Category Archives: buildings

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:


Wan Gong and Bai Cha Yuan

HM has been recently spending a fair bit of time going up to Wan Gong where we found a little tea last year, and Bai Cha Yuan . Our hope this year is to build on last year and make some more tea from a couple of tea gardens up there.

Old tea tree around Wan Gong

Old tea trees that were cut back and then left untended

The trees in the photo are typical of a fair number of the trees in this remote area near Bai Cha Yuan – they are maybe about 200 years old but were cut back heavily many years ago and have subsequently been left untended for a long time.

HM and some tea farmers from the area have built a small makeshift ‘pondoki’ where we will make tea, as it is much too far from any more permanent tea making facilities.

A rough shelter on the mountain

A makeshift shelter

We have improvised two small woks for frying tea.

Two makeshift woks for frying tea in the field

A rather splendid view from near the top of the mountain.

A view from near the top of the mountain

A view from near the top of the mountain

Dongguan Zhi Zheng Tea Shop

We weathered the coldest spell Guangdong has had for many years to attend the opening of a branch of Zhi Zheng Tea Shop in Dongguan, Guangdong which is on the main Shenzhen – Guangzhou highway.

Dongguan is known for its manufacturing industry (as well as other related service industries, which somehow, in China, seem to be deeply interwoven with doing business), so we were happy to dwell in the rarefied atmosphere of tea, for which Dong Guan is less well known.

Dong Guaners’ enthusiasm for tea – particularly Puer tea – is considerable. The shop is actually in Da Ling Shan which was once a small town that has now been subsumed by Dongguan, and Da Ling Shan alone has more tea shops than Jinghong. 

Two dragons and their leader, with Wu Meng Zhao (left), Chairman of Guangdong Tea Culture Association and (right), Li Gui Rong, owner of Dong Guan Zhi Zheng Tea Shop.

The shop, which opened in typical Guangdong style on the 5th of January, is on two floors and has rooms on the second floor for tea tasting/drinking, and meeting friends.


Jian Shui

I hadn’t been to Jian Shui for more than four years and recently got the chance to go back there. Jian Shui, to the south of Fuxian Lake is a pottery town, renowned for its purple clay which is very dense and, after using a variety of techniques; throwing, carving, inlaying, is burnished using stones to give a high polish without the use of glaze.

Double Dragon Bridge is a few kilomteres outside Jian shui, an excellent example of Qing Dynasty (18th Century) architecture. At the confluence of two rivers – Lujiang and Tachong Rivers – it originally had 3 spans, but was later extended due to a change of course in the river.

Apart from its large city gate which is currently being renovated, Jian Shui is well known for it’s Daoist Temple, built in the style of the Qufu Confucian Temple in Shandong, during the 13th Century.

The Dao is Natural

Here’s a small teapot I acquired whilst there. Because of the process of making Jian Shui pottery, it is apparently rare for pots to be made by one individual, rather they are made by a number of people, each of whom specialises in a different skill. The image on the pot is made by first engraving the pot and then filling with different local clays which have unique colours.

Yunnan 'Dian Hong'

nan nuo shan cha chang

Nan Nuo Shan Cha Chang. The building on the right was one of the earlier to be built. The building lower down came later.

Yunnan’s Hui People have a long history in the province; associated with trade (hence tea),  government and rebellion. From as early as the 8th century they dominated the trade routes throughout Yunnan and beyond.

During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (1280-1644) they settled widely throughout the province, some moving into positions of power, but by the 19th Century (Qing Dynasty), conflict with Han Chinese saw many move into Burma (Myanmar). Under Du Wen Xiu – they established a Caliphate in Dali, only to be overthrown by the Han some years later. Important Hui settlements were established further south, particularly around Tong Hai and Jian Shui. In Xishuangbanna, Menghai had an early sizeable Hui population.

Bai Meng Yu was one such Yunnanese Hui man. He was born in 1893, attended a private school and, subsequently Yunnan School of Politics and Law.

By his late 30’s, Bai Meng Yu had been asked to become the head of the provincial government (under then Nationalist Government of Chiang Kai Shek), a post he declined, having no interest in politics. He was then appointed to work at Mo Hei Salt Works as an insurance officer, where he worked for two years or so.

In 1932 he was transferred to Puer Department of Taxation. In the course of work he travelled extensively throughout the region, visiting Fuhai, Mengzhe, etc.

His interest in the area grew and he became intent on seeing the region develop economically. It was allegedly on these trips that he had the idea of setting up a tea factory: an idea he is said to have mooted to Liu Chong Ren, the then head of Yunnan Department of Finance, who had considerable faith in Bai, and endorsed the plan.

On the basis of this he travelled extensively throughout China to understand more about the tea market. Central to his plan was the idea of creating a modern,highly mechanised factory and, to this end he also visited Japan to learn about tea making.

