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 this 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 capacity of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, through time andspace. Its epicenter is in southwest China and the contiguous uplands of Southeast Asia, where tea first evolved in subtropical forests. The tea complex is a realm of plant-human relationality with profound implications for planetary wellness.

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 located along one of the steepest ecological transects in the world. Here we find an exceptionally high degree of biodiversity, with an estimated flora of 3,336 native species in 1,218 genera and 207 families, approximately 16 percent of China’s flora in 0.2 percent of the country’s area. Tea gardens are significant repositories of biodiversity, which expresses in the phytochemical content and sensory characteristics of tea leaf.

I

n 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 appearance of a small group of Taiwanese tea aficionados in 1994 in search of these same ancient tea gardens. Upon arriving in the capital city of Jinghong, local officials informed them that nothing remained of the historical tea trade. Passage was granted nonetheless and, in the remote town of Yiwu, they found what they were looking for – the remnants of an extensive tea cultivation center, along with elders who would provide firsthand accounts of the declining tea trade several decades prior. Their arrival at this trailhead of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (chamagudao) was instrumental in initiating the modern Pu’er 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 in 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

To enter into this 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.

To enter into this 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.

To enter into this 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.

FORESTS

The Bulang people are foresters and farmers. For centuries, they practiced a combination of hunting & gathering, swidden agriculture and agroforestry tea cultivation. Swiddening, or shifting cultivation, is a form of rotational farming based on forest clearing & ecological succession. Utilized by cultures around the world for millennia, it was widely scapegoated in the twentieth-century as a primary cause of deforestation. In Yunnan, the 1950s and 1960s initiated a transition to plantation-style fixed cultivation that would persist over the next several decades. Rubber, sugar, bananas and other monoculture crops were established below 1000 meters and tea at higher elevations.

Jingmai Mountain tea garden development began in 1966, a Cultural Revolution era project that, a decade later, would result in Lancang Ancient Tea Factory. In the mid-2000s, with tea market development, a government initiative changed the designation of Jingmai Mountain’s terraced tea (taidicha 台地茶) to ecological tea (shengtaicha 生態茶). Agrochemicals were banned from the mountain. Hybrid management forms began to evolve combining traditional practices with scientific methods, including transitioning shrubs to arbors and monoculture plantations to biodiverse tea forests.

For the Bulang and other mountain ethnicities, agroforestry tea remains the most conspicuous form of indigenous land management still practiced today. Not only does this provide a vital livelihood strategy, but also preserves the practical and affective character of ecological stewardship, 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. Swiddening, or shifting agriculture, is a form of rotational farming based on forest clearing & ecological succession. Utilized by cultures around the world for millennia, it was widely scapegoated in the twentieth-century as a primary cause of deforestation. In Yunnan, the 1950s and 1960s saw a transition to plantation-style fixed cultivation. Rubber, sugar, bananas and other monoculture crops were established below 1000 meters and tea at higher elevation.

For the Bulang and other mountain ethnicities, agroforestry tea remains the most conspicuous form of indigenous land management still practiced today. Not only does this provide a vital livelihood strategy, but also preserves the practical and affective character of ecological stewardship, essential aspects of cultural identity. 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. Yet it was several months later before I saw these photos. When I inquired, Yimu responded that she hadn’t thought they were 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

This observation by James Scott, British colonial administrator to the Burmese Shan States, was made of Namhsan Township towards the end of the 19th century. It highlights the scale of the tea industry at the time and the extent to which that Palaung (Ta’ang / De’ang) community – linguistic cousins to the Bulang – had transitioned to a market-based economy.

Rice agriculture is fundamental to subsistence livelihoods, each family laboring to procure a harvest sufficient to last throughout the year. This includes more than family meals, extending into social sharing and ritual offerings. Labor in tea and rice, traditionally distributed across the agricultural calendar, now varies. Villages or families with sufficient tea income may transition more fully to a market strategy, leaving little time for paddy cultivation and requiring they purchase their rice. Alternately, they may employ laborers. Should fields go fallow and saplings begin to appear, the land designation risks shifting from agricultural to forest, severely limiting future use. As with agroforestry tea, agricultural productivity sustains vital relationships with the local ancestral landscape.

Spring 2024 was the third in a succession of extremely low rainfall years. Such conditions generally result in lower yields of exceptional quality tea, as was the case in 2023. However, in 2024, tea trees throughout the Pu’er mountains produced at 20-30% their typical capacity, leading to economic hardship for regional tea farmers. Unlike more affluent tea mountain communities, the majority of Jingmai Mountain’s population continues to engage in rice agriculture, thereby 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.

先吃飯,後喝茶
First eat (lit. ‘eat rice’), then drink tea.

When I first met Chen Jian, he asked about my interest in the tea mountain villages, stating matter-of-factly, “If you want to help these people, buy their tea.” To which Bulang elder Ai Wennan would counter, “Better three days without rice than one day without tea”, a local expression signifying tea as the ‘lifeblood’ (minggenzi 命根子) of the Bulang people. What is the nature of this tripartite relationship between subsistence agriculture, the logic of market production, and the spirit of a people? With recent market precarity and climate impacts on tea quality and yields, along with the new Jingmai Mountain UNESCO designation, these questions persist within imagined futures.