Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Tales of Guilin and the Beautiful River


                                                           by Jim Goodman

tour boats on the Li River
       Guilin has been a tourist attraction for many centuries before the word ‘tourist’ was even coined.  Ancient poets lavished praise, calling it the most beautiful place under Heaven.  Artists journeyed there to make pictures of its incredible scenery of steep hills and weirdly shaped mountains.  In fact, too incredible, for the artists often found that back home people doubted their works were realistic portraits, not fantasized.  There was no landscape like that anywhere else in China, so they couldn’t be real.
Camel Hill, Guilin
       
      The paintings were not exaggerations, though, and the fanciful scenery is very real and the main attraction of the city.  Guilin straddles the Li Jiang—Beautiful River in English—with oddly shaped hills jutting up throughout the city, as well as all the way downriver south to Yangshuo and beyond.  The unique setting is what draws people, for Guilin has no old town to appreciate.   The Japanese occupied the city during the war and before they were forced to evacuate in 1944 they razed the entire city, destroying every building except their own headquarters.
       Guilin County lies in the northeast corner of Guangxi Autonomous Zhuang Province.  Guilin is a Han city, though, and the nearest minorities, mainly Miao and Dong, live a hundred kilometers away.  It lies on a completely flat plain, with several streams branching off the Li River to run through the city.  Ponds, some used for fishing, mottle the urban area as well.
Elephant Trunk Hill at night
       Residents enjoy an active social life.  On Binjianglu, a downtown street, crowds assemble for tai qi exercises and ballroom dancing.  At night the karaoke joints are popular, but also bars, restaurants and shops tend to stay open late and large numbers of people just like strolling around.  They can be quite friendly to foreigners, shouting “Hello” as they pass by, or stopping to practice their English. They are proud of their city and its beauty and appreciate it when visitors agree with them.  Restaurants serve the usual Chinese dishes, with an accent on fish from the river and eels, shrimps, snails and turtles from the ponds.  A couple of them also offer more exotic fare like rabbit or snake.
Single Beauty Peak in central Guilin
     
