditional core role in daily life can be re-established. So this is our goal and for which we are developing programs and activities. For instance, we have launched a ‘Chinese style afternoon tea’, the purpose of which is to let more people understand and appreciate the place of tea in Chinese culture. We are utilising social networking platforms such as WeChat to spead our message and it has proven to be very effective.
5. What is the biggest challenge facing the Chinese tea industry?
Firstly, there is no strong and competitive brand; if you add up the entire Chinese tea industry it still falls short of the size and sophistication of Liptons, one single English company.
Secondly, value adding in the industry is underdeveloped and the tea industry is still primarily agricultural in orientation. In this connection there is also insufficient participation of scientific research and innovation.
Thirdly, the consumption base of tea has been significantly disrupted. The consumption of tea in China has in modern times been disrupted several times. For a time tea was replaced by opium and tobacco; later it was ideological objections to the drinking of tea – as it was seen as a petit-bourgeois pleasure during the 1960s and 1970s – that put restrictions on the aesthetic consumption of tea. After the launch of ‘reform and openness’ in the late 1970s coffee and soft-drinks – such as Starbucks and Coca-Cola – poured into the Chinese market; not to mention the competition from an experienced multinational player such as Liptons. As a result the Chinese tea industry has been unable to react effectively. Nowadays the ‘teahouse’ is synonymous with a place for senior citizens to play mahjong; not a very attractive environment for young Chinese. We are trying to the fortunes of tea around and make it more attractive for young people.
6. In light of the above, how has Chinese tea culture developed in recent years? What are the main trends?
In recent years, due to the support from the Yunnan puer tea folks, the Fujian ‘iron buddha’ (铁观音) and black tea producers, the lifeblood is being slowly pumped back into the Chinese tea industry. The number of tea consumers in China has also significantly increased in recent years. As the tea industry revives research on Chinese tea culture has also picked up. By 2006 in Yunnan alone there were at least ten tea journals and over one hundred tea-related books published. Hence the visibility of tea in the media has improved considerably. Furthermore, in 2013 the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ was officially recognised by the Central Government as ‘China National Cultural Heritage’ (国家文物保护单位). China Central Television (CCTV) produced and broadcast two well-received documentaries on tea. So tea continues to increase in visibility and is becoming a source of cultural pride for more and more Chinese people.
7. What do you mean by ‘tea life’ (茶生活)? What relationship does it have we the so-called ‘slow movement’?
‘Tea life’ means to take tea as a central part of life. It could be as routine as part of the list of essential daily necessities in Chinese family life, that is, ‘fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea’ (柴米油盐酱醋茶); or it could be part of the more aesthetically refined notion of ‘music, chess, books, art, wine and tea’. No matter whether ‘ordinary’ or ‘refined’ both of these include tea as an essential element. And both note ‘slow time’ as a core platform.
Indeed the traditional Chinese life-style is characterised by ‘slow time’, such as ‘kungfu tea’ (功夫茶). In Chinese ‘kungfu’ actually means to ‘consume time’. ‘Slow time’, not surprisingly, can be found in the ‘less developed’ regions of China such as Yunnan. I was raised in this kind of ‘slow time’. Part of our agenda is to help people rediscover the importance of ‘slow time’ through the social consumption of tea. [note: this fits well with my own position towards the ‘slow tea movement’ for which I have written a manifesto on this blog].
8. What message would you like to directly convey to a foreign audience?
If foreigners are interested in Chinese culture they can discover an ‘interesting China’ in tea culture. Tea in traditional Chinese culture – including the important elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism – was developed into a spiritually refined beverage and art of consumption. Just as I noted at the beginning of this interview, tea is still an important ritual item for Chinese to pay respects to their ancestors. In these times of a changing China, out of the three commodities that once made China famous and powerful – silk, porcelain, and tea – only tea remains in any significant way. China has much more than just ‘fake products’, it also has something as beautiful and refined as tea. I encourage our foreign friends to discover the ‘real China’ through tea.
Walking the Ancient Tea Horse Road: The Rise of the Outdoors and China’s First Long Distance Branded Hiking Trail
We are well into the first semester of teaching here in Australia. The search for MH370 continues not too far away from Perth. A tragedy indeed but it has certainly put ‘Perth’ (珀斯) on the map in China. My research and other duties continue also, although perhaps not at the pace I would like. I was fortunate enough, however, to be able to travel to Yunnan recently to conduct further fieldwork on the rise of ecotourism and lifestyle migration. The latter is emerging as quite a fruitful project as I make contact with Chinese and foreigners who have relocated from the polluted and congested cities of the eastern coast to the blue skies and more relaxed lifestyle of places like Dali and Lijiang. Stories in the Western media on this subject are now becoming regular – such as this recent report in The New York Times. With a focus on the trendy and chic lifestyle migrants – or ‘mountain changers’ as I refer to them – these reports miss the point that there are many migrants engaged in much more mundane work who don’t have the luxury to spend time sipping coffee in some trendy cafe. Some of the locals are also now complaining that the mountain changers are bringing the congestion and pollution with them. In China almost everything comes back to scale. I hope to have more to say on this matter later in the year. On my way back to Australia I went via Canberra and gave a seminar on my research on the cultural politics of the Ancient Tea Horse Road at the Australian Centre for China in the World. I think it was well received, certainly the hosts were very kind. Thanks to all who attended and gave feedback. You can read a summary of the seminar here: CiW Centre Sigley Seminar 2014. Also good to catch up with friends in family in ‘Canbra’.
Whilst in Yunnan I paid a special visit to the Departments of Culture and Nature Conservation in Baoshan. I’ve described Baoshan on a previous blog which you can access here. You can see where Baoshan is on Google Maps here. The main outcome from this trip is that Baoshan has agreed to be the host of the next ‘Australia, China and the Great Outdoors Forum’ (Forum 2014). Forum 2014 is scheduled for November and promises to be bigger and better than the inaugural forum (‘workshop’) held at The University of Western Australia last September 2013 (you can read the full report on that event here). This event will also include a site visit to a nearby trail. The site, most likely to be the ancient road crossing the Gaoligong Mountains (part of the Gaoligong Mountains Nature Reserve) from Baoshan to Tengchong, will hopefully become a pilot project for promoting sustainable hiking with an emphasis on ‘leave no trace’ principles and grass-roots community participation. More details will be forthcoming in due course so stay tuned.
As an outcome of the previous forum and to stimulate further discussion, Ed Jocelyn and I have drafted a discussion paper on the feasibility of developing China’s first branded hiking trail. You can access the discussion paper here: China Hiking Trail Discussion Paperion Paper – Jocelyn and Sigley 2014. The discussion paper proposes to use a ‘brand’ such as the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (or possibly the ‘Southern Silk Road’) as a means to create a well managed and sustainable trail experience. Feedback and comments welcome. We are also seeking sponsors to assist with the Forum 2014 and the Test Pilot Project. Contact me directly if you’re interested. A more formal ‘call for sponsors’ along with a draft forum program will be issued in the coming weeks.
In the near future I will upload an interesting interview with Mr Zhou Chonglin (周重林), a Yunnanese based author of several books on tea and history, who is currently heading up a special project to ‘revitalise the [Chinese] tea industry’ (茶叶复兴). It’s quite an illuminating discussion of recent social trends in China and the role tea is taking in discussions around coping with the demands of modern society.
“It is a gentle art; know how to tramp and you know how to live. Manners makyth man [sic], and tramping makyth manners. Know how to meet your fellow-wanderer, how to be passive in the beauty of Nature and to be active to its wildness and its rigour. Tramping brings one to reality.” Stephen Graham, 1926, The Gentle Art of Tramping.
(note: all the images in this blogpost were taken by the author unless otherwise noted).
