The order of ideas must follow the order of things … first the forests,
after that the huts, thence the villages, next the cities and finally the academies.
This axiom is a great principle of etymology, for this sequence of human things sets
the pattern for the histories of words in the various native languages.

Giambattista Vico

The order of ideas must follow the order of things … first the forests, after that the huts, thence the villages, next the cities and finally the academies. This axiom is a great principle of etymology, for this sequence of human things sets the pattern for the histories of words in the various native languages.

Giambattista Vico

To speak of tea is to consider more than just a single plant. The tea complex is a vast matrix of biological and cultural diversity. To penetrate into the heartland of tea is to experience an array of nature spirits inhabiting sacred landscapes; orchids and other epiphytic plants residing in the boughs of old-growth tea trees; and the indwelling ethnic communities who have coevolved with these resplendent forests for millennia.

The tea complex refers to the ecological distribution, cultural proliferation, and transformational potential of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, through space and time. Its epicenter is in southwest China and the contiguous uplands of Southeast Asia, where tea first evolved in subtropical forests. It is a resplendent realm of plant-human relationality sustaining a dynamic equilibrium with profound implications for planetary health.

Cultivation and production of Pu’er tea is concentrated in southwest Yunnan Province. This region is 95 percent montane, with an elevation range of 477 to 2,429 meters above sea level, a transition zone between tropical Southeast Asia and subtropical southwest China. Here we find an exceptionally high degree of biodiversity, with a flora of 3,336 native species in 1,218 genera and 207 families, approximately 12 percent of China’s flora in 0.22 percent of the country’s area. This biodiversity expresses in the phytochemical content and sensory characteristics of tea leaf.

In 1988, Yunnan ethnobotanist Pei Shengji observed …

scattered remnants of primitive tea plantations containing
tea trees hundreds
of years old and roughly 10 to 20 meters tall.
The contrast of these old plantations
with contemporary
Chinese tea plantations is very striking.

This was several years prior to the arrival of a small group of Taiwanese tea aficionados to Xishuangbanna in search of these same ancient tea gardens. Appearing in the region unannounced, they were told by local officials that there was nothing left to be discovered. They were granted permission nonetheless and, upon their arrival in a remote town called Yiwu, found what they were looking for – the remnants of an extensive historical tea cultivation center, including elders able to provide accounts of the final days of the tea trade several decades prior. This discovery was instrumental in initiating the modern Pu’er tea revival.

Cultivation and production of Pu’er tea is concentrated in southwest Yunnan Province. This region is 95 percent montane, with an elevation range of 477 to 2,429 meters above sea level, a transition zone between tropical Southeast Asia and subtropical southwest China. Here we find an exceptionally high degree of biodiversity, with a flora of 3,336 native species in 1,218 genera and 207 families, approximately 12 percent of China’s flora in 0.22 percent of the country’s area. This biodiversity expresses in the phytochemical content and sensory characteristics of tea leaf.

In 1988, Yunnan ethnobotanist Pei Shengji encountered …

scattered remnants of primitive tea plantations containing
tea trees hundreds
of years old and roughly 10 to 20 meters tall.
The contrast of these old plantations
with contemporary
Chinese tea plantations is very striking.

This was several years prior to the arrival of a small group of Taiwanese tea aficionados to Xishuangbanna in search of these same ancient tea gardens. Appearing in the region unannounced, they were told by local officials that there was nothing left to be discovered. They were granted permission nonetheless and, upon their arrival in a remote town called Yiwu, found what they were looking for – the remnants of an extensive historical tea cultivation center, including elders able to provide accounts of the final days of the tea trade several decades prior. This discovery was instrumental in initiating the modern Pu’er tea revival.

To speak of tea is to consider more than just a single plant. The tea complex is a matrix of biological and cultural diversity. To penetrate into this heartland of tea is to experience an array of ethnicities; nature spirits inhabiting sacred landscapes; orchids and other epiphytic plants proliferating in the boughs of old-growth tea trees.

The tea complex refers to the ecological distribution, cultural proliferation, and transformational potential of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Its epicenter is southwest China and the contiguous uplands of Southeast Asia, where tea first evolved in subtropical forests. It represents a profound plant-human relationship connecting participants to original nature.

Cultivation and production of Pu’er tea is concentrated in southwest Yunnan Province. This region is 95 percent montane, with an elevation range of 477 to 2,429 meters above sea level, a transition zone between tropical Southeast Asia and subtropical southwest China. Here we find an exceptionally high degree of biodiversity, with a flora of 3,336 native species in 1,218 genera and 207 families, approximately 12 percent of China’s flora in 0.22 percent of the country’s area. This biodiversity expresses in the phytochemical content and sensory characteristics of tea leaf.

In 1988, Yunnan ethnobotanist Pei Shengji observed …

scattered remnants of primitive tea plantations containing tea trees hundreds of years old and roughly 10 to 20 meters tall. The contrast of these old plantations with contemporary Chinese tea plantations is very striking.