Guilin people are also familiar with how they got their marvelous mountains in the first place.   According to local mythology, long ago lived a ruler who called himself ‘King of All under Heaven.’  One night he had a dream of fighting the Dragon King of the South Sea and losing.  He then ordered his subjects to fill up the south Sea with dirt and stones from the mountains of central China.  As time passed and his subjects suffered, a goddess intervened and gave the people her special hairs that, when tied to a rock, moved it easily. 
       Suddenly the task seemed achievable.  Soon the King seized possession of the magic hairs and made a whip of them to move whole mountains faster.  The Dragon King began fretting.  But Shark Girl volunteered to go seduce the King and steal the whip.  She succeeded and so the moving hills stopped at Guilin.
Crystal Palace of the Dragon King, Reed Flute Cave 
       Many of the hills have names, sometimes because they resemble something else, like Camel Hill in the city’s southeast and Elephant Trunk Hill next to the river.  They may also have origin tales that include elements of Chinese myths or history.  An example of the former is the story of Single Beauty Peak, a very steep hill in the middle of the city.  It incorporates elements of the Weaving Maiden and the Cowherd, star-crossed lovers who are only allowed to meet once a year, when the cowherd crosses the Milky Way on a bridge of magpies.
Maitreya Buddha sculpture
       The Single Beauty Peak story begins when an official representing the Heavenly Emperor comes to a village with fine wooden houses and demands all the trees and house beams and posts for the construction of a celestial palace.  When the villagers refuse, a storm and fire ensue, destroying both forest and village.  Afterwards the hero Xiao Da plants a melon seed given him by two phoenixes that shoots out a vine that enables him to climb all the way to Heaven, where he meets the Cowherd just as he is about to cross the magpie bridge.
      Xiao Da also crosses over and happens upon the celestial palace under construction.  It is being made with the wood swept away by fire from his village.  He even finds a house post that he had inscribed his name upon and wants to take it back to earth.  He gets away with the post by cleverly distracting the Earth God guarding the site, crosses the magpie bridge and hastens down the vine.  But the latter then sends an eagle to split the vine and Xiao Da has to release the post.  He eventually splashes into river, while the post lands upright in the city center, where it remains today as the Single Beauty Peak.
poems and statues, Returned Pearl Cave
Guan Yin of 1280 arms
       Nearby Fupo Hill gets its name from an early Han Dynasty general Ma Yuan, nicknamed General Fupo--Restraining Wave.  After a tribal uprising in the area expelled the Chinese garrison and took over Guilin, Emperor Wu Di dispatched Ma Yuan to quell the rebellion, preferably at the least cost to lives.  Ma Yuan arranged a parley with the rebel leader Bo Yue and persuaded him to settle claims with an archery contest.  While Bo Yue made an impressive show of skill when it was his turn, Ma Yuan climbed Fupo Hill and shot an arrow that pierced the next hill and carried on a long way to land at the original Han-tribal border.   The hill where he stood now bears Ma Yuan’s nickname and the legend accounts for the open cleft in Pierced Hill.
sculptures carved from the rock at Returned Pearl Cave
       Other hills have origin tales to account for their shapes.  A father who waited in vain on the top of a hill for the return home of his prodigal son turned to stone and became Old Man Hill.  In the Elephant Trunk Hill story, a sick elephant abandoned by the emperor on his march through the area recovers its strength after treatment by sympathetic villagers.  In return he helps the people plow the fields.  When the emperor learns the animal has recovered he demands it return to the capital.  The elephant refuses, but eventually the emperor tricks it into drinking water while he stabs it from behind.  Instead of falling over, though, the elephant turns into stone.
       Walking around Guilin, every couple of blocks offers a fresh vista.  But if it’s a foggy or rainy day, one has the option of the subterranean scenery of its caves.  The biggest and most rewarding is Reed Flute Cave, within a hill across the Peach Blossom River past the northwest part of the city.  In the past, reeds grew here that people fashioned into flutes; hence, its name.
Li RIver near Xingping
      Along the passageway inside, stalagmites jut up from the ground in the shape of lions, mushrooms and breasts and the vertical fissures along the wall resemble waterfalls.   The trail terminates at a capacious cavern, said to be able to hold a thousand people, called the Crystal Palace of the Dragon King.  From the center of its smooth ceiling hangs a stalactite resembling a chandelier-like grouping of icicle-shaped rocks.  A broad pool lies below, bounded on the far side by stalagmites shaped like the hills along the Li River, a case of the inside aping the outside.
sunset near Xingping
