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.