As we enter 2014 I find myself on the back foot with a number of 2013 tasks still waiting resolution. Usually at this time of year I would be in Yunnan conducting fieldwork and in time providing you with updates. Unfortunately due to circumstances beyond my control I’ve had to stay put in Australia this southern hemisphere summer (although on a more positive front I’ve been able to catch up on a lot of academic writing and reading, and took the time to connect with friends and family in beautiful Queensland). So in lieu of anything too exotic I will instead share with you the outcomes of a major workshop I had the pleasure of coordinating with Ed Jocelyn and Warwick Powell. This is actually quite big news, for us anyway, which we hope from small beginnings will in due course grow to become something much more substantial and leave a long lasting legacy.
On Friday 27th September 2013 the workshop on ‘Australia, China and the Great Outdoors: Leadership, Best Practice, and the Future of Outdoor Leisure and Ecotourism’ was held in Perth at The University of Western Australia. As far as I’m aware this is the first international workshop with an exclusive Austraila/China focus to explore such themes. Workshop participants came from a number of Australian and Chinese universities, including The University of Western Australia, Murdoch University, Griffith University, Althena University (Tainan, Taiwan) and the Southwest Forestry University (Yunnan, China). There were also representatives from the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife, the Bibbulmun Track Foundation and Leave No Trace Australia. The commercial sector was represented by commercial ecotourism providers from Southwest China (Redrock Treks and Zouba Tours) and Southwest Western Australia (Out of Sight Tours). Last but not least the workshop also benefited from participants from grass-roots walking clubs in both Western Australia and China. Thanks to all the participants for taking the time to attend and giving valuable contributions. Maya, one of the participants from Shenzhen, China, has written an extensive report (in Chinese) on the event (the report, running for six pages and containing many comments from other Chinese outdoor enthusiasts, contains many images so even without Chinese language skills you have an idea of what was going on).
Together we explored the many challenges facing outdoor tourism in Australia and China. As a more developed nation with decades of experience in managing ‘the outdoors’, Australia has a great deal to share with China in this field. Hopefully China can avoid mistakes in this area by studying the experiences of other countries. Australia can also benefit in the long term by attempting to better understand the mindset and habits of Chinese hikers, a potential large source of inbound ecotourists. These two themes – sharing world’s best practice and exploring the possibilities of getting Chinese outdoor enthusiasts to Australia – were the main workshop objectives.
Outdoor tourism and leisure pursuits include the vast array of outdoor activities such as rafting, climbing, skiing and so on, but for the present the focus of our efforts is mainly on hiking and related nature-based tourism (the latter is important for people who cannot for whatever reason take to the trails on their own two feet; accessibility for all ages and levels of fitness needs to be acknowledged). Hiking has really taken off in China in the last decade. I have introduced the Chinese hikers – known in Chinese as ‘donkey friends’ (lvyou 驴友) in another blogpost. To reiterate, as China becomes more affluent and as the domestic transport infrastructure develops – thereby making ‘nature’ more readily accessible – the number of people seeking to escape the city for respite in the countryside and more remote regions is growing rapidly. As with anything that happens in China it all comes back to scale. Even just a small growth in the numbers of people hitting the trails actually amounts to a significant number of hikers. It is difficult to get accurate figures – at this point in time Chinese researchers and government authorities haven’t paid too much attention to this sector – but from personal observation and discussion with other researchers and outdoor enthusiasts the impact of hiking activity on China’s trails is quite notable. Chinese hikers, often coming together in grass-roots hiking clubs (itself an important part of the growth of Chinese ‘civil society’ and ‘associational life’), share information about hiking destinations through the internet and social media. With the ease of information sharing in this digital age, a trail that may in one year attract only a handful of ‘donkey friends’ can within the space of several months suddenly be inundated with hundreds of hikers looking for the ‘next big thing’. Local government and communities where hiking takes place often do not have the expertise and time to respond effectively to a sudden influx of hikers. The result is that many popular trails in China are experiencing significant trail degradation and waste management issues (as Ed and I reported on the trail over the Gaoligong Mountain range, part of China’s ancient ‘Southern Silk Road’).
With these trends in mind a highlight of the workshop was the six day post-workshop tour of Western Australia’s ecotourism resources. With assistance from our sponsors and support from the Great Southern Development Commission, Ed and myself took our ‘donkey friend’ visitors from China on a special guided study tour. In addition to visiting some of the key ecotourism features of this region we also hiked for four days on the Bibbulmun Track. The discussions and interactions amongst ourselves and with the other hikers and track maintenance volunteers we encountered along the way were worth their weight in gold. Our Chinese colleagues seemed to be very impressed and inspired by the high quality of the trail and infrastructure provided, not to mention the hospitality of the locals (many thanks again to Lenore and David of Out of Sight Tours). Upon returning to Perth we also spent some time talking to staff in the Bibbulmun Track office and learned more about how it operates. Many thanks to Gwen for giving us the ‘guided tour’. Our Chinese visitors walked away with lots of food for thought.
If you haven’t worked it out yet the outdoor research stream does in fact coincide at certain points with my strong interest in the Ancient Tea Horse Road, namely, with the proposal to put hikers, whether Chinese or otherwise, on the ancient pathways of Southwest China and work towards establishing China’s first long distance and well managed hiking trail. I have already published one paper on this subject with an emphasis on the benefits of hiking and outdoor tourism for community development in poor mountainous regions of China’s Southwest. You can read it here (in Chinese). Ed and I have also co-authored a paper in English on the subject which we hope will be published soon. So in order to keep the fires burning we have decided to upgrade the ‘workshop’ to a ‘forum’ and make it an annual event. We anticipate that the next ‘forum’ will take place somewhere in Yunnan in the latter half of 2014. Stay tuned for more news. Please contact me directly if you’re interested in participating, and more importantly, sponsoring this event.
Speaking of sponsors, the workshop could not have materialised without their generous support, namely, Osprey China and Peak Adventure Travel. The University of Western Australia, and in particular the Faculty of Arts, UWA Sport and Recreation and Institute of Advanced Studies, also provided cash, facilities and expertise. I would also like, once again, to single out my co-coordinators Ed Jocelyn and Warwick Powell. Special thanks also to the many others who provided encouragement and hands-on support on the day. The Great Southern Development Commission and Mr Bruce Manning were also particularly helpful when it came to organising the tour of outdoor tourism resources in Western Australia’s southwest and we are forever in their debt.
And yet for me, and for many others I’m sure, the most valuable thing to come out of this event was the friendship and comradery. Hiking, or ‘tramping’ as Stephen Graham calls it in the opening quotation to this blogpost, is an activity which transcends gender, class, ethnicity and age (in terms of the last category we met one lone gentleman hiker on the trail who was seventy years old!). Through our common passion for the outdoors we open our hearts to our ‘fellow-wanderers’. What better ailment in this crazy world full of hate and animosity than to make long-lasting bonds with people from other cultures through sharing the joys, and challenges, of the trail? We are all but pilgrims in life’s journey, but we only get reminded of this fact when out of our element and forced to confront the enormity of Nature, the single thing that binds us all together on planet earth. To quote once more from Stephen Graham: “Tramping is a way of approach, to Nature, to your fellow-man[woman], to a nation, to a foreign nation, to beauty, to life itself”.
Hikers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but stress (and weight!), you have a world of smiles and comradeship to win! Nature is awesome! Let’s keep it that way!
Several months have elapsed since my last post. Avid readers of this blog have been wondering if I finally retreated to that hermit cave I’m always talking about. Alas no, I’m still firmly in samsara enjoying the worldly delights and suffering from the quotidian pitfalls of being human. The last few months have been extremely hectic. One of the main preoccupations has of course been teaching. But I have also been very active on the research front, most notably with the holding of the inaugural ‘Australia-China and the Great Outdoors Forum’ at the end of September. This is part of my ongoing collaborative research on China’s emerging outdoor tourism and lifestyle sector, and my first real foray as an activist to hopefully leave behind a legacy of not only words but also interventions that will positively shape the appreciation and preservation of China’s own ‘great outdoors’. A full report on the workshop and our plans for the future will be forthcoming in a few weeks. Very exciting indeed.
