Anyone who goes to Nan Nuo Shan will have heard about, or visited ‘Cha Wang Shu’, the ‘King of Tea Trees’ that is between Ban Po Lao Zhai and Ya Kou Zhai. It is estimated to be 800 years old or more, but apart from carbon dating, there appears to be no sure-fire way to tell a tea trees age as they do not have rings that can be counted in the way that most other trees do. Locally, there are only word-of-mouth assessments of age, ‘so-and-so’s grandfather says it was yea big when he was a boy’ or something akin to that. Or otherwise by comparison with a tree of known age.
Carbon dating has been used to establish the age of some tea trees. And so to the apocryphal tale of the original Nan Nuo Shan ‘Cha Wang Shu‘. It was growing a little way below Shi Tou Zhai, and had attracted a lot of interest from scientists. As early as the beginning of the 1950’s Yunnan College of Agriculture researchers were exploring the varieties of tea tree in this area. The story is that local hunters who were familiar with the area would act as guides to take researchers deep into the forest. On one such trip in late 1951 a tea tree that was 8.8 metres tall with a girth of 0.83 metres was found. A couple of years later, one Zhou Peng Ju from Yunnan Agricultural College Research Department came to examine the tree, and over the ensuing years an increasing number of botanists and specialists came to examine the tree. Eventually it was established that the tree was a cultivated variety of tea tree.
According to one version of the sequence of events, as more and more people came to visit the tree, the surrounding environment was badly affected and the tree itself was also damaged, and by the mid 1990’s the tree died.
The local version of the story is that scientists came and took samples for examination by drilling into the trunk of the tree, which lead to the death of the King of Tea Trees.
This photo, with the tea tree behind, from the famous visit in 1985, is about all the evidence that remains on Nan Nuo Shan.
Zeng Wei Ran and colleagues visit the tree in 1985.
According to the Lunar calendar, the full moon in late June or early July is the time Hani people celebrate Ye Ku Zha. The Chinese translation, 秋千节 means ‘Swing Festival’ because, similar to some other local minorities, a large swing forms a central part of the festival. In other parts of Yunnan the festival is also referred to as Zha Zha Festival and rather than a swing they may have a see-saw type arrangement where a horizontal pole, set atop a vertical pointed pole can both pivot vertically and rotate horizontally. There appear to be various founding legends for this festival, but it essentially celebrates ancestors, though in some areas it is said to also be a harvest festival.
Preparing the swing
Not all Hani people in Xishuangbanna celebrate it, but on Nan Nuo Shan and other Hani villages nearby they do. The time it is celebrated can also vary by as much as a couple of weeks. Traditionally the swing is made from four tall tree trunks, but due to the scarcity of the right height and thickness of trees, and restrictions on felling, it is common for the frame to be made of steel as it is in these photographs. The cross-pole is made from a thick length of vine and traditionally a number of thinner vines were strung over the cross-pole and braided to form the rope for the swing. Nowadays nylon rope is braided in the same manner.
Children lining up to ride on the swing
After the festival, which lasts about one week, the rope is left on the frame to be taken down and replaced with a new one the next year. The swing cannot be ridden before the first day of the festival when a cow is slaughtered and the meat shared out between the villagers. At that point villagers and visitors can ride on the swing and there may be a competition to see who can swing the highest, but according to village lore, the main purpose of the swing is essentially a form of cleansing ritual: by riding on the swing one can cast off ‘bad luck’ or inauspicious events from the previous year.
The village champion
At this time of the year, some way into the rainy season, tea farmers are not particularly busy. There may still be a little Summer tea being made in some villages where they have small tea trees, but generally there will be little tea until the Autumn and any crops that villagers may have planted, like rice or maize will have already been harvested or will not get harvested till the Autumn.
Way up north of Yiwu is not necessarily the first place you would think to look for that rather overplayed blend of tea and Zen, but there it was. I shouldn’t have been surprised in the least, but somehow I still was.
Over the last couple of years I have been sourcing a little tea from a tea garden in a quite remote area some way above Yiwu. From the nearest village, it takes about an hour my motorbike on a narrow and difficult trail, often with steep, muddy inclines coupled with a sharp drop on one side as the path winds its way up the mountainside. A Yao (瑶族）friend and I had gone to the tea gardens and on the way had seen the small but vivid signs of how treacherous the path can be: a local couple had been riding on the path and had come off. They had already been taken down from the mountain, but the bike was still in the gully.
A more leisurely stretch of path with a little bit of ‘cha ma gu dao’ for extra flavour.
As anyone who has engaged in any kind of activity like that knows, the moment you come nearest to screwing up is when you lose concentration for a fraction of a second. I was curious to hear my friend’s experience, as it’s a much more regular activity for them than for me. I had also never had that kind of conversation with him, so when we got back down to the village I asked him what he thought about when he was riding on the path. He looked quizzically at me for a second or two before replying, ‘Nothing!’ he said.
Looking south east from Da Du Gang toward the Six Famous Tea Mountains. Kong Ming Shan (to the north- west of Ge Deng) is just above the tree branch on the left.
I’ve been to Nan Nuo Shan more times than I care to imagine so I guess I feel like I know it fairly well and I had pretty much given up on the idea that I might find a tea garden there that was not over-managed, but this Spring on a spur of the moment decision I decided to do some exploring whilst I was unaccompanied. It was fortuitous since I found my way into some tea gardens that are part of Ban Po Lao Zhai, but that I had not visited before. There was one area of the tea gardens that particularly interested me and a second area which also looked good. The garden’s on one of the higher parts of Nan Nuo Shan, at a hair under 1800m, and the surrounding environment is surprisingly good. It’s a tea that turned out to be one of the pleasant surprises of this year.
After a rather sedentary summer, I went again to Nan Nuo Shan a day or two ago , this time with some friends. We visited some tea gardens that are part of Shi Tou Zhai, but lower down the mountain at a height of around 1400m, so not that high, but good enough. Some of the gardens here are managed with a slightly heavy hand but some, higher up the slope, toward the top of a ridge are better. Quite a few of the trees here have been copiced at some time and there are also quite a few smaller trees in amongst the larger ones. Some of these are clearly trees which were cut, or burned right back to the ground, but others look like they came later, naturally or otherwise. The environment around the gardens is quite good. My friend says he tasted some tea from here in the summer and that it was not bad so he’s toying with getting some Autumn tea from here this year. So, let’s wait and see. The gardens looked OK, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.