       None of the other caves can match Reed Flute Cave for its rock formations.  But aome, even though basically long tunnels, are interesting for what man put into them, primarily religious sculptures and votive inscriptions.  One cave features Ming and Qing Dynasty free-standing statues of a Guan Yin with 1280 arms, a sage with incredibly long eyebrows, a stately Lao Zi and a corpulent Maitreya Buddha with children crawling over his belly. 
       In Returned Pearl Cave the sculptures are carved from the rock walls.  Also grouped near the tunnel entrance are flat carved slabs inscribed with ancient poems and Buddhist sutras.  In mythical times the cave was home to a dragon.  While it was out, a young fisherman found a pearl that lighted the whole cave and took it home so his mother could have light while she was sewing and mending clothes.  But she bade him take it back, because it didn’t belong to him.  He returned the pearl and the dragon later rewarded the youth with a magic needle to sew with and a lamp that never ran out of light.
Camel Crossinn the River near Xingping
       With a plethora of story-enhanced attractions, Guilin has long been geared up for the tourist business.  This means a broad range of accommodations, but also an annoying number of ubiquitous ticket booths.  City authorities even erected a thick stand of tall bamboos that blocked a view of Elephant Trunk Hill unless you paid for a ticket to step inside of it.  But the booth closed at night, when Elephant Trunk Hill, like a few other monuments, was illuminated.
       Despite the high prices, many visitors still take the half-day boat ride downriver to Yangshuo.  On this stretch the Beautiful River certainly lives up to its name.  Passengers marvel at the continuously changing shapes of hills, with exotic names like Beautiful Woman Peak, Fairy’s Pen, Expectant Husband, Mitten Mountain, Lion Riding a Carp and, near Xingping, 20 km north of Yangshuo, Camel Crossing the River. 
steep pinnacle on the Li River near Xingping
Xingping farmer going home
       Boats don’t stop at Xingping, but this picturesque river port is a short taxi or bicycle ride from Yangshuo and worth an overnight stay.  Sunsets can be quite stunning from here.  A hike upriver offers a delightful view of oddly shaped hills, including one at the river’s edge that rises straight up 90 degrees.  In the afternoon the tour boats return to Guilin, mostly without passengers, as the tour groups lunch in Yangshuo and go back to Guilin by minibuses.  Rice fields flank the hills, children play in the river and fishermen ride rafts of a few long bamboo poles tied together and cast nets.
Ylongshan, central Yangshuo
Li River scene near Xingping
       In the past people also used cormorants to catch fish.  They tied the bird’s neck so that it couldn’t swallow the fish it caught so they could remove it from the beak.  But the use of electric stun guns upstream to immobilize fish sharply reduced the fish population around Xingping and Yangshuo.  By the turn of the century fishing with cormorants was all but a memory, reduced to re-enactments at the request of tour groups.
Yangshuo
       Yangshuo, the tour boat terminus, is smaller than Guilin, but has an equally impressive setting.  Groups of stunning hills to the east and southeast cast their reflections in the river.  Steeply sloped hills like upright loaves of bread flank the town, while the more unusual Dragon Head Peak hems in the northern side of Yangshuo.  Green Lotus Peak towers over the southwest quarter and near the city’s central park stands Yulongshan, with a staircase ascending to a viewing pavilion a third of the way up the cliff and on to another pavilion at the top of the pinnacle.
       In terms of the tourist business, Yangshuo was always more oriented towards the budget traveler crowds, who tended to stay much longer than in Guilin.  Like Xingping, the rural atmosphere was a short walk from town, up river or down.  There was no two-tier pricing system, nor the abundance of ticket booths that wrought so many frowns on travelers’ faces in Guilin.  The people are friendly, just as proud of their city’s beauty as the folks in Guilin, and just as appreciative of the visitors who share that impression.
Moon Hill
       The hilly landscape continues downriver as well as along Li River tributaries.  The easiest and most enchanting excursion out of Yangshuo is to take a bicycle ride across the river to Moon Hill.  The road is flat and takes less than an hour, but that’s not counting inevitable stops to admire the scenery.  It is especially gorgeous along the Yulong River, which branches off from the Li Jiang a little past the bridge, with small hills whose sides rise perpendicular to the rice fields around them
       Further on is a park featuring a gigantic banyan tree and from here is a view of a distant mountain with an oval crevice in it (also the result of Ma Yuan’s arrow?).  Less than two km ahead is Moon Hill, the most famous mountain with a hole in it.  The opening here is just below the rounded summit, in a shape resembling a six-day setting moon.  Through the hole, or from the top of the pathway to the summit above it, a wide cluster of peaks of sundry shapes and sizes stands in the distance, beckoning the bold traveler to further discoveries of odd peaks, timeless rural atmospheres and perhaps another set of origin tales that explain the unique landscape.

