Author Archives: zhizheng

Spring in Banna

Spring has come early this year. A few weeks ago there was some bush tea around and I was in Lao Si Tu where they were processing some old tree tea.

Hong Tu Po near Ge Deng

Bauhinias in the evening near Hong Tu Po

At this time of year in the mountains, hillsides are spotted with white and the air is heavy with the fragrance of Bauhinias. In Chinese the tree is known as zi jing hua -紫荆花 , but in Xishuangbanna they bear mostly white flowers so are known locally as bai hua shu – 百花树.

The road up to Yi Bang was much better than it was a couple of weeks ago: the mud has all but dried up leaving a rock hard surface with deep ruts in places. But it has not dried out to the point that it is terribly dusty. Also, it is early enough in the season that there has not yet been much traffic.

I was in an Yi village some way beyond Yi Bang – He Bian Zhai. A small village with some fifteen households at the head of the Long Gu River.

he bian zhai near yi bang

Ancient tea trees near He Bian Zhai

Most of the ancient tea tree gardens are below the village, but some are next to the houses. A few are quite large, with a girth of maybe 80 cm, but most are more slender. The trees here are xiao ye zhong – small leaf variety, as are many places in the Six Famous Tea Mountains area. The ground here is not treated in any way. The soil is consequently quite hard packed as the farmers do not turn it, as some have taken to doing in other villages.

xiang ming he valley in the early morning

Looking down the Xiang Ming River valley



Yi Bang

Local people use a route to get between Ge Deng and Yi Bang. It’s still quite a distance, but avoids having to go down to the Xiang Ming-Meng Lun road, and then back up to Yi Bang from Xiang Ming.

Stretches of the road are pretty muddy which makes for an interesting motorbike ride. I took a Youle tea farmer friend: as is typical for the large majority of tea farmers, although it’s maybe only 60km away, he had never been there. By the time we got to Yi Bang it was dark, and we and the bike were covered in mud up to the knees.

Evening on the road from Gedeng to Yibang

Yi Bang has a variety of resident ethnic groups but the majority is Yi.  Jia Bu, Xi Kong and Man Song are all within the Yi Bang area along with a number of smaller villages: Man Gong, Ma Li Shu, Mi Bu, etc. The village mostly has small leaf variety trees though in some areas nearby there is a mix of xiao ye zhong and zhong xiao ye zhong.

This is rather typical of Yibang tea gardens. This one is on a steep slope on the edge of the village running down into a ravine with forest on the other side.

tea garden in Yibang - small leaf variety trees

And in Ma Lin Shu, a few kilometers away:

ma lin shu tea garden outside the village

Amongst the trees here there were one or two da ye zhong.

Yi Bang Jie (Yi Bang Street) to give it its proper name, feels like a place resting between two epochs – with a history that it has left behind, but  isn’t yet ready to grapple with the present.

yi bang jie


Puer on Penang

I realised, with the help of my fingers, I that it was on Penang in late summer 2000 that I first drank Puer tea. What I subsequently realised, which was not so clear to me at the time, was that it must have been a rather good aged Puer.

I had been staying in a small Theravadan hermitage on Penang Hill and, the day before I was due to leave, the abbot of the hermitage took me to meet the benefactors who owned the piece of land that the place was built on. We drank a couple of teas: one was the Puer.

I was recently back there for a short visit – the first in seven years. I never had much affinity for KL – if I had to be in a large Asian city I’d rather be in Bangkok – so only stayed a couple of days: long enough to look around and drop in briefly on a couple of the usual suspects.

detail on door to han jiang temple georgetown

Georgetown is something else altogether. I have often gone there in the past, thinking to stay a couple of days and ended up staying rather longer.

I have to say that my tolerance for tea-shop sales pitch is rather low these days, and there is a little less of it in Georgetown than KL I fancy. So Penang is a rather nicer place to while away some time drinking tea.

I ended up spending a little time in a couple of shops. My request was to try an example of what the shop believed to be puer tea that had aged well in Malaysia. I only tasted a few teas, but of those I did, none were without issue, even if storage had been kind to them, and in not all cases had it been so.

