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2022-04-18 16:31:47 Voices

In the mountains of southern Yunnan province, along the Sino-Myanmar border, locals often tell the story of Pa Ai Leng. The mythical forefather of the Bulang people, one of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities, Pa Ai Leng wrestled with how to guarantee the prosperity of his tribe. As the legend goes, he first considered leaving them horses and cows, but worried these would die if an epidemic broke out. Then he considered gold and silver, but he believed the Bulang would squander them. “Therefore, I (Pa Ai Leng) leave you tea trees, which will be an inexhaustible source of wealth for you and your descendants.”

Although the roots of the Pa Ai Leng legend are hard to trace, there is at least a kernel of truth to it. Since the early 2000s, the region’s large-leaf tea trees and the unique tea they produce — Pu’er — have become one of the country’s most valuable and sought-after commodities. One kilogram of Pu’er tea harvested from “ancient” tea trees, typically classified as trees more than 100 years old, can fetch anywhere from 1,000 to 2 million yuan ($157 to $313,000). But the skyrocketing price of Pu’er tea has brought more than just new wealth to this once impoverished border region; it has also profoundly changed the social structure of Bulang communities.

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“When the price of the tea in my village jumped from less than 15 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 100 yuan (per kilogram) in 2005, I felt the price of the tea was extremely high,” Xiang, a Bulang man in his late 50s, told me in an interview. (To protect the privacy of my interviewees, I have given them all pseudonyms.) “For the first time in my life, I felt rich. I bought three motorbikes for my kids that year, including one for my youngest daughter, who couldn’t even ride a motorbike!”

Like other highland villages benefitting from the Pu’er trade, Xiang’s village, Manban, in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture at the southern tip of Yunnan, has experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past two decades. As late as 2015, Manban was still one of the region’s most inaccessible villages. When I first visited in 2012, I was stuck there for two months after a landslide cut the village off from the outside world.

The village’s inaccessibility and mountainous terrain are also the source of its current good fortune. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Yunnan provincial government sought to modernize tea production in the region by transforming its old-style tea gardens into new terraced tea plantations. Members of the Dai ethnic group living in region’s lowland plains mowed down their Pu’er tea trees and replaced them with new, higher-yield varieties promoted by the government. But the people living in the mountains, many of them Bulang, generally opted to open new fields using traditional slash-and-burn farming techniques. Their old plantations fell into neglect but were not cut down.

A boy plays in an ancient tea tree in Manban Village, Yunnan province, 2015. Courtesy of the author

A boy plays in an ancient tea tree in Manban Village, Yunnan province, 2015. Courtesy of the author

For a time, as the new, more productive plantations and a wave of speculation combined to fuel a Pu’er bubble, there was little to no market for tea from these older trees. “Tea harvested from old tea trees was considered the shoddiest till the late 1990s, selling for less than 1 yuan per kilogram,” Bu, a Bulang man of about 80, told me. “Back then, the state-owned tea companies preferred light-colored tea with small leaves and small buds. Our tea was considered ‘old-coarse tea’ (lao cu cha), which was lower than the lowest grade of tea. They called it ‘grade-less tea’ (jiwai cha).”

Everything changed after the Pu’er bubble burst in 2007, as a handful of surviving small and medium size tea companies began promoting Pu’er tea products made of leaves harvested from ancient tea trees in a bid to enter the still flourishing artisanal tea market. Soon, “ancient tree” Pu’er went from nearly worthless to in-demand, as tea connoisseurs, merchants, and middle-class consumers praised its taste, time-tested cultivation techniques, and heritage as a one-time tribute product to the imperial court.

The price of Pu’er tea harvested from ancient tea trees in Manban Village tripled between 2005 and 2007; by 2014, it was trading for 10 times its 2005 value. Meanwhile, the village’s average annual household income rose from less than 2,000 yuan in 2000 to 100,000 yuan in 2019, almost 10 times the rural Yunnan average.

It seems like Pa Ai Leng’s prophecy is finally coming true. But the Bulang forefather’s blessings have not been evenly distributed.