On his return, he proposed his plan to the provincial government but, according to details from the time, the initial response was that the government “..would solely rely on taxes for revenue and not eat the food off the beards of ordinary people, and only in this way would a healthy, diversified economy develop.”

By the end of 1937 however, Liu had given his agreement to the establishment in Nan Qiao, Mengzhe of an experimental tea factory. It was to be called Yunnan Si Pu District Experimental Tea Factory. Bai Meng Yu was to be in charge.

In early 1938 the first stage was completed. Subsequently Bai was responsible for the planting of more than 100 mu of tea gardens in Nan Qiao.

Nan Nuo Shan, not far from Fuhai, where there were already extensive tea gardens was the site of the second phase. In April of that year the second factory was completed at Shi Tou Zhai in Nan Nuo Shan. Said by some to have been the most modern tea factory of it’s time, it was fitted with equipment from England that arrived 6 months later having been hauled by bullock cart from Rangoon in Burma (Myanmar) up to Kyaintong in Shan State and from there across the border to Daluo and on to Menghai. Ovens, cutting machines, rolling machines, a generator. All that was needed to set up a modern tea factory were installed in the factory that covered an area of 500 square metres.

The factory at that stage had 17 rooms including cutting, drying, rolling and sorting rooms. By the end of 1938 the factory was ready. It was called Yunnan Si Pu Enterprise Bureau Nan Nuo Shan Experimental Tea Factory. Having previously surveyed the market, Bai Meng Yu had already set his expectations high – the factory was to produce high quality black and green tea.

By March 1939 Nan Nuo Shan tea Factory had already produced it’s first black and green tea.

Another man, Fan He Jun was not far behind him. He was setting up another factory in Fuhai (present day Menghai) to be called Fuhai Tea Factory. This was to later become the now ubiquitous Meghai Tea Factory but Bai Meng Yu was a good 6 months ahead of them.

At the same time in Lincang, Feng Qing Tea Factory was being developed and there is some debate about which factory was the first to start production and claim the accolade of pioneering Yunnan Dian Hong.*

In the same year, the government introduced measures to control tea exports, which is said to have given the Nan Nuo Shan factory some trouble, but Bai Meng Yu approached Fan at Fuhai Tea Factory and the two co-operated for a time to produce Dian Hong.

One of the main activities of the factory at this stage was to distribute funds to farmers for an extensive planting programme. The approach was to use high quality, domestic stock for planting tea bushes following modern scientific methods. Bai oversaw the planting in Nan Nuo Shan of over 100 thousand mu (66,000 hectares) of tea bushes.

In 1941 the factory went into production, attracting a lot of interest from other in the industry. That year they made 2000 dan of tea (a dan is a pole and two baskets that is traditionally used throughout Asia to carry goods, but here refers to a unit of weight – 50kg. i.e. 100 tonnes in total).

In order to move further into the export market, the factory concentrated on black tea, and Bai Meng Yu recruited the help of 10 famous tea masters from Shanghai and Hangzhou. The factory made black tea of excellent quality following stringent guidleins: only when there was dew could the farmers pick tea, they had to keep the leaves in the shade, bajiao (a variety of small banana whose leaves are used traditionally for wrapping food)leaves were used to line the baskets and farmers were prevented from overfilling or stuffing the baskets.

At this stage, they were relying on the old tea tree gardens on Nan Nuo Shan for their supply source and there was a high demand that they were apparently unable to meet. At this time, black tea was Yunnan’s single biggest export.

By the early ’40’s, business was badly disrupted by the war in South East Asia. The Japanese army was in Burma and the route to SE Asia had been bombed and was closed. Production at Nan Nuo Shan stopped.

In November 1942 the Japanese army were near Daluo (in Menghai County). Fuhai Tea Factory moved all it’s technical personnel to Chongqing, but Bai stayed in Xishuangbanna. The workers who had stayed at the Nan Nuo Shan Factory formed a civil defense force and fought alongside the Guo Min Dang (KMT) 93rd Army to push the Japanese out of Daluo.

Nan Nuo Shan 'Er Chang' tea gardens

In the foreground is the site of the second Nan Nuo Shan Tea Factory. All that is left are a few bricks.

After the end of the war in 1946 Nan Nuo Shan quickly went back into production and took over some Fuhai resources as they had not yet returned to the factory. For the next two years they made tea non-stop. Bai Meng Yu also set about building a second facility near Xiang Yang Zhai. Planting and research on different varieties of tea tree also continued. Bai’s eldest son, Bai Bing Cong, who had just graduated from Shanghai’s Fudan University joined his father in Nan Nuo Shan.