This was several years prior to the arrival of a small group of Taiwanese tea aficionados in Xishuangbanna in search of these same ancient tea gardens. Appearing in the region unannounced, they were told by local officials that there was nothing left to be discovered. They were granted permission nonetheless and, upon their arrival in a remote town called Yiwu, found what they were looking for – the remnants of an extensive historical tea cultivation center, including elders able to provide accounts of the final days of the tea trade several decades prior. This discovery was instrumental in initiating the modern Pu’er tea revival.

The tea complex refers to the ecological distribution, cultural proliferation, and transformational potential of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Its epicenter is southwest China and the contiguous uplands of Southeast Asia, where tea first evolved in subtropical forests. It represents a profound plant-human relationship connecting participants to original nature.

Cultivation and production of Pu’er tea is concentrated in southwest Yunnan Province. This region is 95 percent montane, with an elevation range of 477 to 2,429 meters above sea level, a transition zone between tropical Southeast Asia and subtropical southwest China. Here we find an exceptionally high degree of biodiversity, with a flora of 3,336 native species in 1,218 genera and 207 families, approximately 12 percent of China’s flora in 0.22 percent of the country’s area. Biodiversity expresses in the phytochemical content and sensory characteristics of tea leaf.

In 1988, Yunnan ethnobotanist Pei Shengji observed:

scattered remnants of primitive tea plantations containing tea trees hundreds of years old and roughly 10 to 20 meters tall. The contrast of these old plantations with contemporary Chinese tea plantations is very striking.

This was several years prior to the arrival of a small group of Taiwanese tea aficionados in Xishuangbanna in search of these same ancient tea gardens. Appearing in the region unannounced, they were told by local officials that there was nothing left to be discovered. They were granted permission nonetheless and, upon their arrival in a remote town called Yiwu, found what they were looking for – the remnants of an extensive historical tea cultivation center, including elders able to provide accounts of the final days of the tea trade several decades prior. This discovery was instrumental in initiating the modern Pu’er tea revival.

The order of ideas must follow the order of things … first the forests, after that the huts, thence the villages, next the cities and finally the academies. This axiom is a great principle of etymology, for this sequence of human things sets the pattern for the histories of words in the various native languages.

Giambattista Vico

The order of ideas must follow the order of things … first the forests, after that the huts, thence the villages, next the cities and finally the academies. This axiom is a great principle of etymology, for this sequence of human things sets the pattern for the histories of words in the various native languages.

Giambattista Vico

To speak of tea is to consider more than just a single plant. The tea complex is a matrix of biological and cultural diversity. To penetrate into this heartland of tea is to experience an array of ethnicities; nature spirits inhabiting sacred landscapes; orchids and other epiphytic plants proliferating in the boughs of old-growth tea trees.

The tea complex refers to the ecological distribution, cultural proliferation, and transformational potential of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Its epicenter is southwest China and the contiguous uplands of Southeast Asia, where tea first evolved in subtropical forests. It represents a profound plant-human relationship connecting participants to original nature.

Cultivation and production of Pu’er tea is concentrated in southwest Yunnan Province. This region is 95 percent montane, with an elevation range of 477 to 2,429 meters above sea level, a transition zone between tropical Southeast Asia and subtropical southwest China. Here we find an exceptionally high degree of biodiversity, with a flora of 3,336 native species in 1,218 genera and 207 families, approximately 12 percent of China’s flora in 0.22 percent of the country’s area. Biodiversity expresses in the phytochemical content and sensory characteristics of tea leaf.

In 1988, Yunnan ethnobotanist Pei Shengji observed:

scattered remnants of primitive tea plantations containing tea trees hundreds of years old and roughly 10 to 20 meters tall. The contrast of these old plantations with contemporary Chinese tea plantations is very striking.

This was several years prior to the arrival of a small group of Taiwanese tea aficionados in Xishuangbanna in search of these same ancient tea gardens. Appearing in the region unannounced, they were told by local officials that there was nothing left to be discovered. They were granted permission nonetheless and, upon their arrival in a remote town called Yiwu, found what they were looking for – the remnants of an extensive historical tea cultivation center, including elders able to provide accounts of the final days of the tea trade several decades prior. This discovery was instrumental in initiating the modern Pu’er tea revival.

The order of ideas must follow the order of things … first the forests, after that the huts, thence the villages, next the cities and finally the academies. This axiom is a great principle of etymology, for this sequence of human things sets the pattern for the histories of words in the various native languages.

Giambattista Vico

The order of ideas must follow the order of things … first the forests, after that the huts, thence the villages, next the cities and finally the academies. This axiom is a great principle of etymology, for this sequence of human things sets the pattern for the histories of words in the various native languages.

