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Lost Ancient Imperial Tea Garden - Kunlu Mountai

Author, Photos: Li Jun

Starting out in Puerh County (today Ninger County) and traveling approximately 30 kilometers north, one arrives at Kuanhong Village of Fengyang Township. Another three kilometers from Kuanhong Village along a dirt road is the "Puerh Kunlu Mountain ancient tea garden." This ancient tea garden is an eight hour drive from the provincial capitol of Kunming. As such, it ranks as a relatively close and accessible site.

Kunlu Mountain is a branch of the Wuliang mountain range. It lies at an elevation between 1410 meters and 2270 meters and occupies the boundary between Puerh County's Fengyang Township and Babian Township. The chain of mountains extends for over a dozen kilometers, a series of emerald peaks covered in ancient trees touching the sky. Why has Kunlu Mountain been called the "Imperial family tea garden?" This point is still being debated, and requires that we discuss the origin of Puerh tea itself.

The Kunlu Mountain ancient tea growing area sits along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, which is said to provide evidence this was a production area for Puerh tea. The Qing Dynasty pharmacological compendium "Materia Medica" records: "Puerh tea comes from the Puerh prefecture of Yunnan." The former jurisdiction of the Puerh prefecture was vast and crisscrossed by the Tea Horse Road. This greatly facilitated Puerh tea trade. Qing dynasty palace records state: "Puerh prefecture produces 80,000 dan (unit of weight equal to 50kg) per year." In 1656, Puerh officially entered the list of palace tribute teas. From this point on, the production and trade of Puerh tea began a period of great prosperity. The capitol city of Puerh prefecture (today's Puerh county seat) became well-known throughout the country as the collection and distribution point for Puerh tea. To this day, the origin of the name of Puerh tea as well as its division into levels comes from: "traditional famous tea originally produced under the jurisdiction of the Puerh prefecture and with its name derived from this place of origin and distribution." From an individual perspective, the idea that Kunlu Mountain is an ancient imperial tea garden is worth considering. Kunlu Mountain is located right along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, and the area of its currently verified ancient tea gardens is over 10,000 mu (1 mu =1/6 acre).

The tea of Kunlu Mountain is also quite prominent in terms of quality. The local tradition of making pumpkin tribute tea (human head tea) is another factor. Human head tea and imperial palace pumpkin tribute tea are similar, which is more evidence that this is an ancient imperial tea garden. My old friend Li Xingchang, a teacher from Kuanhong village (already known in the tea community), is a staunch supporter of this claim. In recent years he has done a great amount of work to promote the Kunlu Mountain ancient imperial tea garden. Friends with the opportunity to visit Kunlu Mountain can look up Li Xingchang and listen as he describes the rise and decline of the ancient imperial tea garden.

Kunlu Mountain is three kilometers by road from Kuanhong village. Several-hundred-year-old tea trees have been verified in the area surrounding Kunlu Mountain village and reaching to the border of Babian Township. They are spread over an area of 10,122 mu. This scale of farming provides a glimpse into the tea traditions of the past, Today these cultivation-type wild tea trees have basically no harvest value. They are scattered throughout a forest of tow ering ancient trees and have merged into the surrounding flora. Without specifically seeking them out, it would be difficult to distinguish them from others plants. Among these truly wild tea trees, the most celebrated is that with the serial number: jc253cm, Kunlu Mountain Number 3 tea tree. Its body is 2.53m in diameter, and it is approximately 25m in height. With the well known Taiwanese senior tea authority Huang Chuanfang acting as go-between, the famous actor Zhang Guoli has pledged a lifelong commitment to care for this wild tea tree.