rural landscape north of Xingping

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Naxi Religion: a Mixture of Creeds


                                                  by Jim Goodman

Wufenglou, the former entrance gate to Fuguo lamasery
       Before the tragic earthquake of 1996 devastated Lijiang, the old Naxi town of Dayan offered travelers a wonderful experience of traditional urban life.  Concentrating my research on northwest Yunnan then, I explored the city on many excursions in those years, wandering down every street and lane in Dayan, at all times of day, but especially in the early morning, when activity commenced.
       Dayan’s Naxi rose later than those in rural areas.  The first establishments to open were the noodle-makers and those preparing black bean pudding.  People began setting up market stalls and opening shops around 9 a.m.  Women came to the streams to wash vegetables, men led pony-carts of charcoal and firewood and shoppers started appearing shortly after. 
White Horse Pond, Dayan
       The one activity missing was anything religious.  No shrines or statues stood anywhere on the streets.  The only religious building was the temple next to White Horse Pond in the southern quarter.  It marks the spot where the Tang Dynasty Buddhist scholar Xuan Zang, on his way to India to procure religious manuscripts, supposedly stopped to give his horse a drink.  The modest temple, built in the 18th century, did attract occasional devotees who bought fish to set free in the pond.
       Still influenced by the Confucian tradition, the Naxi maintained their ancestral altars and made offerings to them at festivals.  But even the surviving village temples, those that hadn’t been converted to schools, were hardly active and the big monasteries barely maintained.  In general, the Naxi, in contrast to the Tibetans, Bai, Hui, Dai and Bulang, were not very religious-minded.
pictographs of a dongba manuscript
       Long before exposure to Buddhism or Taoism, the Naxi had established their own belief system, built on the propitiation of natural elements and the presumed existence of myriad unseen forces.  Everything in the world was endowed with a soul and life-force of its own, including inanimate objects such as mountains, streams, fires, cliffs and stones.  Ancient Naxi believed something or other controlled the weather, the rain, the wind, etc., and so deified and gave names to these assumed agents, while lesser deities and spirits were associated with other natural phenomena.  And to account for all that could go wrong in the course of a life the Naxi identified over 500 demons.
wooden swords for funerals and the propitiation of nagas
       To deal with these pernicious spirits, and to properly honor or beseech the gods, a class of specialists arose within Naxi ranks.  Known as a dongba, this specialist performed a wide array of numerous complicated rituals.  To prompt his memory he used manuscripts in coded pictographs and performed rituals both privately for patrons and publicly for the welfare of the realm.  He was so much at the core of traditional religious practice that even today the original Naxi belief-system is known as "Dongba Religion" or "Dongba Tradition."
       A few rituals lasted several days and required recitations from over a hundred books.  Among the most frequent were:  propitiation of the nagas—the huge, dragon-like serpent spirits believed to be the invisible owners of the land; the expulsion of demons, with rituals varying according to the type of demon and sometimes involving dancing while wielding swords; rites for suicides, who were nearly always young couples whose parents had forbidden their marriage; and funerals, the most spectacular being that of a dongba.  The highlight of the latter was the display of a painted scroll twenty meters long and a recitation of a text explaining the illustrations.
dongba performing a ritual at Dazui, Lugu Lake
dongba funeral painting
       In the old days, village dongbas customarily wore large-brimmed felted wool or bamboo hats.  Otherwise they did not stand out among the villagers.  They lived in the same kind of house and while the ceremony patrons fed them for the occasion, they did not receive a salary.  The only social advantage a dongba had was the prestige accorded by being one.
mural inside Dabaoji, Baisha village
       For rituals they generally donned a five-lobed crown, called kho, with deities painted on each lobe.  They employed thick, oblong cards with figures painted on them, called dzu, which they stuck upright in groups of 7, 9 or 11, in bowls of rice in the middle of the altar.  They also used wooden swords, called khobya, painted with pictographs, which they thrust into the ground next to streams (to propitiate the nagas) or on a hill away from a funeral site.  For some rites the dongbas also made small figurines of deities and demons out of corn flour.
mural at Suhe Dajue Temple, Xiawu village
       The venues for these rituals could be anywhere within the village or outside by a stream or on a mountain.  There was no dongba temple of any kind, though.  The first temple in Naxi territory was to their own war god Sanduo, but it was built in 784 under orders of King Yimoxun of Nanzhao, the state that ruled over Yunnan at the same time as the Tang Dynasty in China.     
       Lying at the foot of Jade Dragon Mountain, just below present-day Yufeng Temple, Sanduo's temple is called Beiyuemiao—Temple of the North Sacred Mountain.  A statue of the god, in white armor and helmet, brandishing a white spear, astride a white horse, stands outside the temple entrance.  A manuscript inside contains prayers to the god, as well as the legends and exploits associated with him.
Tibetan deity in Yufeng Temple
Naxi fresco at Suhe Dajue Temple, Xiawu
       The most famous legend is of Sanduo’s aid to Azong, the last Naxi ruler prior to the Mongol conquest of Yunnan in 1253.  The god appeared to Azong in a dream, complimented him as an "upright" magistrate and promised to help him on the battlefield.  From then on the god appeared whenever Azong went to war, “rushed furiously in the front line of battle," and disappeared in a storm afterwards.
Wenfeng Monastery
       After the Mongol conquest Mahayana Buddhism gained a foothold in Lijiang with the construction of Jinshan Temple and Donglin Temple.  Dabaoji in Baisha village is its finest Ming Dynasty expression.  Daoism found a place as well in Dayan and adherents built the Jade Emperor Tower Temple and the Royal Heaven Temple.  Its philosophy was popular among the literati and its Dongjing music became part of Naxi tradition.
       The introduction of Buddhism and Daoism influenced Naxi painting, which rapidly evolved from the simple, almost crude pictographs of the dongba manuscripts to the sophisticated wall murals that graced thirteen temples in the Dayan area.  The overall balance of the murals, the orderly disposition of the figures, reflected the Han tradition.  Subject matter could be Mahayana Buddhist or Daoist themes.  The vivid coloring, emphasizing red, gold, black and silver, and the decorative aspects, reflected the Tibetan influence.