Giambattista Vico

FORESTS

The Bulang people are foresters and farmers. For centuries, they practiced a combination of hunting & gathering and upland swidden agriculture. Such traditional practices were largely discontinued in the 1950s and 1960s, replaced by plantation-style fixed fields. Rubber, sugar, bananas and other monoculture crops were established below 1000 meters and tea at higher elevation. With tea industry development in the mid-2000s, a government initiative changed the designation of Jingmai Mountain’s terraced (taidi) tea landscape to ecological (shengtai) tea. Agrochemicals were prohibited from entering the mountains. Traditional and modern forms of ecological stewardship were promoted, including transitioning shrubs to arbors, monoculture plantations to biodiverse forest gardens.

Agroforestry tea remains among the most conspicuous forms of indigenous land management still practiced today. For the Bulang and other mountain ethnicities, not only does this provide a vital livelihood strategy, but also preserves the practical and affective characteristics of ecological stewardship as essential aspects of cultural identity. Old-growth tea gardens represent a porous boundary between past and present, between villager’s legacies as mountain dwellers – including beliefs and practices pertaining to nature – and their modern identities within China as in global tea culture.

FORESTS

The Bulang people are foresters and farmers. For centuries, they practiced a combination of hunting & gathering and upland swidden agriculture. Such traditional practices came to an end beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, replaced by plantation-style fixed fields. Rubber, sugar, bananas and other monoculture crops were established below 1000 meters and tea at higher elevation.

Agroforestry tea remains the most conspicuous form of indigenous land management still practiced today. For the Bulang and other mountain ethnicities, not only does this provide a vital livelihood strategy, but also preserves the practical and affective character of ecological stewardship, essential aspects of their cultural identities. Old-growth agroforestry tea gardens represent a porous boundary between past and present, between villager’s legacies as mountain dwellers – including beliefs and practices pertaining to the forest – and their modern identities within China as in global tea culture.

That particular morning, Su Yimu accompanied her aunt & uncle into the forest as they headed off to tend their tea gardens. Fortunately, she rarely leaves the house without her camera. It was several months later before I saw these photos. When I inquired, Yimu responded that she hadn’t noticed anything particularly special and had simply forgotten about them. Born and raised within this indigenous tea culture, these images were simply tacit reflections of a way of life so familiar to her as to be nearly invisible. Perhaps it was just that lack of self-consciousness in relation to her subject that allowed Yimu to capture the quintessence of this relationship between the Bulang and their agroforestry tea gardens.

FIELDS

There is, therefore, an ancient rule that no caravan is allowed to enter the country
for purposes of trade, which does not bring with it an amount of rice proportioned
to
the number of pack animals brought up. This is exchanged for tea.

James George Scott

Rice cultivation is foundational to tea mountain subsistence livelihoods, each family laboring to procure a harvest sufficient to carry them through the year. This includes more than family meals, extending out to social sharing and ritual offerings. The relationship between tea and rice varies from one village to the next. Villages and families with sufficient income from tea may transition more fully to a market economy, leaving little time for cultivation and requiring they acquire it in the marketplace. The majority of Jingmai Mountain’s population continues to engage in rice cultivation, preserving a sense of food security in the midst of a continuously fluctuating tea market.

FIELDS

 

 


There is, therefore, an ancient rule that no caravan is allowed to enter the country
for purposes of trade, which does not bring with it an amount of rice proportioned to the number of pack animals brought up. This is exchanged for tea.

James George Scott

Rice cultivation is foundational to tea mountain subsistence livelihoods. Families labor to procure a harvest sufficient to carry them through each year. The relationship between tea and rice varies from one village to the next. Villages and families with sufficient income from tea may transition more fully to a market economy, leaving little time to cultivate rice and requiring they acquire it in the marketplace. The majority of Jingmai Mountain’s population continues to engage in rice cultivation, preserving a sense of food security in the midst of a continuously fluctuating tea market.

 

 

FIELDS


There is, therefore, an ancient rule that no caravan is allowed to
enter the country
for purposes of trade, which does not bring with
it an amount of rice proportioned to
the number of pack
animals brought up. This is exchanged for tea.

James George Scott

Rice cultivation is foundational to tea mountain subsistence livelihoods. Families labor to procure a harvest sufficient to carry them through each year. The relationship between tea and rice varies from one village to the next. Villages and families with sufficient income from tea may transition more fully to a market economy, leaving little time to cultivate rice and requiring they acquire it in the marketplace. The majority of Jingmai Mountain’s population continues to engage in rice cultivation, preserving a sense of food security in the midst of a continuously fluctuating tea market.

FIELDS


There is, therefore, an ancient rule that no caravan is allowed to enter the country
for purposes of trade, which does not bring with it an amount of rice proportioned to the number of pack animals brought up. This is exchanged for tea.

James George Scott

Rice cultivation is foundational to tea mountain subsistence livelihoods. Families labor to procure a harvest sufficient to carry them through each year. The relationship between tea and rice varies from one village to the next. Villages and families with sufficient income from tea may transition more fully to a market economy, leaving little time to cultivate rice and requiring they acquire it in the marketplace. The majority of Jingmai Mountain’s population continues to engage in rice cultivation, preserving a sense of food security in the midst of a continuously fluctuating tea market.