Centuries-old tea trees bring fortune to mountain village

2020-06-16 Xinhua Editor:Mo Hong'e

Row upon row of modern multi-story villas seem radically out of place in Laobanzhang, a remote mountain village surrounded by vast swaths of primeval forests in southwest China's Yunnan Province.

The posh houses embody the prosperity brought about by the hundreds of thousands of ancient tea trees growing under the forests.

The centuries-old tea trees produce arguably China's most sought-after pu'er tea, a type of fermented tea prized for its pleasant aroma, initial bitter flavor and lingering sweet aftertaste.

"Growing, processing and drinking pu'er has always been a family tradition for me and my fellow villagers," said He Sen, a villager who owns a 6.7-hectare tea garden. "But none of us expected that the tea could make such a big difference in our lives."

Laobanzhang boasts a long history of tea cultivation. For generations, its 600-plus villagers, most of whom are from the Hani ethnic group, have grown over 640 hectares of tea trees on the surrounding mountain slopes. But poor transport infrastructure and the low price of pu'er in the last century hindered the village's development, leaving the villagers scrambling to make ends meet.

"In the late 1990s, my family's pu'er was sold at less than 10 yuan (1.41 U.S. dollars) per kilogram to the Menghai Tea Factory," a then state-owned company that monopolized the sales of pu'er in Laobanzhang, said He, 42.

He recalled that his family of seven, as well as their pigs, chickens and cattle, crowded into a thatched adobe house during his childhood and they led a meager life by growing rice and corn. He had to walk for five hours on difficult mountain roads to attend primary school.

Things started to turn around for He and other tea growers in Laobanzhang when Menghai Tea Factory was restructured in 2004. Tea traders and connoisseurs from other parts of China began to pour into the village, leading to a meteoric rise in pu'er's popularity and price.

"The price of pu'er jumped to 50 yuan per kilogram in 2004. Despite a slump in the market in 2007, it has continued to rise until this day," He said.

"Generally, the older the tea tree is, the higher its price will be," He added. "The tea harvested in spring will be more valued than that reaped in fall or during the rainy season."

As the pu'er craze sweeps across the country, Laobanzhang has become a mecca for pu'er traders and aficionados, who swarm to the village during every harvest season.

"I used to receive as many as 60 tea traders at home in a day," He said. "And it's the same situation with many of my fellow villagers."

In 2010, He followed in the footsteps of other villagers to build a grand two-story villa. The house is "a necessity," because he needs the spacious second floor to air-dry the tea leaves.

"The ancient tea trees have really become a 'cash cow' for Laobanzhang villagers and the impoverished residents from nearby villages and townships," said Yang Junwei, the village's Party chief. "This spring, over 70 poor residents from nearby Meng'a Township were hired as tea pickers to work in Laobanzhang and earn extra money."

Yang added that the local government and the villagers have been making every effort to protect the precious tea trees.

Littering and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are banned in Laobanzhang's tea gardens, according to local regulations. The villagers have also established a patrol team to monitor the gardens and prevent any possible harm to the tea trees, Yang said.

"We hope to do a good job in protecting the ancient tea trees so that they can benefit many generations to come," Yang said. 

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