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History And Characteristics of A Tea Region - Jinggu Ancient Tea Growing Area

Author,Photos: Chen Zheng Wei

In 2005, I traveled to all the major tea mountains in Xishuangbanna: Yiwu, Manzhuan, Youle, Nannuo, Bulang, Menghai, Guangbie, Hekai, Banzhang, etc. In 2006 I traveled to the Simao tea growing areas of Jinggu and Little Jinggu. I saw the fantastic Dashi temple and was strongly attracted to its precipitous surroundings. At the southern tip of the imposing cloud-covered Wuliang Mountain range, a steep peak juts out of the emerald mountains. It resembles a sharp sword plunging into the clouds. This breathtaking Daoist temple sits towering on a mountainside cliff. This is the several-hundred-year-old, famous far and wide, and extraordinarily beautiful "Jinggu Dashi Temple."

Passing over this Dashi Temple mountaintop, one arrives at an ethnic minority tribal area. This tea growing area contains an 1800-year-old "modified variety, purple bud ancient tree." On this bright spring day, and with basic equipment, our group of four set out on two motorcycles to seek out this legendary tree. We passed through two primal forests and crossed back and forth between a cliff and a steep precipice. Although dangerous, the scenery was extremely absorbing. After two hours, the clouds suddenly changed. We were assaulted by violent winds and torrential rain. I and the three locals accompanying me were suddenly at a loss. Luckily we came upon a small cave where we could hide from the rain, but we were already soaked and cold. Our bottled water had become ice water. It was getting dark, and one of my companions suggested making our way through the storm to a cavern below Dashi Temple where we could start a fire and wait out the storm. The next day we learned that the mountain road had become impassable. We could only walk back to town. We walked through the old growth forest for around four hours before arriving back at the tea farmer's house. Although I missed out on the chance to see the 1800-year-old tea tree, this turned out to be an unforgettable journey.

Jinggu - Source of tea trees

Tea trees arc descendants of the Tertiary Period broad-leaf magnolia. Jinggu County of Puerh Prefecture stands as the only place where a fossilized broad-leaf magnolia has been discovered. The fossil was found to have originated approximately 35.4 million years ago. The broad-leaf magnolia fossil found at Jinggu had large leaves that resemble upside-down eggs. They were 6.4 to 11cm in length and 3.5 to 5 cm in width. The tips were missing, but the circular shape could be seen from the outline of the leaf The base was a shrunken wedge shape. Analysis by a geological paleontologist concluded that currently existing ancient tea trees are the descendants of magnolia trees. Consequently, Jinggu has been referred to as "home of the ancestors of tea."

Jinggu tea cultivation history

Around the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty, farmers living in Jinggu area mountains cultivated wild tea for their own consumption. In the first year of the Qing Xianfeng emperor (1850), land under cultivation was expanded, leading to many areas of natural, arbor tea growth. During the Qing dynasty Guangxu years (1874-1908), Ji Xlangting of Jijiaying, Jinggu introduced tea seeds from Shuangjiang and other areas. He first test-planted several hundred trees at the Jinggu Taojia garden, and later advocated large-scale planting. By the second year of the Qing Xuantong emperor (1910), several hundred mu (1 mu = 1/6 acre) were under cultivation. In 1934, yearly sales of tea in Jinggu was between 3 and 4000 dan (1 dan = 50kg). By 1937, yearly sales had reached 12,000 dan.

The Jinggu tea production area is centered around rivers. The tea producing region occupies the mountainous areas surrounding the upper reaches of the Xiaohei River, and the Jinggu, Dacun, Xincun and Wenshao rivers. Following the reign of the Qing emperor Qianlong (1796), tea growing gradually shifted toward areas including Huisa, Kuanhong, Mengma, Longtang, Wenshan, Dacun, Xuanhua (today Fengshan). The tea growing areas along the two sides of the Jinggu River were developed a number of years later. By the end of the Qing dynasty, tea forming slowly expanded from northwestern to southwestern areas. The "Weiyuan Tongzhi Report" records that in the third year of the Xuantong emperor (1911) over 10,000 tea trees were planted in Mengzhu, Mengban, Mengga, Xuanhua, Huisa, Wengkong, Xihuan, and Xisa. Tea was also grown inside the temples of these areas. According to the Yunnan Gazetter: "By the ninth year of the Republic of China (1920) ,a total of 33,470,000 tea trees were growing in the areas of Jinggu and Mengluo (today Mindong). Their yearly production was 355,000jin (1 jin = 1/2kg)." In 1934, the Jinggu County tea area was expanded to include eight districts and eighteen counties, making it one of the most prominent Yunnan tea production areas. In 1949, the entire county contained tea gardens spread over 11,000 mu. The region under harvest was 10,200 mu and produced 128 tons of tea. In 1990 there were 11 townships and 117 villages producing tea within the county, covering 45,700 mu. Of this 31,457 mu were actively harvested, producing 1084 tons of tea yearly.