As I write this post I’m in Auckland, New Zealand, where I have just attended a special event hosted by the Confucius Institute at The University of Auckland. The event was the inaugural ‘Oceania Forum: China in Change’. I gave a presentation exploring the role of tea in Chinese culture and the potential tea culture itself contains in terms of forging understanding and connections between China and the rest of the world. It was a very valuable opportunity to put my thoughts on this subject matter into more explicit shape and share them with a responsive audience. Many thanks to the team in Auckland.
In today’s post I’m delighted to share with you extracts from an interview with Professor Shen Dongmei (沈冬梅教授). Professor Shen is a researcher in the Center for Historical Research at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社科院). Her area of expertise is the history of tea in China, and in particular the Tang (618 – 907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) dynasties. Professor Shen was responsible for providing the interpretive content of the China National Tea Museum nestled in the World Heritage listed tea fields of Hangzhou. Professor Shen hails from the historic city of Yangzhou (a once busy Jiangsu port on the Grand Canal and major centre for the distribution of tea). She completed her undergraduate studies on ancient Chinese history at Shandong University and her doctoral studies at Hangzhou University (now part of Zhejiang University) under the supervision of the eminent tea historian Professor Liang Taiji (梁太济教授). The interview was conducted in Beijing on the 25th of July 2013. The interview was in Chinese Mandarin and has been translated by yours truly (I take full responsibility for any errors).
Q: Professor Shen thank you very much for accepting this interview. Some of the questions are of a more technical nature and relate to my own interests in the history of tea. But most of the questions have been devised with a few to satisfying the curiosity of the general tea enthusiast. To get us started when did the character for ‘tea’ (cha 茶) first appear in the Chinese historical record?
A: This is difficult to pinpoint accurately, but most experts agree that the first reference to tea can be found in the Classic of Poems (诗经) [a collection of over three hundred poems said to be compiled by Confucius (551–479 BC) from poems that predate his era by many centuries]. It was probably compiled by different persons between the 10th and 7th centuries BC. There is a character in the collection which is today pronounced ‘tu’ (荼). It looks like the character for ‘tea’ (茶) but with one additional horizontal stroke. This character can also be pronounced as ‘cha’ (tea). Some experts don’t agree, but in my view the evidence is quite strong in favour of ‘tu’ meaning ‘cha’. It was common in ancient China for one character to be used to indicate a number of different objects. Only later as the script became more sophisticated did more object specific characters emerge.
Q: During the time of Confucius, when many experts believe the Classic of Poems was compiled, was tea drinking already a popular past-time?
A: The current archaeological and historical evidence does not indicate that tea was popular at that time. It was not until a few hundred years later during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) that we find tea readily available for purchase in the market, thus giving some indication of its development as a commodity. In regards to the archaeological evidence there have been some discoveries in recent years that warrant mention. Most significantly is the 2004 discovery at the prehistoric site of Yuyao Tianluoshan (余姚田螺山) [near the historic tea port of Ningbo in present-day Zhejiang Province; you can see where Yuyao is located on Google Maps here]. At this prehistoric settlement the experts discovered remnants of plants belonging to the Theaceae family, which includes the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). The remnants, planted in obvious rows, have been dated to 6,000 years ago (4000 BC). The plants it seems were purposely being cultivated. We cannot yet say definitively that these are tea plants but it seems very likely. If so, it pushes the human cultivation of ‘tea’ back 4,000 years.
Q: Have the experts come to any conclusions as to where the original plants may have come from?
A: It is believed that they came from the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Palaeobotanists believe many plants in use in China came from this region, including tea. A vast number of the world’s Theaceae are found in this region.
Q: In our contemporary times we often think of tea as associated with the ‘way of tea’ (茶道). In China when was the ‘way of tea’ first mentioned?
A: This is also difficult to pinpoint and somewhat controversial. ‘The way of tea’ was first mentioned in a poem by the Tang dynasty Buddhist poet Jiao Ran (皎然) (730-799 AD?) [who incidentally also hails from Zhejiang], a contemporary and friend of the famous ‘Patron Saint of Tea’ Lu Yu (陆羽). Jiao Ran, a famous ‘monk poet’ (诗僧), was a bit older than Lu Yu and appears to have had a very strong influence over him. But his use of ‘the way of tea’ (茶道) is different from the contemporary Chinese usage of the term which these days implies something closer to ‘the art of tea’ (茶艺). This can cause some confusion because when in Japanese they talk about ‘the way of tea’ (茶道) they basically mean the same thing as ‘the art of tea’ (茶艺). When the Japanese refer to calligraphy [which in Chinese is shufa 书法] they say ‘shudao’ (书道); when they refer to ‘martial arts’ they say ‘wushidao’ (武士道) [which in Chinese is ‘wushu’ (武术)]. So we have to be careful not to impose our more contemporary notion of ‘chadao’ (茶道) [‘the way of tea’] – which in China nowadays has also become fashionable and is derivative of the Japanese meaning – onto the ‘茶道’ of Jiao Ran’s time of the Tang Dynasty. In my view Jiao Ran was talking about the benefits to the body of drinking tea and not the aesthetics of tea drinking itself [note that other Chinese historians disagree with Professor Shen’s position and regard Jiao Ran as the founder of ‘the way of tea’ itself].
So therefore we need to return to Lu Yu’s Tea Classic (茶经) which although doesn’t use the term ‘茶道’ nonetheless contains the essential elements of what we associate with that term, and of ‘茶艺’. The Tea Classic was written during the period 760 to 780 AD. Firstly, Lu Yu describes a complete collection of tea utensils and apparatus. Secondly, he provides detailed instructions on how to prepare, make and appreciate the tea, right from the selection of the tea, the use of quality water, the brewing of the tea, and so on. Thirdly, he also provides commentary on how to judge the aesthetic experience of tea consumption, including both its preparation and its consumption. And finally, he stresses that the consumption of tea also embodies certain mainstream social values of harmony and peace. So we could say that the notion of ‘the way of tea’ emerges at this time even though the Chinese characters ‘chadao’ (茶道) were not in vogue in the way they are in the present.
Q: In what ways is tea associated with some of the foundational theories and philosophies of Chinese culture, such as cosmology, medicine, and so on?
A: The most obvious is the relationship with Chinese medicine. Tea from the outset was classified as a herbal medicine [there are a number of ‘tea creation myths’ in both Han and non-Han cultures and I will return to examine these in a future posting]. Humans have been gathering plants for nourishment and medicine since time immemorial. In the prehistoric Hemudu (河姆渡) site [located in the vicinity of Yuyao mentioned above, but predating Yuyao by another 1,000 years, that is, about 5000 BC] they have discovered large piles of Chinese cassia leaves. These leaves are recorded in Chinese pharmacopeias’ as having the virtue of treating stomach ailments. One thousand years later in Yuyao we find a variety of the camellia – which we suspect to be tea – also long valued for its medicinal properties. To this day tea is still regarded by many Chinese people as having positive health effects and, as I mentioned above, modern science is beginning to support some of these notions.
Q: So at the time of the Tang Dynasty, when Buddhism was flourishing, tea also was reaching new heights. What is the relationship, then, between Buddhism and tea?
A: During the Tang Dynasty Buddhism was undergoing a major process of indigenisation, best captured in the development of China’s unique form of Buddhism: the Chan School (禅道) [more popularly known in English by its Japanese rendition of ‘Zen’]. One of Chan Buddhism’s important roles was to assist in the spread of tea drinking and tea culture to areas it had not yet penetrated, especially in northern China. Tea drinking was already a major part of Chan Buddhism. We know that as a rule the monks cannot take meals after midday (过午不食). Hence in order to keep alert for the rest of the day – especially when meditating – they were permitted to drink tea. Of course it should be mentioned that the finishing of the Grand Canal [completed during the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) but which really came into full usage during the much more prosperous and long-lived Tang Dynasty which followed] dramatically reduced the costs of transport, and hence tea, which was mainly produced in the south, began to become much more affordable and therefore more widespread amongst different social classes.
Q: What about the development of tea culture in the Song Dynasty, the dynasty that followed the Tang?