The rapid growth of the market for ancient tea tree leaves has turned the distribution of wealth in Manban on its head. The average price of Spring season ancient Pu’er tea produced in Manban was 1,000 yuan per kilogram between 2016 and 2021; that’s roughly five times the average for an equivalent amount of Pu’er produced in the newer terrace plantations. The result is a situation in which growers who inherited virtually worthless ancient tea trees are now far more affluent than those who invested time, money, and labor into cultivating newer, higher yield varieties.

A view of Manban Village, Yunnan province, 2015. Courtesy of the author

A view of Manban Village, Yunnan province, 2015. Courtesy of the author

Take Bing, a Bulang man in his mid-thirties, for example. “When our family split up in the mid-1990s, my younger uncle inherited all the old tea trees from my grandfather,” he told me. “My father did not want any of the old tea trees because he thought those tea trees were worthless. Now my uncle’s family can easily make 100,000 yuan in just one Spring, while I can hardly earn half that in an entire year.”

Bing’s current circumstances hint at a point of tension in many of the region’s tea-growing villages. Although his immediate family was probably pleased with the split at the time, the ancient tea trees have become a windfall for his uncle’s family, one Bing cannot hope to compete with, no matter how hard he works. “People like me who don’t have ancient tea trees keep opening tea plantations and planting tea trees, but a sixth of an acre of terrace tea is worth less the tea produced by one ancient tree,” he said.

The relocated villagers quickly realized that those families who had stayed behind — once regarded as stubborn and conservative — were reaping record prices from old tea trees.

The emerging socio-economic divide between villages is even more startling. In 2003, as part of a government-initiated development and relocation campaign for smaller ethnic groups, half of Manban’s villagers signed up to move to a new-built village at the foot of the mountains. The new village promised better transportation links and access to the outside world, but a few years after the relocation, the Pu’er bubble crashed and ancient tea tree prices began to skyrocket. The relocated villagers quickly realized that those families who had stayed behind — once regarded as stubborn and conservative — were reaping record prices from old tea trees. Today, the per-unit price of tea harvested in the new village is 12 times less than that of tea harvested in the old village, and many families in the new village now hire themselves out as day laborers, picking and roasting tea for their relatives in the old village.

“Before 2007, no girls in our village wanted to marry the boys in the old village. Now we’re all vying to be their xiaogong (a term for unskilled workers),” joked Ban, a young man whose family relocated to the new village. The irony of Ban’s situation — that the families who moved to the new village were following the government directive to develop themselves and become rich, only to see their uncooperative relatives in the mountains stumble into overnight wealth — is not lost on him.

The gap between rich and poor has been exacerbated as those not lucky enough to benefit from the ancient tea boom cast about for a way to keep up with their neighbors. Many locals have invested in other cash crops, from macadamia nuts to cassava, but their lack of market knowledge and relevant skills has doomed most to failure.

Even the winners are not immune from anxiety, however. As the value of Pu’er rises, most households in the region have stopped growing agricultural staples. With so much of their wealth concentrated in a single plant, they, too, are vulnerable to sudden shifts in the market.

A woman sifts through loose tea leaves in Yunnan province, 2015. Courtesy of the author

A woman sifts through loose tea leaves in Yunnan province, 2015. Courtesy of the author

Last Spring, one of my Bulang friends told me of a news item he read about how 10 kilograms of fresh leaves — enough to produce around 2.5 kilograms of dried tea leaves — from a particularly old and venerable tree had sold for 10.68 million yuan at auction.

“It is a kind of myth to me, a scary one,” he said. “Isn’t it scary to make that much money suddenly from only one tea tree?”

The Pu’er tea market — Pa Ai Leng’s gift to his people — indeed feels increasingly like the stuff of myth. Yet it also reflects a widespread phenomenon in China and around the world. As common commodities are fetishized, their value can no longer be understood through theories of economics alone. For the Bulang people, the legends they tell themselves about Pu’er aren’t just stories; for better or worse, they reflect the complex, sometimes darkly ironic reality of the modern global tea trade.

Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: A worker fire roasts tea in Yunnan province, 2015. Courtesy of the author)