By the end of 1948, the political landscape was shifting: The upper echelons of Yunnan Government were in a state of conflict. The former head of finance, Liu Chong Ren, had already left for Hong Kong and Si Pu Enterprise Bureau was without anyone in charge.

Bai had been in Nan Nuo Shan for 10 years and was reluctant to leave, but the situation was disintegrating rapidly. He decided to go to Burma and stay near the border, apparently hoping for an improvement in the situation that would allow him to return but, following the exhortations of people in Nan Qiao, Bai Meng Yu, along with a much larger exodus which later would include many retreating KMT soldiers, moved to northern Thailand where there had for centuries been a sizeable Hui population. He lived in Chiang Mai till his death in August 1965.

Surprisingly little seems to be known about his later years, and the man who played a key role in the creation of Yunnan ‘Dian Hong’ Black tea, and also for creating an, albeit embryonic, modern tea industry in the Province, has become little more than a footnote to Yunnan’s ancient, but ever evolving tea history.

Subsequently, the equipment from Nan Nuo Shan was taken over by Fuhai, and the tea gardens near ‘Er Chang’ were put in the hands of Yunnan Tea Research Institute, though in practice the gardens are left to local people to pick.

Little is left. The people are all gone except for one elderly Hui man who worked at the factory as a youngster, married a local Aini woman and remained.

The Shi Tou Zhai factory is dilapidated, with apparently no interest in preserving it. The second factory – a more modest set of workshops – has been raised, and all that is left are a few bricks. What does remain there however, on this picturesque low hill in the shadow of Nan Nuo Shan, is a sizeable, now 70 year old tea garden. A legacy of Bai Meng Yu.

Nan Nuo Shan Tea Factory 'Er Chang' tea gardens

Looking back down the hill. The tea gardens that were planted by Bai Meng Yu and Nan Nuo Shan Tea Factory are on both sides.

*Dian is the old name for Yunnan. Hong means red. Chinese people refer to Black tea as Red tea

Rainy Season

I recently got back from a trip to Thailand. Coming back up the Mekong  we had a slow ride as the boat had some engine trouble.  The rainy season rains had swelled the river and, in places where the river is not so wide and also not very deep, the current is strong enough that some boats, when laden, can’t make headway up river.  In this situation, the boat has to drop back downstream a little way and a cable is run to the bank where it is anchored on a rock.  The boat’s winch is then used to help pull the boat up.  In a smaller boat – a canoe, or raft or something, these stretches would look like rapids, but in a 40 meter boat they don’t look so ominous.

The Mekong River

There were a couple of days when it rained all day and night.  Back in Jinghong, we have also recently had heavy rain.  At this time of year in Jinghong the fragrance of tea is rather muted. The flavours are all there, but the humidity seems to surpress the more aromatic compounds. It will not be till September that the weather will become dryer, and tea will change again.

Manguo Xin Zhai

I went back out to Manguo Xin Zhai A couple of weeks ago – it was Children’s Day.  Next year some of these students will graduate and go to Bulang Shan County or Menghai for middle school. As this is not an old village, there is no long history of children graduating from the village school and progressing to middle and high schools.  The teachers aspirations are that children will be successful in moving on to other schools and that the value of education will be appreciated more and more. I had lunch with the teachers and the village head, who gave me a bag of tea as I left. I had taken a few things for the classroom – pens, paper, crayons, colouring pens, etc.


Open House

We held a qing ke (open house) last weekend, but building work continues on a gazebo. It’s made from some timber and roof tiles from an old Dai house, supplemented with the remaining pine from the main building construction. It’s going to be a place to hang out and drink tea.


Built in the manner of a local Dai building rather than a Han style pagoda, there are some nominal similarities in design style between the two.  Tiles like these are made by Dai people outside nearby Menghun. The village nearby is also renowned for hand-made paper.


The roof superstructure needs to be more substantial to support the tiles.

gazebo roof

The toilet block replete with words of wisdom by friends from Suzhou. “It’s too white.” they said. “bu hao kan!”


A view from the road above the site. The white roof can just be seen through the trees.


Nan Nuo Shan

The place in Nan Nuo Shan is more or less finished; finished enough for us to start making tea up there. HM  has been working with local Aini people to complete the building.


Here are a few pictures of tea being made.

Fresh leaves put to wilt. Not all Puer is wilted in this way, depending on the tea, some is roasted almost straight away.


Tea is ‘fried’ after wilting. We have built a set of double pans, each with its own fire but with a common flue.


The flue is slightly tilted to ensure a good draw. The  front of the oven is also sloping out slightly so that the person frying tea can stand with their toes against the wall of the oven and gain enough leverage to lean over the wok for maximum reach. There is a distance of about 7-8 cm from the edge of the oven to the rim of the wok – enough to avoid getting burned.


After frying the tea is spread out to cool before rolling.