A Tea From the Jungle Enriches a Placid Village
PU’ER, China — The sky is nearly cloudless, the breeze is bracing, and the tea plantation where Yao Kunxue works resembles a giant green amphitheater absorbing the last rays of a setting sun.
The tea itself? No thanks, he says. He grows it — what he calls industrial tea — but he does not drink it.
The rolling hills of China’s southern Yunnan Province are the birthplace of tea, anthropologists say, the first area where humans figured out that eating tea leaves or brewing a cup could be pleasant. Today tea farmers preside over large plantations, but they want their tea the way their forebears consumed it: brewed from wild leaves, and preferably from ancient trees in the jungle.
“It has a fragrant smell,” Mr. Yao said of his favorite, harvested from trees at least a century old. “And when you swallow there’s a sweet aftertaste.”
From relative obscurity a few decades ago, tea from Yunnan, especially Pu’er, has become a fashionable, must-have variety in the tea shops of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Surging demand for Pu’er — often advertised as wild tea even if it is from the plantations — has made farmers here rich and encouraged entrepreneurs to carve out more plantations from jungle-covered hillsides.
Ninety percent of the 23,000 tons of Pu’er tea produced last year was grown on plantations, officials say. Local residents seem more than happy to send it to distant locales. They complain about its hard edges — too bitter — and the chemicals that are regularly sprayed on the plants to repel bugs, viruses and fungus.
“The pesticides come through in the taste,” Mr. Yao said.
Here, tea has never been something bought at the market; it grows in the backyard, like blueberries in the woods of Maine.
Domesticated tea plants are trimmed into hedges to make harvesting easier. In the wild, they grow to resemble the old and gnarled olive trees of the Mediterranean but with bigger and more abundant leaves.
Peng Zhe, deputy secretary general of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, a tea-growing district here, compares the wild tea to fine vintages of Bordeaux or Burgundy.
“To appreciate Pu’er tea is similar to enjoying wine,” said Mr. Peng, who also leads the local tea promotion board. “You need to understand the different areas where tea grows. The fragrance is different from one mountain to the next.”
Jungle tea, as some here call the harvest from wild tea trees in more remote areas, has been picked by villagers for centuries, and in imperial times it was sent to the emperor. But only recently have the profits started rolling in for the wild-tea pickers, who have divided forests of tea trees along ancestral lines and are increasingly selling to larger concerns.
“Twenty years ago no one had the idea that tea could become so valuable,” said Chen Jinqiang, an official in Xishuangbanna.
A compressed disc of Pu’er tea that sold for 3 yuan, or about 40 cents, two decades ago now can easily go for 200 yuan, about $25, today, Mr. Chen said.
“People here always had enough to eat,” he said. “Now they have a lot of cash.”
In Manmai, a hilltop village a few dozen miles from China’s border with Myanmar, the wealth from the Pu’er tea boom is trickling down. The village headman, Zha Pagu, has never traveled more than 30 miles from his house during his 60-plus years (he said he could not remember his exact age), but his home now has a solar water heater, and his neighbors are upgrading their wood and thatch homes with modern building materials like tiles and concrete.
Until recently the village was accessible only by foot. A dirt road that winds up the mountain is now under construction, but the village remains relatively isolated.
Zha Ge, 19, a tea picker who like the other villagers is Lahu, a small ethnic minority here, said he had never met a foreigner before. But he understands the value of outsiders’ keen interest in his tea trees. Picking tea has generated enough cash to buy a 20-inch television, a motorcycle and a copy of his favorite foreign film, “First Blood,” the first in the Rambo series.
In March and April, the peak tea-plucking season, Mr. Zha Ge can make up to $1,000 a month, far more than what the factory workers in eastern Chinese cities make stitching blue jeans and assembling iPods.
Unlike those workers, who live in smog-choked cities with blackened, polluted waterways, the tea pickers here work among trees that overlook a pristine mountain range that would not look out of place in a Chinese scroll painting. In October, when the tea trees flower, the air is filled with the sweet aroma of tea blossoms. “It smells just like honey,” Mr. Zha Ge said.
Teenage girls are the most sought-after tea pickers — their fingers move more quickly, local residents say — and they can harvest as much as 110 pounds of tea leaves a day.
Yet for many families in the remote reaches of Yunnan, tea-picking remains outside the realm of commerce. It is so tightly intertwined with their daily lives that it is a routine household chore, like putting the laundry out to dry.
Yue Ye, 38, the mother of two teenagers in Chui Hao, a village inhabited by members of the Dai ethnic group, says children begin drinking tea when they are 3 to 5 years old. Families consume it first thing in the morning, after lunch, after dinner and late in the evening.
They pick the tea from ancient trees atop a hill near the village. “The people who planted them are long dead,” Ms. Yue said.
She cooks the leaves in a wok, “massages” them by hand and leaves them in the sun for a day.
Tea from Pu’er was popular around the region in ancient times: historians describe “horse tea trails” that radiated from Pu’er, the main trading center for the tea, into northern and eastern China, Tibet and beyond.
The recent surge in popularity is attributed to newly affluent, health-conscious Chinese who believe that Pu’er tea lowers cholesterol, cures hangovers, helps fortify teeth and trims away fat.
Shops in Beijing or Shanghai advertise that their Pu’er tea has been aged for several decades, which is said to give the tea a more mellow taste. But as with many things in China it is hard to tell the real from the counterfeit.
Mr. Chen, the government official, said he would be very wary of claims that tea has been aged more than 10 years. “Most of it is fake, I think,” he said.
Nopporn Phasaphong, a tea trader in Bangkok whose family has been in the business for three generations and who travels regularly to Pu’er, says she, too, is skeptical about the authenticity of much of what is labeled jungle tea from Pu’er. Very little genuine jungle tea is on the market, she says. “Everyone who sells it will tell you it comes from old trees,” she said. “But it’s like buying rubies. You have to know something about it.”
Mr. Yao says he can taste the difference between teas grown on plantations and those from wild trees. But in what may be a metaphor for freewheeling China today, he acknowledges that nonconnoisseurs often get hoodwinked.
“If you don’t know Pu’er tea,” he said, “people will cheat you.”