Author, Photos: Luo Ying Yin
"Banzhang is king, Yiwu is queen."These are the titles given by people of Xishuangbanna to the tea growing areas of Banzhang and Yiwu. The fact that Banzhang is able to proclaim itself the king of Puerh indicates that it must have some special qualities. "It is bitter as it enters the mouth and gradually dissolves. Subtle tea fragrance moves through the mouth as threads of huigan spin around in the throat." This describes the profound experience of casting Banzhang tea.
In 2005, Menghai Tea Factory produced a special batch of Banzhang qizi bing tea. From the moment it went on the market, it led to a surge of frenzied buying and the reputation of Banzhang tea grew exponentially. To this day, Banzhang tea is still the market's guaranteed value. Walking into tea shops or along tea market streets and shopping centers, the name Banzhang can be seen everywhere. Some people even boast that their tea is authentic Lao Banzhang. Is there that much actual Banzhang tea being produced? Also, what's the difference between Lao Banzhang and Xin Banzhang? What are the similarities in taste and aroma between the two? I imagine many people are interested in sorting out this confusion. I myself brought this kind of curiosity with me as I traveled to Lao Banzhang.
What distinguishes Xin Banzhang and Lao Banzhang?
Banzhang is located in the Bulang mountain system of Menghai County, Xishuangbanna Prefecture. It lies approximately 60 kilometers from the city of Menghai at an altitude of approximately 1800 meters. In the Dai language Banzhang means "the place that floats on the fragrance of sweet-scented osmanthus flowers." This flower-scented place is divided into two villages: Xin Banzhang and Lao Banzhang (Note: in Chinese means new, Lao means old). Both are ethnic Hani villages. According to former village head Yang Sanpa, Lao Banzhang currently contains 120 households and has a total population of 513 people. Xin Banzhang was a new village split off from Lao Banzhang over sixty years ago. It currently contains 87 households and is located approximately 17 kilometers from Lao Banzhang. At the time the villages were separated, a portion of the old tea growing areas were given to the new village. Later, in order to facilitate picking and gathering tea, residents of Xin Banzhang also began growing a portion of their tea near the new village.
In addition, yet another village was split off from Lao Banzhang 43 years ago. It is called Weidong and currently contains 84 households. It is located over 40 kilometers from Lao Banzhang. Because of the long distance and the fact that the tea trees were worthless at the time, none of the old tea growing areas were allocated to this village. Residents planted tea trees near the new village so that they would have tea to pick.
Tea books and newspaper reports often refer to Bulang Mountain as Banzhang Mountain. Strictly speaking, however, Banzhang tea can only refer to tea from the villages of Xin Banzhang and Lao Banzhang. The ancient arbor growing areas of the two Banzhang villages occupy slightly more than 2000mu (1mu=1/6 acre). They are primarily located along the two sides of the ancient road between Xin Banzhang and Lao Banzhang. In addition, if we wish to divide Banzhang tea on the basis of administrative districts, then we must also add in the village of Lao Man'e. It contains 3200mu of old tea trees spread across its hillsides. Menghai residents are all aware of the fact that Xin Banzhang is the seat of the village committee. Lao Banzhang and Lao Man'e are both contained within its administrative region. As a result, the people of Menghai refer to Banzhang tea as that which is from the three villages of Lao Man'e, Lao Banzhang, and Xin Banzhang.
Furthermore, in 1988 Menghai Tea Factory planted 3502mu of tea trees ten kilometers from the Banzhang ancient tea growing areas. Some people also refer to this as Xin Banzhang tea. Consequently, we are left with the question of how to define Banzhang tea. Should it only apply to the precise place of Banzhang or should it be framed by the administrative district? Perhaps it should further be generalized to include all tea grown in the Bulang mountain system?
Lao Banzhang creates a thousand kilometer link between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait
We left Menghai's level one county road and traveled south on a small road through fields and along embankments. We drove for about fifteen minutes. This was right at the time of spring harvest, and rice paddies filled with busy farmers stretched to the mountains. We soon made a turn and began driving up a winding mountain road. We were surrounded by hillside after hillside of cultivated tea plantations. After nearly an hour riding along bumpy mountain roads, the landscape that unfolded before our eyes was much like Northern Europe. The faint spring wind blew tiny ripples across the surface of the lake before us. After inquiring, we learned that this was Nadameng Reservoir. The mountainside along the banks of the reservoir was covered in pine forest. The jade lake, green trees, and the blue sky combined to create a truly beautiful April day.
After a sharp turn along the dam, a sign erected by the Banzhang village committee appeared on the side of the road. Continuing onward, we once again found ourselves tossed about by the winding mountain road. After about half an hour, a large grassland stretched before us, A herd of cattle was spread across the green hills. It was as though we had stepped onto the great grasslands of Xinjiang. Why were there no trees in this section of the mountains? Chensheng Hao Tea Factory's vice president Mr. Tang Haibin was our driver. He speculated that perhaps there were minerals below ground, which created this particular scenery on the surface.