A: The Song Dynasty was definitely one of the pinnacles of tea culture in human history, one that even in our days seems difficult to surpass. All of the basic foundations and ingredients were in place by the time of the Song. Firstly, in the time of Lu Yu [Tang Dynasty] for example, tea was still largely restricted to the social elites even though it was becoming more popular. Things were changing, but certainly by the time of the Song Dynasty tea had become a fashion across a broad spectrum of the society. The tea market had become quite mature and could cater for all tastes and budgets. Remember also that the Song Dynasty is often regarded as a peak of the Chinese economy generating wealth on a scale never seen before in human history. But of course the social elites still enjoyed the best tea and it is at this level that we have many records of the tea culture from the Song. The dynastic court also got quite involved in the tea industry by granting the status of ‘tribute teas’ [贡茶] also on an unprecedented scale. A special department was set up to supervise the production and distribution of tribute tea. At this time we thus also find an wealth of new writing about tea. It was also during this time that the Chinese dynasty began institutionalise the tea trade with the nomadic peoples of the steppe [referring to the vast grass lands of what we now refer to as Mongolia, Qinghai and Xinjiang]. It was at this point that the so-called ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ begins to emerge more prominently.
Q: There is so much more to discuss about the history of tea in China. However our time is limited and with your leave we can return to this in the future. For now I would like to redirect our attention back to the present. In the wake of the Opium War (1840-1842) China was forcibly opened to the outside world. The British and other foreign powers also acquired tea plants from China [in an act of nineteenth century industrial espionage supported by the British East India Company and carried out by the famous Scottish horticulturalist Robert Fortune] and the Chinese monopoly on tea production was broken. Since then the significance of Chinese tea in the world tea trade has diminished considerably. Some scholars and tea entrepreneurs in China are now considering how to ‘revive [China] through tea’ (茶叶复兴) in a new wave of what I call ‘tea nationalism’ [I will be interviewing the leading figures in this movement in the near future and sharing their vision on this blog]. We are in very exciting times, a new chapter in the history of tea is unfolding. In your expert opinion what role do you see for tea at a moment when China is once again regaining its place as a world economic, cultural and political power?
A: I think tea can, and will, have an important role in promoting China’s reemergence. Tea is an important part of Chinese culture. Tea has inspired and accompanied generations of Chinese artists, scholars and writers. Tea indeed is a window to Chinese culture and something that China has shared with the rest of the world. It forms a common ground upon which meaningful interaction can take place. Tea is both the crystallisation of a material substance that we drink everyday – and the science tells us it is a good thing for our health too – and, at the same time, tea is also a vessel for spiritual sustenance. I think tea has a very bright and exciting future.
On 6th October 2012, in the company of a small group of inquisitive fellow Australians, I visited the house of the renowned Dogba (东巴) of Baisha (白沙), Mr He Zhenwei. Baisha is a village not far from the historic and World Heritage listed town of Lijiang (丽江). Lijiang’s UNESCO heritage listing actually includes the old town of Dayan (大雁) – what most people think of as ‘Lijiang’ – and the villages of Shuhe (束河) and Baisha. Shuhe has expanded dramatically in recent years, as I have explained in a previous blog post. I also did an interview with two of Shuhe’s local farmers who now also supplement their income by providing horse rides for tourists. Baisha is less ‘developed’ than Dayan and Shuhe. It still has the feeling of a sleepy village just on the cusp of big changes. So if you are planning to visit Lijiang you should definitely include Baisha on your itinerary. Baisha is also worth a visit because of its historical importance in Naxi (纳西) culture (sometimes written as ‘Nakhi’). For a long time it was in fact the political seat of the ruling Mu clan (木氏) (the political centre shifted to Dayan during the 13th Century). It therefore contains some important remnants of Mu clan palaces and temples, which include very significant frescoes. You can see where Lijiang is on Google Maps here.
Lijiang sits on a strategic fertile basin at about 2,400 metres. It has long been an important trading town and staging post on the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. The basin is surrounded by high mountains, dominated by the 5,500 metre main peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) (which is home to the southern most permanent glacier in the northern hemisphere). It is an extremely diverse place both in terms of biodiversity and human cultures. The Naxi people, the historical orgins of whom are described by Mr He below, are the dominant ethnic group in the basin and in many of the surrounding valleys and smaller basins. But they share their home with many other ethnic groups such as Tibetans, Han, Bai, Yi, Hui and Mosuo. Over the centuries the Naxi, absorbing many different cultural elements, developed a unique high mountain culture. The Dongba religion (东巴宗教) (and ‘religion’ is used in a very general sense as a organised system of belief) is one of the treasures of Naxi culture. The ‘Dongba’ is a major religious ‘priest’ or ‘shaman’ figure, exclusively a male occupation (women had other roles as spiritual mediums). The Dongba were traditionally part-time ritual practitioners. Most of the Dongba would have been farmers, only called upon to conduct rituals at certain times (such as important festivals and life cycle rituals). Of particular interest is the Dongba use of pictographs to record all manner of historical, natural, social and religious information. As far as I am aware it is the only significant pictographic language still being used on a daily basis. The textual corpus of Dongba texts is approximately 20,000. The Dongba are also famed for their painting of long scrolls, some up to 15 metres in length, and for their very complex dance notation. You can view examples of the Dongba script on the Omniglot website here. Some argue that the script should be called the ‘Naxi script’ as it is believed the script emerged before the development of the Dongba religion.
Mr He traces his Dongba lineage back many generations. I was introduced to Mr He through Professor Liu Zhaohui of Zhejiang University (Hangzhou, Zhejiang). Professor Liu has conducted extensive study of the Dongba with an emphasis on how they are responding to the challenges of the modern world, especially in terms of the pressures of commercialisation and tourism. I’m presently polishing one of Professor Liu’s essays on this subject and I hope it will be published in 2014 in a collection of essays I’m editing on the theme of ‘China and the uses of culture’ – part of a Worldwide University Network (WUN) project I have the honour of leading.
As I have been documenting on this blog, the diverse cultures of Yunnan are undergoing historic transformation as ‘old’ and ‘new’ worlds collide. Lijiang has been transformed from a relatively isolated and sleepy town to a major domestic and international tourist destination. Both Naxi culture and Dongba are faced with the challenge of maintaining cultural traditions whilst adapting to the ‘modern’ world. There are indeed many things we can learn from ancient indigenous cultures such at the Naxi and Dongba. In terms of the Dongba I think it is the emphasis placed on living in harmony with nature that many outsiders will find appealing. The Naxi and the Dongba are now often seen through the lens of the ‘new age’ environmental movement, as a living culture that stands on the border between a premodern past (a world inhabited by spirits, magic, etc) and a modern present/future (a world seemingly dominated by materialism, development, self-gratification, etc). As Mr He explains below, the Dongba religion does indeed have some lessons for us all.
The interview that follows barely scratches the surface of what is a very complex and rich system of beliefs and culture, a kind of ‘Introduction to the Dongba Religion 101’. For a very accessible introduction to the Naxi and Dongba I recommend Pedro Ceinos Arcones’s (2012) Sons of Heaven, Brothers of Nature: The Naxi of Southwest China.
Q: What is the basic philosophy of the Dongba belief system?
A: ‘Dongba’ in the Naxi language refers to what we nowadays call the ‘Dongba religion’ (东巴宗教). And the ‘priest’ (祭司) within the Dongba religion is known as the ‘Dongba’. For much of history in this region the Dongba religion was the most systematic and detailed belief system. Some time between one to two thousand years ago the Dongba religion became the touchstone by which the Naxi people judged their spiritual life, morality, ethics and so forth. We can therefore say that the development of the Naxi people is intimately tied to the ethics, morality and so forth of the Dongba religion. Putting it very crudely, the Dongba religion at its core is the worship of heaven-nature (天地). It believes that all the myriad lifeforms in the universe have a spirit (万物有灵). It emphasises that people should have harmonious relations with each other. And that there should also be harminious relations between nature and people. Therefore the Dongba religion places a lot of emphasis on opposing the wanton destruction of nature. This is a general and brief overview of the core beliefs of the Dongba religion.