Tea shops on Penang seem to differ a little from KL. They carry some rather cheaper, more recent tea amidst a majority of older, big factory productions.

Of the tea shops I visited a couple said they preferred to spend their time sourcing older teas from private collections in Malaysia and Southern Thailand rather than sourcing new teas from China. Having said that, it seems most of the tea I was offered had spent some time in Guangdong before arriving in Malaysia.

I heard a couple of common riffs:

Penangers prefer locally aged big factory productions over more recent ‘shan tou’ Puer because they are risk averse to a big outlay for younger, single mountain teas that they fear might end up not aging well.

Malaysia is ‘the best place to age Puer’ and that 1 year here is equivalent to 3 in ‘Banna (heard that before somewhere!). But a couple of shop owners doubted that, suggesting that the difference in aging was less dramatic.


I ended up buying a chunk of late 90’s tea, not because it was the best or anything, but because it’s a tea that seemed to fit my request, and it’s one that has been discussed online here and there. But more of that at a later date.

Out of the Bag – More on Storage

A funny thing. A year or so ago, someone was telling me that they had seen something online about storing Puer tea, and how the author had “blown a hole through the whole Puer storage b.s.” He went on to explain that the article stated that sheng was better stored in a sealed bag, and that there would be enough air in the bag for the tea to age well.

If you’ve drunk any, say, year old mao cha that’s been stored in an airtight bag you’ll likely be a shade skeptical of this hypothesis, but not willing to dismiss the idea completely, I had a look at the article in question and then put a cake of last year’s tea in a ziploc bag and forgot about it.

shop-stored 2011 puerh tea

shop stored tea

sealed 2011 puerh tea

sealed tea









That was just over a year ago, so I decided to open it up and compare the sealed tea with one that has been in the shop. A year’s not long, but there were no real surprises.

There are some assumptions about the airtightness of the bag, which is probably not 100%, and whilst I attempted to remove most of the air from the bag before sealing it, it was a long way from vacuum sealed.

In comparing the teas I was also trying some different water which felt a little too hard to bring out the best in the tea.

The sealed tea is on the left.

puerh sheng cha broth

First steep (sealed tea on the left)


The Bag-stored tea

The tea that was in the bag looked and smelled younger, greener than the other cake. It has retained more of its youthful, fresh aromas: more vegetal and floral. The gaiwan lid has a  honey and flowers fragrance. The wet leaves look greener. The broth is a mid-yellow and has some kuse that hangs on the tongue and upper palate, which comes out when steeping times are pushed. There is a distinct retro-olfactory floral fragrance that accompanies the huigan. Later steepings produced some camphor aromas.

The tea is quite smooth and coats the mouth nicely and the huigan lasts well. The tea has maintained a lot of its freshness. It’s clear that it has not oxidised as much as the shop stored tea.

broth of two puerh teas from 2012 spring

Broth on fifth steep


The Shop stored tea

The tea that was in the shop was a cake we have been drinking and so has been out of storage for a few weeks. It smells damper, more of leaves, earth and leather, and is a shade darker in appearance. It has lost some of that ‘new tea’ fragrance but, not surprisingly, has yet to develop any discernable chen wei.

The gaiwan lid gives off more of a camphor fragrance, with the younger floral qualities mostly gone. The broth is a shade darker than the bag-stored tea. The flavour is a little fuller and softer, with more obvious base-notes. The kuse is not so obvious. It still has some of the retro-olfactory qualities of the fresh tea, but they are more muted – less ‘yang’.

The most notable difference is that the shop-stored tea, whilst losing some of the fresh tea aromas, has developed some depth and roundness that the bag tea has not.


puerh tea leaves

Leaves, again with the sealed tea in the left

Of course, a year in Puertime is no time at all and may not adequately indicate what could happen in the future. The tea in the ziploc bag clearly had enough air to oxidise, but whether that would get exhausted in a few years if the bag were not opened is debatable.