Today there are 372 trees still being picked on Kunlu Mountain. In the Kunlu Mountain village, ancient tea trees grow in front of and behind people's houses. It can truly be said that people are among the tea, and tea is among the people. Thirteen households live here among the ancient tea trees. Tea tress are scattered around the houses and among the farm land. In 2006, the village took steps to safeguard these ancient trees by entrusting their care to individual, local households. Each of the households living in the vicinity of the Kunlu Mountain ancient tea gardens accepted responsibility for a number of trees, ranging from four to twenty. Every day in addition to their farming and other manual tasks, they devote a portion of their energy to picking the tea trees and basic care for the trees. While chatting with us, Kunlu Mountain village elder Mr. Xue said that originally there were as many as 1000 ancient tea trees surrounding the village. Due to the fact that in the past tea was of little economic value, many were chopped down several decades ago. For instance, this tree currently being picked was originally chopped down and is growing from the ground in the vicinity of the stump. As a result, it appears to be quite short and without a main trunk. I thought it was a newly planted small tea tree, but it fact it is actually a several-hundred-year-old ancient tea tree. Today the residents of Kunlu Mountain are aware that these trees are precious.

From the trunks of the ancient tea trees of Kunlu Mountain village, we can observe this portion of the history of tea tree cultivation. Looking carefully,the branches of many of the tea trees can be seen to have grown in stages. Climbing one of the trees, you may discover that every foothold is appropriately placed, as though naturally left behind for people picking the tea. Climbing a ten meter tall tea tree is just a matter of following the curves in the trunk with your feet. Upwards and back, virtually all leaves that can be picked are reachable. Over the course of several hundred years of people picking tea, these tea trees have developed these kinds of forms, which are extremely well-suited to the tea pickers climbing them. This is a masterpiece of a man and nature.

The 372 ancient tea trees growing in the vicinity of Kunlu Mountain village form a precious legacy left behind by former generations. They provide a virtual encyclopedia of Yunnan tea. These ancient tea trees encompass big, medium, and small leaf varieties, as well as purple stem and purple bud tea. The tree on the left in this photograph is a small leaf tea tree. On the right is large leaf tea tree. Looking at the form and structure, large leaf tea leaves are large and soft and have a relatively thin, coriaceous (leather-like) layer on the surface. Small leaf tea leaves are small and hard and contain a relatively thick coriaceous layer. Consequently, small leaf tea trees are relatively difficult to pick. Large and small leaf tea trees next to one another influences perception, so that the trees on the left and right appear completely different. One has nearly been picked bare, while the other remains green and verdant. This is a medium leaf variety, which is in between large and small leaf varieties. The primary difference between large, medium, and small leaf varieties is in their relative tenderness. Aside from differences in the leaves, highly tender young tea leaves is another marked characteristic of large leaf tea varieties. Normally large leaf trees support picking two leaves and one bud or even three leaves and one bud while still being very tender. With small and medium leaf varieties, on the other hand, one can usually only pick one leaf and one bud. Two leaves and one bud results in the appearance of huangpian (yellow parts). As a result, they have different production capacity and levels of harvesting difficulty. This results in the differing fates of the tea trees show above. A purple stem tea tree stands beside the home of Lu San in the Kunlu Mountain village. When the tea leaves are tender, a red color generally appears on the surface of all of the tea leaves, while the stems take on a purple tone. As they mature, the tea leaves gradually change to a green color. This was perhaps the oldest purple bud tea tree I have seen.

Purple bud tea has also been discovered growing among the old growth forest behind the village. Li Xingchang took us to look at them. Although this was a 100-year-old ancient tea tree, we still saw plump and substantial purple buds. If you took the time to thoroughly examine the more than 300 tea trees, you would find a small-scale encyclopedia of Yunnan teas before your eyes.

Because of the limitations on production of tea from the Kunlu Mountain tea gardens, it has never received praise from the outside world. Beginning in 2005, Kunlu Mountain tea growers finally began to experience a measure of success. Tea growers and consumers have gradually come to understand the value of these tea gardens. The level of density of the tea tree leaves I observed on my first visit here in 2004 was completely unlike today. At that time even approaching autumn, the leaves on the tea trees were quite full. This time, however, the summer tea trees appeared barren, with only scattered leaves remaining. Aside from the tips of buds that were working hard to grow, grown leaves, essential for photosynthesis, were few and far between. This is a problem, as tea trees absorb 30% of their nutrients through the pores in their leaves. In the face of money, protection of the tea trees clearly takes a back seat. According to one plant specialist, these old tea trees have already entered the equivalent of human beings' old age. Without scientific management and harvesting, excessive demands will only accelerate their decline. Perhaps soon these trees will be unable to repay their human caretakers.