Before 1949 the natural environment in and around what we nowadays call Lijiang was excellent. After 1949 there has been ongoing destruction of the natural environment. I’ve been to big Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. The natural environment there is relatively devoid of trees and there is a lot of pollution. When I got back to Lijiang I breathed a sigh of relief. We have grown up in Lijiang and always had a close relationship with nature. We can breath the air freely and it feels good. The water is also very clean. We realise now the role of the Dongba religion in restricting the wanton destruction of the environment. We are particularly careful about caring for the water sources and making sure the water is clean and pure.
Q: Can you tell us about the history of the Naxi and of the Dongba religion?
A: Yes. If you want to understand the Naxi culture and the Dongba religion you must understand where they come from and how they developed over time.
There are three fountain heads from where the Naxi people derive. The first and perhaps most important source of the ancestral origins are those people who migrated, perhaps over one thousand or more years ago, from northwestern China. These people have been historically known as the ‘Qiang’ people (羌族). There were different tribes and conflicts between the tribes and the ancestors of the Naxi where the losers in the conflict and gradually migrated south and finally to present day Lijiang. When a Naxi person dies the spirit must seek the ancestral lands. An important role of the Dongba is to send the spirit back, stage by stage, all the way to the ancestral land [translator: believed to be somewhere in the vicinity of modern day Gansu Province].
The other belief is that the ancestors of the Naxi people arrived in the Lijiang region during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) as part of a long process of nomadic migration in which they moved with their livestock (yaks, cattle, goats, and so on) from one pasture [translator: or valley basin, known in Chinese as a 坝子] to another, gradually making their way south. Lijiang at that time was occupied by the Dianpu 滇普 people. There was a battle and the ancestors of the Naxi were victorious [translator: this is recorded in one of the Dongba texts]. Over time the two peoples interacted and intermarried so that some also claim that the Dianpu are also ancestors of the modern day Naxi. Once that integration had occurred I think we can say that the ‘Naxi’ people first emerged. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), and then also in the Ming (1368 -1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911), tens of thousands of soldiers and officials came to the Lijiang region from the ‘central plains’ [translator: referring to ‘central China’]. This was the first major wave of Han Chinese culture into the region. Most of the soldiers and officials, and other migrants, settled permanently and also intermarried with the locals, thus making up the third ‘fountain head’ [translator: the other two being the ‘qiangzu migration’ and the ‘dianpu people’].
The Naxi people also have a very close connection to Tibetan people and culture. Over time, through trade, intermarriage and shared religion [translator: that is, Tibetan Buddhism], the Naxi also absorbed much from the Tibetans. And also from the culture of the Bai people as well. But through all these interactions and absorption of culture the Naxi people’s essential culture hasn’t changed.
Q: Can you tell us something about the Naxi people’s attitude towards peaceful coexistence? I ask this because it is often said that the people’s of Lijiang have coexisted in relative harmony.
A: The first thing to note is Lijiang’s relative isolation from the rest of the world. The Lijiang region is extremely mountainous. For many hundreds if not thousands of years the outside world seemed very far away. For instance, in the past, the journey from Lijiang to Kunming could take up to eighteen days. From Lijiang to Lhasa and back to Lijiang could take up to one year. Other than the battle with the Dianpu people, given Lijiang’s isolation and moutainous terrain, there haven’t been many wars. The old town of Lijiang [translator: known locally as ‘Dayan’] was raised to the ground during the Panthay Rebellion (1856 – 1873). Even when Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies came this way there was no conflict as the local Naxi rulers, the Mu clan, capitulated and actually showed the Mongols the road to Dali [translator: the Mongols were primarily focused on taking the strategic town of Dali, the then capital of the Dali Kingdom]. The Japanese also did not attack Lijiang during the war [translator: that is, the Second World War which in China is known as the War of Anti-Japanese Resistance]. Consider that for most of its history the old town of Lijiang didn’t have fortified walls. It didn’t need them. The passes into the region were also easily defended. A small number of soldiers could fend off a much larger army. The mountains surrounding the valley were its fortress. Many Naxi people believe that the protector dieties have been looking after them and giving them a land of relative peace and harmony. When compared to the surrounding regions that have been almost continuously ravaged by war and revolts Lijiang is a very unique place. So in general the Naxi people have benefited from harmony and have fostered a natural opposition to warfare. This is also reflected in their attitudes towards the harmonious coexistence between people and nature.
Q: Can you tell us about the origins of the Dongba?
A: Once an ethnic group is formed then a new culture emerges. This is actually an interactive process between the people, the environment and the culture that takes a long time to unfold. In this way, with the interaction in particular between the people and environment of Lijiang, the Dongba were created. The notion and emphasis on harmony that you find in the Dongba religion I believe stems from the origins of the Qiang people who had to fight many battles and suffer adversity in their migration from China’s northwest to the Lijiang region. Their experiences taught them the value of harmony. The other important aspect contributing to this notion of harmony was their lifestyle dependence on nature itself. They were nomadic herders and depended on the good fortunes of the weather to survive. So the Dongba religion came to be based on the notion that only with harmonious relations between people and between people and nature can we find the good life.
Every ethnic group has its own language. If you only have language and no script it is very difficult to communicate with people far away, and also very difficult to pass on knowledge. So therefore the Dongba created the Dongba script. We have two different ways of referring to script, those written on stone and those written on wood – this refers to the very earliest origins of the Dongba script before the invention and use of paper. It is a pictographic script. Later, at about the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the Dongba started making paper and continue to make the paper in the traditional way to this day. The paper is highly valued by artists and calligraphers [translator: the paper has a rough texture and absorbent quality, good for ink brushes and paints]. The very earliest material for actual writing was derived from wood ash, natural minerals, and animal blood and bile [translator: the latter used to congeal the ink and provide a luster].
Q: What is the relationship between the Dongba religion and Buddhism? And Tibetan Buddhism in particular?
A: There is no direct relationship between the two. The Dongba religion is the native religion of the Naxi people. Buddhism came to this region much later than the creation of the Dongba religion. Tibet also has an ancient native religion which is somewhat similar to the Dongba religion, that is, the Bon religion. The Bon religion was over time incorporated into what we now call Tibetan Buddhism. Later Buddhism came to Lijiang and the Naxi people became followers of Tibetan Buddhism, but they also kept their belief in the Dongba religion. There is no contradiction or conflict between the two faiths.
Q: What about the interaction between Han Chinese and Naxi cultures? What can you tell us?
A: As I already said it was during the Yuan, and then the Ming and Qing that the Lijiang region was incorporated into the empire of the ‘central plains’. So some Chinese culture began to find its way to Lijiang through the soldiers who settled here, some of whom were Mongols and other non-Han peoples, and through interaction with traders. But for a long time the local ruling clan was permitted to continue its rulership, but on behalf of the dynastic government, in what is called the ‘tusi’ (土司) system. However during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1722 – 1735) the tusi system was abolished and Han magistrates appointed as the rulers. The rule of the Mu clan came to end, although it was still a very important family. With regards to the Dongba, in order to promote the expansion of a Confucian culture, the Qing authorities prohibited the Dongba for living or practicing their religion in the vicinity of Dayan. So actually from that time until ‘liberation’ in 1949 there was not much Dongba activity here. There were some Dongba who remained however, like my ancestors. If they tried to get rid of all the Dongba there would have been a riot. But certainly not in the old town itself. The Dongba continued to practice more openly in the mountains and remote villages and towns, and especially in the place known as Baishuitai (白水台) [translator: also known as ‘Baidi’, the mast sacred site of the Dongba, said to be the place where the first Dongba practiced]. The Qing and the mainstream Han culture looked down upon the Dongba as barbaric. After 1949 the authorities said the Dongba religion was a ‘superstition’. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) the Dongba were attacked. So for quite some time the Dongba religion suffered and nearly died out. Yet although it has gone through many challenges it has a strong life-force, and whereas many other ancient cultures have disappeared, especially those with such pictographic scripts – including the ancient script of China [translator: referring to the jiaguwen of ancient China], the Dongba and Naxi cultures live on. Most importantly of all, during the 1980s the government reassessed the Dongba culture and decided, correctly, that it was not a ‘superstition’ but instead gave it the label of a ‘religious belief’. This meant that the Dongba could now openly practice their faith without fear of persecution. Since then the Dongba religion has undergone a significant revival. There are still many challenges facing us Dongba, especially the forces of tourism and rapid development, but I believe that the Dongba religion and the Naxi culture has a bright future.