Ya Nuo (You Le Shan)

the road to ya nuo

There’s plenty of tea to be found on the road out from Jinghong to Jinuo Shan, but it’s not until you get some way past Jinuo Shan Town that you start to see anything that looks like you might want to try drinking it. And not until you get to Ya Nuo, some 10 km later, that you start to see some forest and ancient tea tree gardens.

tea trees typical of Yanuo ancient tea tree gardens

Formerly known as Long PaYa Nuo is a Jinuo village on the Menghun side of Jinuo Shan. It is one of two original ‘buluo‘ that the Jinuo inhabited. Originally, there were two extended families with fifty odd households living under one roof in a large bamboo structure with a grass roof. All the buildings in the village now are brick and concrete.

In the late 1970’s, when the Jinuo people were officially recognised by the National Government, the families in Ya Nuo were joined by families from the second village.

The Jinuo are a Tibeto-Burman group with a population of about 21,000. Their language shares some similarities with Burmese and  belongs to the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. Jinuo people are animist and traditionally, hunter-gatherers and tea farmers. The Jinuo ‘creation myth’ is that they were born out of the sun drum – a large drum with pegs holding a taught skin over the end of the drum that radiate out resembling the sun’s rays. All Jinuo villages have a male and female drum which are of central importance in festivities as they embody sacred spirits.

Traditional Jinuo culture was egalitarian, with clan members hunting and farming together and sharing their spoils equally amongst all families. Tea  was traded with ‘ma bang’ caravan traders in exchange for commodities that were needed, such as salt, cotton and ironware.

The most important festival is Temaoke or ‘Iron Forging Festival’ which falls early in the new year and is referred to as the ‘Jinuo New Year’.  See here for some photos of a Jinuo New Year festival. For Tamaoke, a cow is slaughtered and shared amongst the villagers such that each household gets an equal share of all parts of the animal.

Jinuo people tradionally make tea by wrapping it in a large leaf and roasting it in the embers of a fire. The leaves are then removed and brewed in a length of bamboo,or nowadays, in a large kettle. The resulting tea is strong and sweet.

traditional Jinuo tea

Older Jinuo people – particularly women, chew betel nut ‘Burmese style’ using areca nuts and betel leaves and continue to wear traditional dress, but most younger people now only do so for special occasions.

At Ya Nuo, there are 2,800 mu of old tea tree gardens, owned by the original families of the village. In the 70’s, a co-operative, that is now defunct, was set up and tea bushes planted around the village. The later arrivals have no old tea tree gardens.

From the back of the village an area of protected forest extends all the way to Menglun, and it is mostly in this area that the ancient tea gardens are to be found, at altitrudes ranging from 1300 to 1700 metres.

jinuo shan-autumn-tea-tea-drying

You Le Shan – dawn

dawn on Youle Shan

A chilly early morning looking south east towards Mengla from Jinuo Shan.

I was back in Youle Shan last week. The weather here has turned quite cool. The days are still into the 20’s, but the nights can be quite chilly. At this time of year there are some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The area to the right of the picture is all part of Menglun Protected Forest Reserve. The villages tea gardens border on the reserve.

The photo is completely unedited apart from to reduce the size ans was taken with a decent quality digital camera set on automatic.

Puer tea production – Supply and Demand

I’ve been thinking it’s about time to reach some kind of a conclusion on the issue of over-picking old tea trees. But to digress for a moment, I recently remembered these words from a Congolese student of economics I used to know in London:

“les besoins sont beaucoup, mais les ressources sont peut.” 

So, putting that to one side for the moment, let’s carry on.

Climate and its impact on  Puer Production

We have had a few years of drought conditions which have badly affected yield. Tea farmers are typically reporting a 35-40% drop in yield in 2012 compared with 4 or 5 years ago.

This, admittedly bleak scenario is offset by the topography of Xishuangbanna which creates many micro-climates, thus in some cases, mitigating the impact of localised, if not global climate change.

The factors for the farmer are about income, keeping customers happy and maintaining their (mostly inherited) trees. In the face of the first two, it is easy to see how the last could be relegated in importance in a quest for short term gain.

Not all farmers are necessarily aware of the issues, and may not have a long term view of their own livelihood or the health of their trees, though generally there is an understanding of the nature of the ‘heirloom’ that farmers have inherited and may hope to pass on to their own children.

Greed and the Market

Over-picking is sometimes attributed to the greed of tea farmers. This seems a little disingenuous. From an outsiders point of view, traditional tea farmers houses and lifestyles may look appealing, but I wonder how many people would be willing to take their place? How should tea farmers live? And who should dictate that?