monk in his quarters at Wenfeng Monastery
Wenfeng Temple lama
       Sadly, most are gone, for nine of the temples fell to ruins and the other four were completely destroyed or badly vandalized during the Cultural Revolution.  The outstanding extant example is at Dabaoji in Baisha village.  The main fresco depicts the Buddha achieving enlightenment, surrounded by haloed holy men and bodhisattvas that appear to be floating in the clouds.  Other murals feature Tibetan lamas, dakinis, fierce deities and magistrates in hats and robes conversing, while elsewhere the Day of Judgment takes place.  Vignettes of contemporary life, such as plowing or weaving, are sometimes in the margins.
thangkas at Puji Monastery
       Nearby Dading Tower also has some Qing Dynasty frescoes, mostly restored, except for the gouged-out eyes. The only other testimony to the expertise of classical Naxi painters is the smaller set of murals at Xiawu village, west of Baisha, in the Suhe Dajue Temple.  Against a black background, the figures are skillfully painted, emphasizing gold, red, black, white and yellow, with fine details on the faces and in the jewelry.
       Lijiang’s lamaseries date from the end of the 16th century, with the introduction of the Karmapa (Red Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism.  The earliest was Yufeng Temple, built between 1579 and 1619 at the edge of the forest on Jade Dragon Mountain, a kilometer up the hill from Beiyuemiao.  The great camellia tree, which attracts so many to the Sanduo Festival, was planted a century earlier, so one of Yufeng's courtyards was constructed around this tree.  Carved doors and windows, a pebbled courtyard floor in geometric designs and the remains of the original interior frescoes are the other attractions of this temple.
Puji Monastery
       More dramatically sited is Wenfeng Monastery, high up on Wenbishan, nine km southwest of Dayan.  Completed in 1733, it is isolated far above the nearest village, lying beside a forest and spring.  Until 1949 monks came here to perform an unusual ascetic rite.  Digging holes near the spring, they climbed into them and made them their residences for the next three years, three months, three days and three hours.  During this period they never left their holes and spent the time meditating, chanting and otherwise purifying themselves.  When they finally emerged, they were supposed to be endowed with supernatural powers, such as the ability to fly.
       Puji Temple, all but hidden in a forest five km northwest of Dayan, was the third Karmapa lamasery, originally built in 1771.  Two great crab-apple trees with twisted trunks stand in the main courtyard.  Time, the weather, and neglect have reduced most of the exterior wall murals to mere traces and outlines.  But the interior furnishings are in better shape, featuring painted religious scrolls (thangkas), bright silk suspended banners and various images of the Buddha and venerated Tibetan lamas.
special lantern hung for the Mid-Autumn Festival
       The other two Karmapa temples were Zhiyunsi, on the shores of Lashi Lake, and Fuguosi, above Nguluko, the northernmost village on the Lijiang Plain.  Zhiyun Temple has been turned into a school and the buildings of Fuguo Temple were removed to Black Dragon Pool Park in Lijiang.  The very ornate entrance gate, Five Phoenix Tower (Wufenglou), graces the southern end of the park.
       After 1949 the lamasery residents were reduced to a bare minimum.  Proscribing their dongba ceremonies, the government co-opted the dongbas by making them village chieftains.  Beyond the Lijiang Plain, though, the dongba tradition survived, even if not so openly, especially Baishuitai, its birthplace in southern Shangrila County.   After the reforms of the 70s and 80s it became more public. 
       Around Lijiang, hardly any former dongbas were still alive.  The rituals did not revive, but the local government set up the Dongba Research Institute near Black Dragon Pool Park and hired them to translate the pictograph manuscripts that had survived.  A museum next door exhibited some of these books, plus the hats and robes, wooden swords, funeral paintings, drums, figurines and other items associated with dongba rituals.
Sanduo--the ancient Naxi war god
floating a lamp in Dayan at the Mid-Autumn Festival
       Like other minority nationalities in Yunnan, the Naxi were reviving their traditions, but that didn't necessarily include whatever religious piety they once had.  While in areas far from Lijiang, like Baishuitai, or Dazui, the Naxi village on the northern shores of Lugu Lake, the dongba tradition continued, not many young men were taking up the role.  No new dongbas appeared in villages on the Lijiang Plain.  The mind-sets of the Naxi people had moved beyond the animism and nature-worship that essentially characterized the dongba tradition.
       None of Lijiang’s lamaseries regained their former popularity.  In the 90s Zhiyun Temple was still used as a school.  Lay caretakers looked after Pujisi and two septuagenarian monks lived at Wenfengsi.  Only Yufengsi had been able to recruit any new novices.  About twenty were living there by mid-decade, compared to the hundreds resident before 1949.  The new mood of official tolerance meant monks could preach again and a Tibetan huofu (reincarnated lama) of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) order set up in Dayan to instruct Naxi in Tibetan-style Buddhism.  But after two years of scant success he departed.
the old camellia tree at Yufeng Temple
       Traditional festivals, however, came back into vogue.  The Naxi celebrate the major Han festivals, but sometimes with special features.  Their New Year rites include an outdoor Sacrifice to Heaven and at the Mid-Autumn Festival for venerating ancestors, they hang fancy big lanterns at their doorways.  On the first day, with firecrackers and hot-air balloons, the Naxi salute their ancestors and invite them to their homes.  On the second night they place small paper lanterns, usually lotus-shaped with a candle in the center, into the streams.  And on the third night they inscribe their clan names on paper and make sacrifices of fruits and grains to their ancestors.
       The biggest traditional event, 8th day of the 2nd moon, is the Sanduo Festival, honoring their chief indigenous deity.  In the morning they hike up to Beiyuemiao, kowtow to Sanduo’s statue and leave offerings.  Afterwards they ascend to Yufengsi, where the old camellia is in full bloom, to pose for photographs.  Then they may make a stop in the compound where the lama is performing his rituals for the occasion.  Upon departure they will head for a spot in the woods or on a nearby hill and have a leisurely picnic.
       Back in Lijiang in the afternoon, they may form up for ring dances in one of the squares. Sometimes traditional orchestras are contracted to play for the day and much feasting ensues from dark.  Ostensibly a religious festival, but one totally identified with the Naxi identity, people relish this as a time of socializing and public entertainment.