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).
My last post in this blog was in early February (2013). It has thus been a few months since I’ve had the time or inclination to give any significant updates. Some people have asked me the cause of the recent silence. All I can say is that the last few months have gone by very fast as a new teaching year has unfolded and I’ve also been dealing with numerous other responsibilities and writing deadlines. But my mind is ever fixed on our old friend the camellia sinensis (the tea plant!) and every day I refresh mind and body with nature’s most invigorating brew (although occasionally I have the odd ‘tea free’ day just ensure my self that the cravings are genuine). I’m also quite active on the Facebook Group titled ‘Friends of the Ancient Tea Horse Road’. So if you’re keen for regular news updates about tea and tea road related issues your welcome to join us.
In the next few weeks I will complete my report on a February field trip to Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna 西双版纳). I’m often drawn back to the places Ed and I visited on that trip, to the people, the vistas, the stories and of course to the tea. Incidentally my reading in recent months has included some excellent books and articles on Sipsongpanna and Puer and these will inform my blog writeup no doubt. All I can say that is the deeper you dig the more you discover. This tea business is more than it appears on the surface. It is one of the few cultural phenomena to change the course of history on numerous occasions and to shape the relations of different peoples and nations over time, even into our humble present. Time to get beyond the mere ‘surface of things’. In the meantime you can enjoy Ed’s writeup on this trip at Red Rock Treks. You can also see some of the images I took on my Flickr site here.
I also continue my more recent interest in lifestyle migration from the eastern seaboard of China to the mountains of the southwest, Yunnan in particular. There will be a chapter in my book (tentatively titled ‘The New Ancient Tea Horse Road’) devoted to these people, the ‘mountain changers’ I call them. I plan to go back to Lijiang, Heshun, Dali and Shangrila in June/July to do more in-depth interviews. Given the toxic state of the air in cities such as Beijing there has been some recent Western media interest in this phenomenon and I supported some China-based American journalists with their research. I was also interviewed. You can see the final news reports on National Public Radio and in Business Week. China, where 1.3 billion stories are waiting to be told.
On another related research front my interests in the Ancient Tea Horse Road and China’s emerging outdoor/adventure tourism and lifestyle culture has finally crystallised in a proposal to hold a workshop in Perth (September, 2013). The workshop will gather experts and community/media activists from far and wide to compare experiences in Australia and China. This will hopefully be the source of a much bigger and longer term project exploring the development of community-based ecotourism in Yunnan with a view to establishing China’s first long distance branded hiking trail (The Ancient Tea Horse Road of course). I hope that Australian expertise and enthusiasm will be a major contributor. This will keep me busy no doubt. I want to thank Ed Jocelyn and Warwick Powell for their strong support and enthusiasm for this project. It’s a timely reminder that in all the things we do, even in the moments of doubt and frustration, genuine passion and friendship are the fuels that drive us forward. You can see a copy of the draft workshop proposal and call for sponsorship on a public dropbox folder here. All depends of course on getting enough funding and I’m working actively on this at the moment. As the Chinese saying goes ‘the hardest of all things is getting something started’ (万事开头难). Ed also has a few inspirational words on this project and some of the motivations behind it on his Red Rock Trek blog. ‘From little things big things grow’ (Kev Carmody).
I’ll endeavour to keep you updated over the next few months as various projects begin to further materialise. But excuse me for now as I have to boil the kettle …
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
From the 17th to 21st November 2012 I travelled with Dr Ed Jocelyn to Baoshan. This is the second part of my report on a fieldtrip to Baoshan (宝山). In the previous posting I described Baoshan and the old ‘Southern Silk Road’ across the Gaoligong Mountains (高黎贡山), examining some of the prospects for ecotourism in the nature reserve. In this post I wish to describe Tengchong (腾冲) and the historic merchant town of Heshun (和顺). You can see where Heshun is located on Google Maps here. You can view a selection of images on my Flickr account here.
As I have been noting throughout this blog, Yunnan is undergoing a period of remarkable change. This is the most intensive period of ‘modernisation’ that Yunnan has yet experienced (I see ‘modernisation’ – a concept with its own historical baggage that needs to be unpacked at some point – in Yunnan, and China more broadly, as occurring in stages). This process is intensifying notions of ‘Yunnaneseness’ and facilitating the construction of contemporary narratives that tell ‘the story’ of ‘being Yunnanese’. It is the challenge of every age to tell its own story. In Yunnan much of this is happening through the development of the tourism industry within which the notion of the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ is playing a significant role in terms of branding and providing a trans-provincial narrative. Tourism – in its most contemporary manifestation – is about ‘telling stories’.
The remainder of this blogpost is divided into two sections. I first provide an introduction to Tengchong. I will then introduce the merchant town of Heshun and relate highlights of an interview with one of Heshun’s senior citizens and head of an important merchant household. In so doing I hope to reveal some of the tendencies in the development of cultural heritage tourism in China and in Yunnan in particular.
Tengchong, a county of Baoshan, is only a few kilometres from the Burmese border. It is home to the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy and has a mild sub-tropical highland climate. There is also quite a bit of volcanic activity in the region and Tengchong is well known for its hot springs and geothermal parks. The population is predominantly rural and in 2008 estimated to be 640,000. The population consists of seven ethnic groups, primarily Han and Dai.
As the notion of the ‘Southern Silk Road’ suggests, trade has been particularly active between what we nowadays call Baoshan and Burma (Myanmar). At least since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Tengchong (also known for a time as Tengyue/Tengyueh) was one of the first major Chinese towns a traveller would have encountered crossing from Burma into China (depending on the direction one took after crossing), by which I mean it was the first administrative town with a magistrate (an official representative of the dynastic government). The land link to Burma is particularly important. Burma sits neatly between China and India and also has direct sea access to the Indian Ocean (and thus the trading routes associated with the Maritime Silk Road). This is no doubt one of the factors that made Burma particularly attractive to British colonial interests (just as now it is of great strategic importance to China, India and the United States). The occupation and incorporation of Burma into the British Empire in 1823 gave British traders a hope of exploiting the overland route between Burma and Yunnan, with a long term view to opening up a railway link between India and eastern China (a dream as yet unrealised but one that should be completed within the next two decades) (there is a brief description of the British Burma-Yunnan railway on Wikipedia). In an effort to demarcate the border between Burma and China, the British also fought a number of battles with the Qing. And for that matter the Qing also fought several battles with the Burmese kingdom in the 18th Century, all of which were quite devastating losses for the Qing (who dispatched Manchu and Mongol soldiers from the far north of China to fight in the tropical jungles of Burma!). In 1931 the British set up a consulate in Tengchong – the date may actually be a bit earlier – giving some indication as to British interests (e.g. trade, security, keeping the French in check, etc). The British occupation of Burma and access to western Yunnan was also exploited by many explorers and budding ethnologists as a ‘backdoor’ into one of the remotest and unknown (by Westerners) parts of the ‘Celestial Empire’, all of which is described very well in Thomas Mullaney’s Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China. I would like to stress here, with no spoilers, how important Mullaney’s book is for reunderstanding the development of ethnic classification in the People’s Republic.