Even as little as a decade ago, tea farmers in Xishuangbanna sold their tea for very low prices: often a few jiao a kilo. Puer tea mao cha was considered more an agricultural product than a high class beverage. Farmers would often travel considerable distances – not easy given the terrain and their limited resources – to try to sell their tea. Some did not even pick tea, apart from a little for their own consumption, until a few years ago, when the Puer ‘boom’ brought a new perception of the resource on their doorsteps. It must have seemed like a little magic to many farmers who suddenly were able to generate significant income without too much outlay, other than their own effort.

Most mountain minorities in Xishuangbanna have been used to living a subsistence lifestyle, so the Puer boom brought about a groundshift in their circumstances. With the cash income that many farmers now have, they are building houses, buying cars, flat screen TVs, computers.

The stories  of tea farmers – and rubber farmers too for that matter – are legendary: suddenly coming into a decent amount of money, and then simply going to Moding in Laos (over the border from Mohan) and blowing it all in some mad frenzy at the casino, only to return home with empty pockets and carry on with their hand-to-mouth lifestyle.

So in a way, the fact that more farmers are beginning to have the foresight to put their hard earned money into something solid, like a house, should be seen as positive, even if, from a western point of view, the traditional house the farmer was living in had rather more charm than the concrete construction that has taken its place.

Most farmers houses have rather less stuff in them than other peoples so one can hardly blame them for wanting to acquire more household durables either.

Caveat Emptor

As tea farmers are increasingly exposed to the wider world, their ideas and expectations are changing. It is impossible to oppose or change that – hopefully, in the end, it will be beneficial to all, but one can’t condemn tea farmers for wanting to jump in and get a share of the bunfight that is ‘capitalism with Chinese charateristics’.

Things here are changing quite rapidly, but not all areas of a society or economy develop at an equal pace, and there is surely a process that we most of us know well enough: that ‘things’ do not necessarily equal quality of life, that awareness comes later, mostly after the acquisition of the things that one thought would bring something else into one’s life.  But part of that process of acquisition will bring some interesting changes:

A while back, I was with a tea farmer I know in Nan Nuo Shan, who still lives in a traditional wooden has, but one equipped with a number of ‘mod-cons’. He was on the computer using QQ to talk to one of his customers in Shanghai. And this is a guy who left school before his teens without even the chance to learn Mandarin Chinese.

If it’s not already here, the time will probably soon come when someone in America can get online and buy tea straight from a tea farmer in Bulang Shan.

The Needs are Many but the Resources are Few

So back to the opening comment: given recent conditions, a farmer may be faced with a demand that they cannot meet, at the same time seeing a potential near halving of income. Does the tea farmer stand his ground, and resist the pressure/temptation to pick more than is good for the trees, and at the same time tell the buyer that the price has doubled?

Some buyers will go further and offer financial incentives to farmers in order to encourage them to pick more responsibly, but in any case, the buyer walks away with less tea than they were hoping to get for their money and is faced with recouping an investment that the consumer may not be willing bear.

Earlier posts on over-picking are here:



The old Menghai road looks like they once thought about repairing it, but then gave up on the idea. There’s not much traffic, but there is some mining up there, so there’s quite a few trucks on the road. Fortunately they’re not big, but they’re probably mostly overladen, which has taken its toll on the road. Mengsong is some kilometers off to the north of this road. Further into Menghai there are many tea factories along the road – witness to the fact that until the end of the last century, this was still the only route from Jinghong to Menghai.

liu sha he river xishuangbanna from old menghai road

Liu Sha He had much more water in it than the last time I was here back in the early summer. Being in the mountains at this time of year is pleasing: the air is redolent with tree blossom – jiang hua line the sides of the roads, providing a dense fragrance that counters the slightly sour pungence of latex tapped from rubber trees that is pervasive at lower altitudes. There is also the smell of damp forest mixed with the alcoholic aroma of fruits that have fallen and lie on the ground untouched.