Naxi devotees passing a reliquary mound en route to Yufeng Temple
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For more on the dongba and the Naxi, see my e-book Children of the Jade Dragon.

Lijiang and Baishuitai are both stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s route through northwest Yunnan.  See the details at https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/northwest-yunnan


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Pu’er Tea in Xishuangbanna


                                  by Jim Goodman

Jinuo tea farms in Youleshan
       When tea cultivation began in Yunnan is difficult to pinpoint.  Local legends say that Zhuge Liang, the famed strategist from the Three Kingdoms era in the 3rd century, popularized tea cultivation in Yunnan after he conquered the province.  But no record exists of him ever reaching Xishuangbanna.  That he popularized it rather than introduced it implies tea cultivation was already going on in Yunnan.  In Banna, the Jinuo people may already have been residing there, and their origin myth says the goddess Yaobai gave seeds for both tea and rice to the first Jinuo couple.  So the cultivation of tea in Xishuangbanna may well have begun around 2000 years ago.
tea gardens near Menghun, Menghai County
     
The main growing areas in Xishuangbanna, all inhabited by non-Dai ethnic minorities, were the ‘six major tea mountains’ of Yiwu and Kongmingshan in Mengla County, Youleshan in Jinuoshan district and Nannuoshan, Bulangshan and Xiding’s hills in Menghai County.  The type cultivated was Pu’er tea, named after the town in southern Pu’er Prefecture (formerly called Simao) where the tea was packed and shipped north to Tibet along the famous Tea and Horses Road.
       Tea gardens, factories and ancient tea trees are among the contemporary tourist attractions in Xishuangbanna, especially among Chinese connoisseurs of fine quality tea.  Way up near the summit of Nannuoshan, just east of Menghai, stands the oldest extant cultivated tea tree in Banna, said to be at least 900 years old.  Today it is accessible on a trail that takes about a half-hour’s walk from the nearest Aini village, passing numerous, generations-old tea trees one to three meters in height, which local workers climb up to pick the leaves.  The ancient tree, festooned with chains of linked bamboo loops, is off-limits for tealeaf pickers.  So is the oldest living wild tea tree, said to be 1600 years old, which stands in a mixed forest above a small reservoir several km west of Bada, in southwestern Menghai County.
oldest wild tea tree (1600 years) near Bada
oldest cultivated tea tree (900 years) at Nannuoshan
       Tea bushes grow in long, evenly spaced rows on the mountain slopes.  After four years their leaves are ready for picking.  Unlike rice fields in the mountains, created by slash-and-burn agriculture, and only used for an average two years before being abandoned in favor of new ones, tea gardens are permanent.   They do not deplete the soil of nutrients the way rice cultivation in the hills does.  In fact, as time passed and the hills became more densely populated, fields could not be left fallow long enough to insure, when prepared again by slash-and-burn, a rice output similar to the previous yield.  So rice cultivation became impractical and people switched to tea as a cash crop, for which they didn’t need to periodically make new fields.
Aini girl in a tea tree in Nannuoshan
picking from the bushes south of Menghun
       Compared to the work of rice farming—plowing fields, planting and harvesting—it’s not very laborious.  Harvesting starts in late summer, when the rains have somewhat subsided.  Because they were far from the population centers, tea cultivators did not get involved in the marketing of it.  They kept a portion to use themselves and sold the rest to middlemen from the plains.
Dai tea garden in the plains near Menghai
     