From 1942 to 1945 the Japanese occupied Burma and used it as a base for an invasion of Yunnan. The Japanese Imperial Army occupied Tengchong and, after crossing the Gaoligong Mountains, attempted to take Baoshan but were stopped at the Nu (Salween) River by the Chinese (who destroyed the bridges). The Nationalists set up the Chinese Expeditionary Army (中国远征军). The Chinese Expeditionary Army, a Chinese force of 100,000 trained with (American) Allied assistance and supported by American air power, was established to specifically expel the Japanese and stop them from forming a rear front. The major counterattack was launched in 1944. The battle was very intense with tens of thousands of casualties and pitched street battles in Tengchong as the remaining Japanese soldiers held up in, of all places, the former British consulate (obviously the Brits had long since evacuated). This was a major Chinese military victory over the Japanese (very important for morale after so many defeats in previous years). The Japanese occupation and defeat is well promoted in Tengchong and is a major feature of the Chinese tourist experience in its own right. A popular television drama captured the tale quite well and helped to revive historical memories of the importance of the battlefront in Yunnan (if the Japanese were able to take Baoshan and advance to Dali, Lijiang and Kunming, then the vital supply route over ‘the hump’ – an Allied supply flight route between India and Yunnan over the Himalayan Mountains – could have been severed and the Nationalists could have had significant enemy forces both in the front and in the rear). Tengchong is, not surprisingly, also home to China’s largest war cemetery.
Tengchong has big designs on developing tourism. In 2005 Tengchong received three million visitors, mostly domestic Chinese tourists. The plan is to dramatically increase that number within the next decade. The Tengchong Airport was opened in 2009 and has direct flights to Kunming, Jinghong, Dali, Lijiang, and Chengdu, and no doubt the destination list will continue to expand (even with a modern expressway Tengchong is still quite a drive even from Kunming). A number of five star hotels and resorts are under construction. There are already several golf courses (with more being built despite a Chinese government moratorium on the building of new golf courses – the trick is to not call it a ‘golf course’ but a ‘recreation centre’). I can vouch that Tengchong also has one of the best taxi and bus management systems in China. For anyone who has tried to take a taxi in Jinghong (you have to first ask the driver ‘where will you take me’), for instance, you will know what I mean. A friend of mine was rewarded with 200 yuan for reporting a non-compliant Tengchong taxi driver. The driver was also fined. Praise the Lord!
One of the key assets in Tengchong’s tourism arsenal is the historic merchant town of Heshun, just a few kilometres from Tengchong itself. Heshun is well known as one of China’s most significant ‘Overseas Chinese Villages’ (侨乡), by which is meant that over time many people from this town have travelled abroad for trade, marriage, education and so on, and thus have built up strong ties between villages and towns in Heshun and overseas Chinese communities abroad. In its 600 years of history, most of the families of Heshun were involved in trade with Burma. Those who did well in the trade – and that seems to have included quite a few families – built large and elaborate mansions in Heshun. They also contributed to the construction of public facilities and amenities. Heshun has one of the first modern public libraries in China. Heshun is also the birth place of many famous locals including Ai Siqi (艾思奇) (1910-1966), a well-known Marxist intellectual who was once a teacher of Mao Zedong.
Since 2003 Heshun has adopted a corporate partnership model in developing tourism (a form of public/private initiative). The public partner is Heshun Town (和顺镇) under the supervision of Tengchong County (腾冲县). The corporate partner is the Brilliant Group (柏联集团). The Brilliant Group has diverse interests in property development, hotels/spas, retail, and most interestingly, tourism and tea. Heshun is one of the jewels in the Brilliant Group crown. Apparently the agreement between both parties is for forty years. This public/private model in tourism development – especially with regards to ‘ancient towns’ (古镇) – is now widespread across China. There are pros and cons with every model and I will be exploring this in more detail in the book.
Interview with Mr Wang
The Wang family has a very impressive family mansion in Heshun. Mr Wang, at a vigorous 79 years of age, can be found in the family residence most days and is more than happy to chat to visitors. We engaged Mr Wang in a long interview of which the following are highlights.
Mr Wang’s ancestors were Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) soldiers who came from Sichuan and fought battles all the way to the border of Burma. This would confirm with the general expansion of the Ming during this period, the first time that dynastic power gained a proper and sustained foothold in many border regions of Yunnan, and opening up the possibilities for large scale migration for central and eastern China. Many local Han people claim to either be the descendants of soldiers or convicts.
Mr Wang went to Burma with his parents in 1938 when he was four years old and came back in 1942, fleeing the Japanese invasion. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 his mother took his younger brother and older sister back to Burma (it being such an important part of the family business). His parents remained in Burma (his father died early, his mother came back to Heshun when she was 80). Mr Wang stayed in Heshun with his grandparents. Burma in those days was known as ‘Nan Yang’ (南洋) (Southern Ocean). Before 1949 Burma was regarded as a very advanced place (先进的地方), with lots of modern commodities. China, at least those places bordering Burma such as Tengchong, were much more ‘backward’ (落后) by comparison.
One of the historically important trading centres, known as ‘Foreigner Street’ (洋人街), was at the border of China/Burma in Longchuan County (Zhangfeng). The Heshun traders went to Burma to buy matches, soap, and other household goods associated with British manufacturing. Many of these items in Chinese were described as ‘foreign’, e.g. matches are ‘foreign fire’ (洋火). Of course jade (翡翠) was also a very important commodity from Burma, one which has a very long trading history. Mr Wang recounted a story of a chief muleteer who used a stone by the side of the road to balance one of his mule loads. When he got back to Tengchong the muleteer discarded the stone into his family well. Over time the water cleaned the stone revealing precious jade! The Chinese traded silk, tea and salt. The salt came primarily from Midu/Shaxi (in Dali) and was shaped into disc form (柱子盐). Much of the tea came from Zhenyuan (镇远) (Puer), also famous for its ancient tea trees. Of course there was also trade in opium (in the old days, Mr Wang recounted, a visitor to a merchant’s home would have been offered opium as a courtesy).
Going abroad (usually to Burma) to do business was known as ‘going out the door’ (chumen 出门). For the men of Heshun it was vital to ‘chumen’, those who didn’t, and couldn’t make money doing trade, would be looked down upon and have trouble finding a wife. Most of the traders picked up the Burmese language. Many of the Burmese traders the Heshun merchants interacted with were actually descendants of Han Chinese/Burmese marriages (although not many could speak Chinese). In places like Mandalay and Rangoon there were many Chinese descendants and a Chinese trader could get by without speaking Burmese. Some traders actually had Burmese wives and set up a family in Burma. Some of them even brought back their Burmese wives and children to Heshun (at a time when polygamy was still acceptable in China).
In Heshun the traders didn’t organise their own caravans. They called upon other locals (from other villages/towns) to do so. The caravan organisers and muleteers generally came from very poor backgrounds (although some chief muleteers – 马锅头 – did very well). According to Mr Wang there were no ‘name brand commercial’ caravans in the region (商号马帮), unlike in Dali where some professional caravan companies had amassed great fortunes. The caravans had a lead mule/horse (头马) which was decorated very beautifully/elaborately, with a mirror on the forehead (to reflect evil). Generally mules were used for haulage and horses for riding. Mr Wang also recollects the time before 1949 when after the harvest the tenant farmers would bring rice to the landlords houses. The rice was transported either on the back of oxen or mules. Reference was also made to the past conflict between the Qing (Han) and Muslims (Hui). There is a battle site grave near Heshun where the remains of many men and horses have been discovered. [This is most likely part of the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873). Many Hui ended up fleeing to Burma and Southeast Asia (where they are now as the ‘Haw’).]
From the 17 – 21 November 2012 I traveled – with Dr Ed Jocelyn – to Baoshan (宝山) and Tengchong (腾冲) in western Yunnan Province (云南省) to explore a remnant section of the ancient Southern Silk Road over the Gaoligong Mountains (高黎贡山). We also spent some time in the historic merchant town of Heshun (和顺). I made some useful conctacts and conducted a number of interviews. What follows is a brief account of the trip with my preliminary thoughts and observations (discussion of Tengchong and Heshun will be reserved for a future blogpost). For a map of the Baoshan region visit Google Maps here. You can view a selection of images from this trip on my Flickr site here.