Besides tea, Autumn is a time to harvest rice and maize. Rice is usually not sold and the maize is typically dried and used for pig fodder.

not only tea - maize harvested in Autumn

Bamboo is cut in the autumn after the zhu chong – bamboo grub – has hatched. If bamboo is harvested at other times of year, the grubs, which have not hatched out, will eat the bamboo, then eat their way out of it.

Long zhu, or Dragon Bamboo, is known for its thick base which is substantial enough for kitchen implements to be fashioned out of it: mugs,jugs,etc.

jug made from base of dragon bamboo

dragon bamboo on horticultural tractor


Naka -(Menghai Mengsong)

Early morning in Autumn - Naka. Near Jinghong Mengsong

Naka is a Lahu village above Menghai Mengsong with around 100 households. They have a compratively small area of old tea gardens – about 500 mu of old tea trees. As early as the 1970’s tea manufacturers were sourcing tea from here. Read more about Naka here.




Conversations – On Picking Tea with Professor Chen


Like Picking Money from Trees III


the three standard formations for tea picking

I thought it would be interesting to get a more learned view on the issue of over-picking old tea trees. There’s always plenty of homespun logic available, but less easy to hear from the mouth of an academic, so I decided to get in touch with someone I’ve known for a year or so who’s just that: Professor Chen is on the staff at South China Agricultural University. He’s in the Tea Science Department.

I posed the question to him: When is an old tea tree over-picked?

His reply went pretty much like this:

‘On the problem over-picking tea trees, the main thing is to consider what is ‘appropriate’ picking. The aim of appropriate picking is to ensure a basis of a good, stable yield, to accomplish both ‘regular production’ and to ‘cultivate the tree’ – there is a paradox between the two.

The leaves of camelia sinensis are a vital organ which through the process of photosynthesis give the tree life. To maintain the trees strong vitality it is imperative to maintain stable, abundant foliage. The tree’s total leaf-surface area is an indices of its life-force.

At the same time, tips and young leaves are predominantly picked for tea production; appropriate picking practices can increase yield and also ensure the longevity of the tree. Accordingly, normal tea picking methods are to leave leaves on the tree. Research has clearly shown that if during spring picking a large leaf is left unpicked on the stem and in summer, the ‘fish’ or ‘milk’ leaf is left, it can improve both the quality and yield of the tree two years later.

Old tea tree gardens are somewhat different from plantations. They are less well managed and trees are more easily damaged. If through picking, the tree’s leaf area is reduced too much, i.e. too few leaves, it inevitably leads to early aging of the tree and in extreme cases, its death. Clearly, an appropriate degree of picking is important to maintain old tea tree gardens. Unfortunately, at the moment, there are no scientific research reports on appropriate approaches to harvesting of old tea tree gardens.

He suggested:

1. Old tea trees should not be picked harshly, (that is to say, pick the tree clean – all leaves, irrespective of size – in one go). Each time the tree is picked, a portion of the leaves must be left on the tree.

2. In the spring, during the first and second flush, a large leaf should be left on the stem because June is the time when the tree will lose leaves. In the summer, a ‘milk’ leaf should be left and in autumn, again leave a large leaf.

3. Pick according to the condition of the trees foliage; if old leaves are few, leave more on the tree. If old leaves are plentiful, pick more. In times of drought of course more leaves must be left on the tree. The older the tree, the easier it is to damage its life-force, so it is even more important to leave a proportion of tips and leaves on the tree.

4. When a tree is old it is very easily affected by over-picking. The tree is past its most productive stage and is in a period of decline.

Further research needs to be conducted to understand how over-picking impacts the quality of old tree tea.’

Some people say that the of type approach suggested by professor Chen is not that easy for tea farmers to take on board, and a simpler approach of getting them to re-establish traditional practices in cases where they have been lost would be more effective and would have the same result. However, it’s not all tea farmers who have a lore of tea cultivation in their culture – and certainly not of commercial tea production.

So it’s clear, if not conclusive, that there is, or at the least, there is potential for, a problem. But not so clear how widespread the problem is or how to deal with it. It’s unlikely the regional government, even if it had the will to grasp the issue, would have the ability to police it. So the onus of responsibility is on the farmers and the people who buy their tea.

see here for earlier posts on over-picking tea: