Xishuangbanna is located in the southern part of the upper catchment of the Mekong River. The Chinese call this area “outside river”, and traditionally it has been quite isolated, allowing rich ethnic traditions to evolve.
The Bulang ethnic community is one of the 18 minorities inhabiting a relatively small area of just under 20,000 square kilometers. According to anthropologists, the Bulang gatherers were the first to discover tea, 3,000 years ago. Unusually, the Bulang ferment and pickle the tea leaves, eating them like a vegetable.
Another tribe, the Lahu hunters, still rely heavily on the surrounding forest for food, medicine and timber. Over the centuries, they bartered with the Bulang people and learned about tea from them. The Lahu developed the “bamboo tea” method of processing, allowing them to store tea for their long travels. The Han ethnic community was also involved in harvesting and processing forest tea, and over time, after observing the benefits, other minority groups took up tea cultivation.
People from the ethnic communities in the Xishuangbanna mountains still climb up into the branches of their centuries-old tea trees to pick the fresh leaves. No synthetic chemicals are used on these trees. Harvesting takes place twice a year, in the spring and the fall, unlike the terraced (bush) tea, where leaves are collected year-round because farmers want to maximize their yields.
Pu'er tea is a cold-fermented tea, pressed into a cake for convenient storage and transportation. There are two kinds of Pu'er tea. In industrial monocultures, tea is grown in bushes on terraced slopes, while Mountain Forest Pu'er tea comes from the traditional method of tea cultivation, from tea trees growing wild in the forest. The trees need healthy forest ecosystems, and as forests are being cut down, the quantity of Mountain Forest tea leaves is also being reduced.
Annual production of Pu'er tea is 3,250 tons, but Mountain Forest tea accounts for just 5 percent. The tea grows mostly in the mountains of the Mekong region, and the Mountain Forest Pu'er Tea Community works on three mountains: Jingmai, Nannuo and Bulang. Mountain Forest Pu'er tea is easily distinguished by the variety of colors in the loose or pressed tea, ranging from golden yellow to silvery white. True Pu'er tea shows a lively combination of colors during the first 20 years of cold fermentation.
The color of Mountain Forest Pu'er tea comes with age, as the tea ferments slowly in cakes. Over time the tea develops a more earthy, woody color, though it is always bright, vivid and transparent, not flat like black tea. As it ages, the tea becomes rounder and its aromas harmonize together. Caffeine breaks down to other compounds with smaller chains, more easily absorbed by the metabolism, making the tea more healthy. This very slow process can take many years, even decades.
Xishuangbanna is home to over 50 percent of China's wild plant species, with around 5,000 flowering plants and ferns, of which 153 are endemic and 56 are rare or endangered. These forests are being threatened by the rubber and tea monocultures that are claiming the slopes, while food, biofuel and fiber crops are claiming the lowlands. Conservation of the old tea gardens offers an opportunity to preserve this valuable habitat, home to a rich biodiversity.
Photos — He Xie