From the 1909 foundation of the first tea company in Menghai, the tea trade turned into a more organized business.  Over the next two decades seventeen more started operations.  All of these were Han-owned, but Dai nobles often acted as middlemen between the companies and the growers, arranging the annual collections in the hills and deliveries to the towns, earning a 10% fee for their services.
       Tea merchants from the different companies belonged to an association in the towns, which met annually to determine prices and allocate collection zones.  Sometimes merchants advanced money to growers in the spring, when the hill people’s food stocks and cash were in short supply, enabling the merchants to collect the harvest at a reduced rate when picking season commenced in August.  They also advanced loans, at a monthly interest rate of 8-10%.  The presence of Chinese military units and administrators helped guarantee the Han monopoly in the tea trade
drying tea near the top of Nannuoshan
drying tea in Yiwu
       As in the rest of China, tea in Xishuangbanna was originally considered a medicine.  Only in the last few centuries has tea become an ordinary beverage taken with meals, as a refresher, or served as part of hospitality.  But even today, for people like the Jinuo and Bulang, who have been growing tea for many centuries, tea is not only a beverage, but also something that can be eaten—for good health.
loading up the raw tea harvest
sorting the tea
       To make their mixed cold tea dish Jinuo people collect young tealeaves in the early morning and roast them over a fire for thirty minutes.  Then they mix the cooked leaves with salt, spicy pepper, ginger and garlic paste.  They eat this concoction, slightly sweet and with a distinct aftertaste, with sticky rice.  This particular preparation is supposed to alleviate internal heat in the summer and reduce the feeling of cold in the winter.
selecting the best quality buds
       In Bulang villages a traditional favorite dish served at weddings and other festive occasions is pickled tea.  To make this specialty the people collect new sprouts and young leaves from the tea bushes and spread them out in layers on a mat to dry in the sun.  When the lot begins to darken in color the people rub the still moist leaves and sprouts with their hands, mix salt, ground pepper and other spices with them, then pack them tightly in a sealed bamboo tube.  After thirty days the tea will start to sour and in another thirty days is ready to serve.  The pickled tea retains all its vitamin C and other nutrients, is served cold as an appetizer, tastes slightly sweet and is supposed to aid digestion.
       The tea the Bulang like to drink, though, is slightly bitter.  To process the leaves they either first stir-fry them, then bake them in bamboo tubes, or else stir-fry or boil the leaves and then dry them in the sun.  Most of the tea processed by these methods, similar to the processing done by other tea-growing mountain peoples, goes to the commercial markets.  Freshly picked tealeaves and unprocessed, sun-dried leaves are sold directly to the tea factories, where a more complex form of processing and packing takes place.
filtering chutes
       In a typical tea factory one large room contains sacks of leaves, which workers open one by one and toss the leaves onto a screen to filter out the bigger sticks and pieces.  The tea passes through two more screens of finer mesh.  The portions obtained with each filtering are saved and processed as separate qualities.  Workers remove to another room the leaves that pass through the filter and pile them up, uncovered, raking them frequently, to dry indoors.  In a third room several workers, usually women, sit over big winnow trays of tea and select the best buds for the highest quality brands.
       The tea is allowed to ferment for a period of time determined by the managers, then steamed to halt the fermentation and moved to the packing room.  Several molding machines in this room press the processed tea into different compact shapes, the most common being a round discus, thicker in the middle than at the circumference.  These are wrapped in handmade paper and stacked up in wooden racks until sold or picked up for delivery to the market.  Smaller portions of the processed tea get pressed into shapes of balls, cones, pumpkins and wheels with square holes in the middle, like the old coins, and low-relief Chinese characters on the surface. 
steaming to halt fermentation
       Samples of these shapes of compressed tea will be on display in the factory’s receiving room, where guests and buyers can try out various qualities.  The host prepares the tea almost ritually, over a meter-long, carved wooden table with built-in drains.  After heating the water the host washes the cups with it to warm them up, then brews the tea and serves it in small cups.  With each refill the brew is darker and stronger and after three or four cups the host proceeds to prepare another pot, of a different quality.
       Tea production in Xishuangbanna increased throughout the Republican Era, but by the time the Menghai Tea Factory opened in 1939, the first large-scale processing and packing facility in Banna, trade disruptions caused by the war with Japan had reduced the annual yield.  Production for local consumption continued, but exports out of Banna didn’t resume until after 1949.  But now it was a state-owned enterprise and production stagnated until the reforms of the 1980s allowed private initiatives in the tea business.