On the plus side, the trees near the village are all growing on the farmers' lands. Following the seasonal planting of crops, the tea trees receive nutrients along with the crops. The soil surrounding the roots of the trees is also frequently tilled. Every year the villagers also pile corn stalks on the ground and burn them. This raises the nutrient level of the soil and kills insects near the surface of the ground. These traditional farming techniques have allowed the ancient trees to continue to thrive. This is perhaps inseparable from the care that is given to the crops.

Aside from the 372 productive tea trees in the Kunlu Mountain village, a large number of cultivation-type wild tea trees are scattered across the mountainside behind the village. Because they have been spared human interference over the past nearly 100 years, these trees have completely blended into the original growth of the mountainside. Non-professionals would have a difficult time picking them out. These ancient tea trees are scattered throughout the forest, following a pattern of separation at fixed intervals. This indicates that they are the result of human cultivation. Amongst this forest of towering trees, the ancient tea trees are primarily between 10 and 25 meters in height. Some of the tea trees have main trunks that still exist, while others were chopped down long ago. New tree trunks and branches grow in the vicinity of the original trees. Since they must compete with other plants in the forest for sunlight, these ancient tea trees nearly all grow upward as tall trees. Attached branches along the sides of the trees are very small in number. Aside from a few small tree branches growing out of the roots that can be reached by people, other sections are very difficult to pick. In 2006 there were cases of lawless individuals cutting down the ancient tea trees to pick their leaves. This affected several hundred trees. Seeing the tragic sight of these chopped down trees would cause most anyone to feel extremely upset. The true backstage culprits are those unscrupulous tea sellers who steal and sell ancient tree tea leaves.

In reality the tea from the ancient trees in this forest possesses no real value as a drink. The leaves of the ancient tea trees in the forest require conditions of peak superiority. As these arbor trees grow upward, there is a strong focus on development of the quality of the wood. New buds are both few in number and small in size. The tea leaves are difficult to rub and shape. When brewed, they are either weak and flavorless or extremely bitter and difficult to digest. Driven by the necessities of surviving in such a forest, these ancient tea trees may also have evolved a bug resistant toxin. Drinking the tea can lead to heart palpitations and a feeling of nervousness, and may also cause headaches and vomiting. The ancient tea trees exist alongside other trees in the forest to form a part of the old growth forest. They have lost their value as a drink. The best reason to preserve them is as a warehouse of tea tree genetics, which can provide future generations with a testimony to history.

This former imperial tea garden followed the rise and fall of history. It was once strong and flourishing, but today there are only a lonely 300-plus tea trees standing as evidence of this history. An early production area of palace tribute tea, Kunlu Mountain has long been lost to the ages. How can we promote and revitalize the remaining potential of this small mountain village? Li Xingchang of Kuanhong village has nearly 100 mu of more than 50-year-old tea trees, located less than two kilometers from Kunlu Mountain. The tea tree varieties are all descendants of Kunlu Mountain ancient tea trees, and their growing conditions are similar. Speaking of the preservation of this tea garden, Li Xingchang said that it is a precious legacy left to his family by his mother. It is also a valuable inheritance for Kuanhong village and Kunlu Mountain. Only by protecting it, can we honor the memory of the Kunlu Mountain ancient imperial tea garden. Today the residents of Kuanhong village have planted a significant number of new tea plantations in the area around Kunlu Mountain. Time is needed to restore the imperial tea garden. Through rational protection and distribution of resources, perhaps the glory of the former imperial tea garden will once again come to this small mountain village.