Most readers will be familiar with the ‘Silk Road’ (丝绸之路) – the series of ancient trading routes through Central Asia that linked Europe and China for much of recorded history. Less well known are the other two trading routes known as the ‘Southern Silk Road’ (南方丝绸之路) and ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (海上丝绸之路). The latter, as the name implies, links the ports of southern China through the South China Sea, India and beyond. The former refers to ancient trading and migration routes from central China (Gansu, Sichuan, etc) going south down through what we today refer to as Dali, Baoshan, Tengchong and Ruili. From Ruili – you can read a previous blogpost about Ruili here – the main route enters present day Burma and makes its way through to the towns and ports of Southeast Asia where it connected with the Maritime Silk Road, or alternatively across Assam and Bangladesh to India. In Chinese the Southern Silk Road was historically known as the ‘Shu Yuandu Dao’ (蜀身毒道).
Of course my primary research interest is with the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (or what I refer to as the ‘New Ancient Tea Horse Road’, a concept I will introduce in more detail in another blogpost). Generally speaking the tea road refers to the route that connects present day Puer and Xishuangbanna with Tibet. We do know that the tea caravans also made their way via Baoshan and Ruili to Southeast Asia and India. So technically we could also label this route as the tea road. However, the notion of the Southern Silk Road has been in existence for longer than the tea road and it is the former that has been taken up by scholars in the Baoshan region (there are other reasons but I won’t go into the details here). There is some rivalry and competition between scholars in this field about what to name the various trading routes. Some tea road scholars are quite proud of the fact that the ‘tea road’ is a concept created by Chinese scholars whereas the ‘silk road’ (or ‘silk roads’) was named by the German explorer and geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen. There is thus a good dose of national and cultural identity caught up in such designations, and my research is also interested in the uses of such ‘labels’ in the cause of regional identity. In any case, as I will discuss in a future blogpost on Heshun, although the official designation seems to have fallen in favour of ‘Southern Silk Road’, the iconography of the tea road as a modern display of cultural identity and cultural tourism is quite visible.
Our starting point for this fieldwork trip was the city of Baoshan (宝山). Baoshan is a prefectural city, relatively small by Chinese standards with a population of about one million. It is situated on a small basin east of the Nu River (怒江) (which becomes the Salween River when it enters Burma) and west of the Mekong (澜沧江). With an elevation of about 1,600 metres Baoshan has a very pleasant climate and productive agricultural sector (there is virtually no modern industry which means that the area is also relatively unpolluted). Through Ed’s connections we arranged a meeting with the Deputy Director of the Baoshan Museum (保山市博物馆), one of the largest museums in Yunnan Province. The Deputy Director reinforced the notion that Baoshan sits on the ‘Southern Silk Road’ and provided a lot of detail concerning the cultural history of the region and the development of the museum itself. The museum in its present form was built in 2003. China is undergoing a massive construction of museums across the country as part of the ongoing governmental efforts as ‘cultural construction’ (文化建设). There are also many grass-roots or community museums being built, sometimes offering interesting counter-narratives and sometimes reinforcing the mainstream view of national history. Museums also play an important role in constructing the narratives of modern nation-states and the museum of Baoshan is no exception. That’s what makes the study of museums so interesting and important.
The following day we hired a car and driver to take us to the starting point of our trek on the remnant section of the ancient road, a drive of about one and a half hours. We deviated somewhat to take a closer look at one of the few remaining ancient bridges in China, in this case the Shuanghong Bridge over the Nu River. From the bridge we made are way with our driver up a nearby valley on the eastern side of the river. Our destination was the village and historic staging post of Baihualing (百花岭) (119 km from Baoshan).
Baihualing is located in a very picturesque valley with a number of villages with traditional style houses, coffee fields, tropical fruit and so on, with the Gaoligong range looming in the background. Baihualing is the headquarters for the eastern side of the Gaoligong Nature Reserve and Ecological Tourism Zone. Due to time constraints we didn’t actually stop in the village (you always need to leave a ‘regret’ for another trip as the Chinese saying goes – 留一个遗憾). We continued driving up towards the mountains and eventually found our way onto the original logging road built in 1976 (a total logging ban was enforced in Yunnan in 1997 after devastating floods on the Mekong and Yangtse). We finally had to disembark from the vehicle and send the driver on her way back to Baoshan as the road became impassable. From there we began the journey on foot for several kilometres up to a point where the logging road meets the ancient road (at an elevation of 1,900 metres).
As we were making our way up to the ancient road we had a visit from three local gents on motorbikes who were looking for ‘two foreigners heading up the mountain’. It turns out we needed a permit to travel through the nature reserve. Unfortunately we didn’t have one, but after a few phone calls it was all settled and one of the nature reserve officers went back down to Baihualing to bring up the paperwork. It was actually quite a productive meeting as we were able to engage them in a lengthy discussion about the challenges facing the nature reserve in dealing with the habits of the local population and the incoming groups of Chinese hikers. The nature reserve office is very understaffed and stretched to the max in attempting to deal with all of its responsibilities. We made a small donation – for which I have a receipt! – and continued on our way. The entire area of the nature reserve has been put aside for the development of ecotourism, although not much seems to have been done thus far on developing the necessary infrastructure. The nature reserve is indeed abundant in wildlife, including bears, red pandas, wild cattle, and so on. The only wildlife you are likely to see, however, are the birds and monkeys. We saw two monkeys, one on the west side and the other on the eastern side.
When we finally made it to the ancient road we were very impressed. The road is in very good condition all the way from our starting point to the nature reserve office on the other side of the range (approximately 20 kilometres). It consists mainly of stone pavement with steps and a number of small bridges and one very impressive stone arch bridge. Just next to the bridge – Yongding Bridge – is a small stone hut which is probably the site of an old caravan camp considering that the river is the last source of water until you reach the camp just below the pass. After crossing the bridge the road begins a steep and long climb to the 3,200 metre pass. We made the climb within several hours and I was for one very happy to see the Southern Zhai Gong House appear ahead amongst the trees just as the sunlight was beginning to deminish.
It’s quite inspiring to spend the night on the site of such an historic spot along the ancient road linking Southwest China with Southeast Asia and India. In the old days the site was probably quite busy with many caravans making their way over the range carrying loads of tea, silk and other precious commodities traveling from the Chinese side. Coming the other way jade would have been a very precious item, along with more modern commodities during recent times when the British occupied Burma (as was explained by our informants in the merchant village of Heshun, which will be discussed in a future blogpost). We were the only visitors that evening.
On the Tengchong side of the range after making our descent down the ancient road through a deep gorge (staggeringly beautiful, but a lot of steps, my god …) we came out at the Tengchong side of the nature reserve station (Linjiapu/林家铺). The nature reserve workers were very friendly, offered us a cup of tea (of course!) and a chin wag. We showed them our paperwork (all in good order thanks to the intervention the previous day). We were informed that they get approximately 1,000 hikers on the trail per year (we had to sign a register before we left), mostly from within China but also a handful from foreign countries. They told us it was still eight kilometres to the staging post village of Jiangju (江苴) (Jiangju or Jiangzuo? The locals prefer the latter although my dictionary only displays the former ) and, for a small fee, kindly agreed to take us there. They also gave us a personal guided tour of the old ‘main street’ of Jiangju and introduced us to some local officials, good for future reference and return visits.
In the days of the trading caravan when the ancient road witnessed a lot of traffic Jiangju was a prosperous and busy staging post. Given that it is now relatively isolated it has not undergone any major reconstruction. It was also the local command base for the Chinese army in its battle against the occupying Japanese Imperial Army (1942-1944). There is an impressive display of old shop fronts, stables (马健), houses/inns, but unfortunately much in poor condition. No doubt they will be looking for investment, possibly an external investor/partnership as is the case in Heshun (to be discussed in separate blogpost) and in many historic old towns across China that have become tourist attractions/theme parks.
To be continued …