Pu’er Journal

A Tea From the Jungle Enriches a Placid Village

Justin Mott for The New York Times

Workers pick leaves from domesticated tea plants in Pu’er, China, where leaves grown in the wild are preferred by local people.

 

Published: April 21, 2008

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. 
天空幾近無雲,和風令人神清氣爽,姚昆雪(譯音)工作的茶園看似一座吸取著夕陽餘暉的巨大綠色露天劇場。

 

The tea itself? No thanks, he says. He grows it — what he calls industrial tea — but he does not drink it. 
至於這茶呢?他說心領了。他種這茶,稱它為產業茶,然而他不喝。

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. 
人類學者表示,中國大陸南部雲南省綿延起伏的山區是茶的誕生地;人類最早在這裡發現,吃茶葉或泡茶喝是種享受。今天,茶農種植大片茶園,然而他們喜歡以先人的方式品茶:以野生茶葉沏泡,茶葉最好採自深山密林中的老樹。

“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.” 
姚昆雪最愛採自樹齡百年以上老樹的茶葉。他說:「它有股香氣,下喉後會回甘。」

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. 
雲南的茶葉幾十年前還沒沒無聞,如今卻成了香港、上海、北京茶舖裡當紅的貨,尤其是普洱地區產的茶。普洱茶需求激增,商家常把茶園種的說成野生茶來賣,普洱的茶農因而致富,企業家則紛紛在密林覆蓋的山坡闢建更多茶園。

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. 
官員指出,普洱去年產茶21000公噸,其中九成產自茶園。當地人似乎樂得把茶遠送到外地。他們嫌這種茶太苦,也不喜歡茶農為了清除蟲子、病毒、黴菌而經常噴灑的化學藥劑。

“The pesticides come through in the taste,” Mr. Yao said. 
姚昆雪說:「喝起來會有殺蟲劑的味道。」

Here, tea has never been something bought at the market; it grows in the backyard, like blueberries in the woods of Maine. 
在普洱,人們從不上市場買茶;它就長在家家戶戶的後院。人們把馴化的茶樹修剪為樹籬,以利採收。在野外,它們會長得有如地中海橄欖樹,葉子則更大更多。

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. 
部分普洱人把採自較偏遠地區野生茶樹的茶葉稱為密林茶,當地人已經採摘數百年。直到最近,採收野生茶才開始有錢可賺。他們沿著先人的地界劃分茶樹林,並角將茶葉賣給規模比較大的公司。

“Twenty years ago no one had the idea that tea could become so valuable,” said Chen Jinqiang, an official in Xishuangbanna. 
西雙版納的官員陳金強(譯音)表示:「廿年前,沒有人想得到茶會變得這麼值錢。」

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.
陳金強表示,廿年前,一塊經過壓縮的茶磚售價人民幣三元或大約40美分,現在可以賣到人民幣200元或大約25美元。

“People here always had enough to eat,” he said. “Now they have a lot of cash.” 
陳金強說:「這裡的人一向不愁吃。現在更是荷包滿滿。」

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. 
在距緬甸邊界只有幾十公里、位於山巔的曼邁村,普洱茶不斷帶進財富。曼邁村出入一向得靠步行;現在則有一條蜿蜒而上的泥土路正在興建。

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. 
十九歲的查戈(譯音)是採茶工人,和其他村民同屬雲南少數民族拉祜族。他說,他以前從沒見過外國人,現已經瞭解外人對他的茶樹有興趣所衍生的價值。

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. 
每年的三、四月是採茶的旺季。每逢這個時候,查戈一個月的收入可達1000美元,遠高於華東城市工廠裡的工人。

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. 
那些工人必須忍受令人窒息的城市煙霧。普洱的採茶工人則大不相同,是在可飽覽原始山林景致的茶樹間工作。

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. 
普洱茶近年來竄紅與開始注重養生的中國大陸新富階級有關。他們認為,普洱茶可以降膽固醇,消除宿醉,鞏固牙齒,還可以消脂。

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. 
北京與上海的商家經常聲稱,他們陳售的普洱茶已有數十年的歷史。一般認為,如果長期保存,普洱茶會更香醇。不過陳金強表示,碰到有人說他的普洱茶已有十年以上的歷史,他不會輕易相信。他說:「我看,多半是假的。」

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.”

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