The primary ancient Jinggu tea growing area

The Jinggu basin is one of the oldest tea growing areas. This area, as mentioned above, was where China's only broad-leaf magnolia fossil was discovered at Mangxian, in 1978. Over 35.4 million years old, it is generally recognized as an ancestor to the tea trees of today. Jinggu County has a relatively large distribution of ancient arbor Puerh trees. There are old tea gardens in virtually every village in the county. Among them, Jinggu (Little Jinggu) has the most ancient tea gardens.

The Little Jinggu area ranks first in terms of total number of trees, age of the trees, ecological conditions, quality of the tea, as well as other factors. Its tea gardens possess the following characteristics:

1. There are a large number of trees spread over a vast area: Jinggu Township's Wendong, Wenxing, Wenshan, Wenliang, Wcnshao, and Yingpan villages,as well as numerous natural Jinggu villages, all contain tea gardens. The ancient tea gardens grow together with relatively high density and output. According to historical records, during the Republic of China, tea traded in Little Jinggu exceeded 500 tons per year. Today the tea trees are distributed among farmers, who are responsible for producing and selling the tea. As a result, it is difficult to precisely quantify production, but tea buyers who specialize in Jinggu tea estimate that spring tea may exceed 400 tons.

2. Good ecological conditions: Little Jinggu tea has not undergone transformation to large-scale tea plantations. Ancient tea trees essentially all grow under natural arbor conditions. There has been virtually no switch to shorter trees.

3. Age of the trees is relatively high: Little Jinggu has a long history of growing various kinds of tea, but today the majority of tea trees are most likely those resulting from Ji Xiangting popularizing the planting of tea trees one hundred years ago. Many of these old tea trees are large trees of more than 10 cm in radius.

4. Tea is of high quality: The tea grown in the Little Jinggu area is high-quality, thanks to the natural conditions, age of the trees, state of the ecology, etc.

5. On the tea mountain there is essentially no problem with mixing of "taidicha (tableland tea) with ancient arbor tea: In recent years, parts of the tea mountain have begun growing taidicha. However, this is all." Dabaicha (Big White Tea) which sells for 20 RMB (~$3 US) more per kilogram than old tree tea. There is no reason to mix Dabaicha (taidicha) with ancient tree tea.

Character of Jinggu arbor tea

Jinggu has long been called an "immense forest of bright pearls." A vasr amount of the land there is covered in forest. And the natural ecology and abundant sunshine provides excellent growing conditions for tea. The water and land of a place nourishes its people. Likewise, the environment creates this superior tea. The Jinggu Township is located to the north of the county seat. The small towns of Fengshan, Minle, and Zhongshan comprise its primary tea producing areas. To its north it connects with Anban, Zhenyuan County and the Laowu Mountains of Zhentai Township. The tea grown here consists of wild large-leaf varieties, ancient tea gardens and natural, arbor types. The tea leaves are long, thick, and covered in fine hair. The maocha is largely a blackish-green color. It has a sharp, strong, and concentrated feeling in the mouth. It tends to feel bitter on the surface of the tongue and the back of the jaw. The bitterness has a marked astringency, but the mellow huigan comes quickly and is long-lasting. The fragrance remains in the bottom of the Yixing Tea Cup, with a pleasant wild mountain aroma. There is often a light, sweet fermented flavor that is quite resilient. This tea ages quickly. In only one or two years, the bitterness is reduced and there is a slight sense of age. Every year thereafter a new taste emerges. Cake, brick, and tuo Puerh tea made using raw material from Jinggu arbor tea trees possesses clear and distinct strips of tea, a uniform blackish-green luster, and a clean fragrance free of strange flavors. As fresh Puerh, it increases alertness, stimulates digestion, promotes salivation to alleviate thirst, and possesses long-lasting huigan and huigan. It is an excellent choice for collecting and aging.