stacking discs of packed tea
       Still, as a cash crop substitute for rice cultivation, rubber was a more lucrative business until the late 90s, when prices dropped considerably for several years.  Around the same time a sudden national mania for Pu’er tea developed, spurring the extension of tea cultivation, especially in Menghai County, an elevated plateau that was too high for rubber plantations anyway.  Even the Dai in the plains began switching from rice to tea.
       Pu’er tea has long had a good reputation among tea connoisseurs for its flavor and salubrious properties.  It is supposed to aid digestion, balance the internal body temperature and relieve hangovers.  Unlike other brands, like Longjing, which is good only for a short period after processing, Pu’er tea improves with age.  Indeed, for the maximum benefit to the health, it should be consumed only after having been kept for five years.  Newly rich Chinese at the beginning of the 21st century, looking for a domestic product in which to invest their money, suddenly took a keen interest in Pu’er tea.
preparing tea cakes for shipment
       The mania took hold after a cabal of speculators cornered Banna’s tea market, bought everything available and drove up prices.  Ambitious investors from other parts of China arrived to contract for some of the expanded production and set up tea factories of their own.  By mid-decade there were 3000 tea merchants and manufacturers in Xishuangbanna, intensely competitive and suspicious of one another.  And the price of Pu’er tea had risen to ten times what it sold for at the start of the century.  The top grade aged variety was going for over $300 a kilo. 
       Besides the speculators, pickers and growers also saw their incomes soar.  At the peak of the frenzy ordinary farmers could get 200 yuan per kilo for fresh leaves and 300 yuan per kilo for leaves sun-dried in one of the village squares for a few days.   Much of this new income they spent on improving their lives, beginning by building a new, “modern” house. So they demolished their traditional stilted houses and erected cement and brick houses that sat on the ground, shaped like a box, with flat roof and no open-air balcony.  They basically copied the design of the immigrant Han houses around the state rubber plantations, a type actually inappropriate for the tropical climate.  In some places they retained the angled roof and perhaps the open-air balcony, but in most newly rich villages what formerly consisted of nothing but traditional stilted wooden houses were now transformed into villages of nothing but virtually identical concrete boxes.
balls of compressed Pu'er tea
       In the spring of 2008 tea prices reached their highest level.  Pu’er tea had such an inflated reputation that counterfeits began entering the market.  Tea producers from other parts of the country shipped their tea to Xishuangbanna to have it repackaged and sold as Pu’er tea.  Government intervention followed and suddenly hoarders started selling off their stock and in no time the prices fell precipitously.  By the end of the year Pu’er tea fetched prices comparable to that in the mid-90s; i.e., less than 10% of the peak earlier that year.
       Over a third of the new tea factories closed down permanently.  The six-story new tea emporium built in Menghai for buyers and producers was nearly empty.  Visitors stopped coming to the fancy new tea museum.  Buyers from other parts of China, who had been flocking to Xishuangbanna, stopped coming.  Cobwebs gathered on stacks of unsold bricks of tea, for which merchants had paid premium prices and now couldn’t sell at all. 
       In general, the bursting of the tea bubble was less disastrous for the cultivators than for the speculating merchants.  While they could no longer garner the returns they once did, the market didn’t die completely and at least they had new houses to show for their luck during the boom years.  Those who had just started new tea gardens uprooted the immature bushes, plowed the fields over and planted rice or corn in them instead.   
shaping tea cakes
preparing Pu'er tea
     
Tea prices eventually recovered, but nowhere near the figures during the boom.  The frenzy had faded forever, but Chinese people still drank tea and Pu’er tea, with its fine taste and therapeutic value, is still a connoisseur’s favorite.  Culturally associated with philosophy, creativity and good health, drinking tea is a national habit and venerable custom.  There will always be a market for Pu’er tea.
tea gardens south of Mengxing, Mengla County
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for more information on Xishuangbanna, see my e-book Xishuangbanna  the Tropics of Yunnan

Overnight  in a tea garden is on the itinerary of one of Delta Tours Vietnam’s routes in Yunnan—Xishuangbanna and the Wa Hills.  See the whole schedule at https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/xishuangbanna-wa-hills 

           
      
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