Rediscovering Tradition in Pu’er Country
The old forests of Jingmai Mountain in the southwestern province of Yunnan were unlike any tea plantation I’d seen before. Instead of neat rows of terraced bushes, their lush green tea trees were scattered throughout the woodlands that dot the region’s slopes. Some had never even been pruned, their branches left to grow freely. Taller trees loomed overhead, while the forest floor was covered in ferns and other plants.
The tea forests on Jingmai date back over 1,800 years. In addition to their archaic method of growing tea — referred to in scientific circles as “understory tea cultivation” for the way the tea trees are left to grow in the shade of larger trees — the residents of nearby villages also observe ancient religious practices involving a spirit known as Pa Ai Leng, the tea ancestor. The first tea tree in each plantation here is designated the “tea spirit tree,” and it is forbidden for residents to cut them down or pick their leaves. Every year before the spring tea is picked, people make offerings of rice, wine, tea, and other items to these spirits.
This September, the “Cultural Landscape of Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er” was officially added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for its mix of ancient cultivation techniques, unique tea culture, and rarely seen village layouts, making it the world’s only tea-centric cultural heritage site. But the story of Jingmai isn’t purely about preservation: The techniques and rituals spotlighted by UNESCO’s citation have undergone a period of rediscovery and reinvention in recent years — a complex process driven by a mix of residents, local officials, and market incentives.
The traditional understory tea cultivation model used in Jingmai experienced numerous ups and downs in the 20th century. From the 1950s to the ’90s, China’s national tea industry was tasked with both satisfying domestic consumption and promoting exports to help the country earn foreign exchange. As such, farmers were encouraged to boost production as much as possible by creating new tea plantations and transforming existing ones. Cold- and drought-resistant tea varieties were promoted, and modern cultivation and management techniques were popularized in major tea growing areas, including Yunnan.
As the campaign wore on, tea cultivation in the region began to concentrate in large terraces, where farmers used chemical fertilizers and pesticides to achieve high yields. Ironically, due to the remote location and relative economic underdevelopment of Jingmai Mountain, these new practices were not fully implemented there, and 28,000 mu (about 4,600 acres) of old tea forests were spared.
At the time, the tea from these old trees wasn’t highly valued, and they were quickly overgrown with weeds. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium, when tea from ancient trees in Yunnan’s Pu’er region began commanding astronomical prices at auction, that local attitudes began to shift. Suddenly, tea from old tea trees was selling for upwards of 60,000 yuan per kilogram (about $7,500 at the time), significantly higher than the price of tea from newer plantations. The ancient tea tree bubble collapsed in 2007, but it had a lasting impact on the pu’er tea industry, as growers began paying more attention to quality, the age of the tea trees, and terroir.
Around the same time, local governments also began promoting less ecologically destructive methods of tea production. For example, Lancang County, which is administratively responsible for Jingmai Mountain, issued a policy in 2009 prohibiting the use of pesticides and fertilizers in the industry, requiring a reduction in the number of tea trees within the plantations, and encouraging the inter-planting of other trees to shade the tea and improve the local ecology.
In theory, these new practices were in line with the traditional cultivation techniques found on Jingmai Mountain. Progress was not entirely smooth, however: Many farmers were skeptical of the benefits of the approach, preferring instead the ease and high yields of more modern techniques.
In the end, it was the market that pushed farmers to make the necessary changes. As consumers began demanding higher quality tea, differences in tea quality and flavor were reflected in the value of different teas. The absence of pesticides and fertilizers and improved forest ecosystems had a positive impact on taste, allowing ecologically friendly growers to command significantly higher prices.
Changes in the broader tea industry also helped. Farmers, who were originally limited to selling freshly picked leaves to wholesalers, used their growing capital to begin making and selling their own teas, as well as to market tea tastings directly to consumers. Tea buyers were free to try teas from growers across the region, and farmers quickly learned the importance of studying market preferences and improving the quality of their teas.
Concurrently, belief in the tea ancestor around Jingmai Mountain also underwent something of a revival, occasionally to the point of it overshadowing other local practices. For example, in Mangjing village, which is home to a large population of the Bulang ethnic group, animatism, Theravada Buddhism, and ancestor worship have long been a part of village life. Now, driven by the market and the region’s world heritage status application, rituals related to the tea ancestor have become dominant. Between 2006 and 2016, the Tea Spirit Altar in Mangjing was repaired, a new Ai Leng Temple and Tea Ancestor Temple were built, and various tea ancestor rituals were brought back — all part of a concerted push to boost tourism, strengthen the branding and presumed authenticity of local teas, and increase their price on the market.
Although the quality of tea from Jingmai Mountain is excellent, it does not necessarily stand out among its regional competitors. Instead, it’s Jingmai’s unique cultural context that makes local growers competitive. This point is driven home during farmers’ ritual offerings to the tea spirits, as local elites emphasize that the tea they sell should not be mixed with fake or lower quality leaves that could harm the reputation of the community.
But the return of collective cultural traditions is also helping promote community building in the villages around Jingmai, something which had fallen by the wayside during China’s rapid urbanization. Perhaps just as crucially, the revival of Jingmai Mountain’s traditional tea culture demonstrates the value of respecting nature — and that economic development and ecological protection do not have to be mutually exclusive. As one local woman put it: “We need the industry to sustain our lives, so we all have to protect it because it’s our livelihood. Imagine if there was no tea. How could you buy a house, a car, or pay your hospital bills?”
There are risks, of course. Since it was named a World Heritage Site, Jingmai Mountain has become increasingly popular with tourists, and the question of how best to balance development and conservation in heritage sites remains open. But Jingmai offers an example of what can happen when traditional practices are respected, rather than discarded.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yiwen; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Villagers pick tea leaves at a tea farm on Jingmai Mountain, Pu’er, Yunnan province, 2016. Liu Ranyang/CNS/VCG)