Continuing on, we arrived at a branch in the road. One road led to Hekai, while the other led to Banzhang. The mountain scenery once again changed. The soft red soil formed tall Tea lovers and others with knowledge of tea would all likely be impressed. With such high quality soil, it is no wonder that this area produces famous tea. We arrived at yet another branch in the road. One direction led to Banzhang, but we took the other toward Lao Banzhang. From here it was seven or eight kilometers to Lao Banzhang. The road was in the process of being widened. According to vice president Chen Haibiao, their CEO Chen Senhe provided 1,000,000 RMB (~$140,000 US) for the road construction.
Does this private industry investment in road construction benefit the Lao Banzhang village residents? This is something I was interested in understanding. We soon arrived at the entrance to the village. Why was the road blocked? Guards were stationed at the gate, and all vehicles were required to stop and answer questions before passing. I was even more interested in understanding this. Upon entering the village, we noticed a tea processing plant being hurriedly constructed. Isn't Lao Banzhang tea first dried in the sun by villagers? This was another question I was very curious to resolve.
As we got out of the car, we were met by Lao Banzhang's current village head Yang Weijie and the former village head Yang Sanpa. Yang Sanpa invited us to his home to eat lunch. Four home-style Hani dishes were laid out on the exquisite small, round, woven bamboo table. Along with the meal, we drank casually brewed Lao Banzhang tea. The fragrance of the tea combined well with the aroma of the food. Simple, hospitable, and local—this type of meal was entirely due to tea. It had overcome thousands of kilometers of separation to bring us together.
In seven years 8RMB per kilogram becomes 1800
At the dinner table, Yang Sanpa tirelessly explained: in the past, Banzhang residents made a living as herders and farmers. Because tea prices were low, they raised cows and grew corn as their primary sources of income. They picked tea in the spring and fall mainly for their own consumption but also sold some to help with household expenses. In 2000, a kilogram of tea sold for only 8RMB (~$1USD). Tea prices increased slightly over the next several years. A huge surprise came in 2006 when a tea dealer offered the high price of 280RMB to buy three tons of tea. They joyously busied themselves with picking, processing, and drying tea. The next year came—that was the spring of 2007—and this tea dealer once again arrived in the village to purchase maocha (unpressed tea). He immediately offered 900 RMB— three time last year's price. At the time, however, he only purchased several hundred kilograms. The villagers did not know what was happening in the outside market, but wave after wave of purchasers and tea merchants came to Lao Banzhang, racing to buy up tea. Prices reach a sky-high 1800RMB per kilogram. Every one in the village was delighted at this unexpected opportunity.
Green Lao Banchang tea leaves had become like gold. Overnight it had turned into the hottest star in this wave of enthusiasm for Puerh tea.
When you turn your head upward and look at the sky, a shadow is cast on the ground. People attempted hitch on to its fame, bringing outside tea into the village to sell. Locals recognized the potential this had to impact their business. Their biggest fear was that it could affect the reputation of Lao Banzhang tea. They organized a group of villagers to take turns manning a sentry post. They blocked the road and inspected every vehicle entering the village to ensure they were not carrying outside tea.
They also sent representatives to Guangdong to check out the tea market. They saw that nearly every shop had a selection of Banzhang teas, even advertising it as Lao Banzhang. Village residents were shocked to discover that in the Guangdong tea market alone there was an estimated 5000 tons of Lao Banzhang tea. The entire village only harvests 50 tons per year, and only slightly more than ten tons of spring tea. They realized the danger this situation implied and upon returning to the village immediately established a villagers association, which they hoped could resolve the problem flooding the market.
Villagers believe that simply blocking the road and controlling the tea that enters the village cannot completely solve the problem. They quickly decided that they needed assistance from industry or government. Consequently, last October a succession of businesses came to the village to discuss cooperation. Some were only willing to purchase spring tea, however, while some tea businesses insisted on restricting the age of the trees they were willing to purchase. There were also people who said they would only purchase tea trees wider than 30cm in diameter. As a result, the entire village spent nearly a month determining the number of tea trees over 30cm in diameter within the village—just over 11,000. Later the two sides felt this was two much trouble and had failed to establish mutual trust, and so the agreement was left unresolved. Finally, the situation was resolved at the end of last year when the villagers agreed to cooperate with Chenshen Hao Tea Factory.
Village government and industry join hands to protect the environment
They hoped to set a guaranteed selling price, maintain natural cultivation, preserve the natural environment, etc., but all of this is easier said than done unless one possesses governmental authority, mutual trust, binding force, sufficient capital, etc.
Therefore, under the personal supervision of the Menghai county leadership, the two sides signed an agreement to sell all year at guaranteed prices. They agreed on a five year period of validity, and every head of household in the village provided fingerprints to indicate approval.
Chensheng Hao Tea Factory head Chen Shenghe was, nonetheless, concerned that the outsider (from Guangdong) he had sent to the village to safeguard Lao Banzhang tea's natural growing environment faced a difficult task. He decided to begin working at the most basic level to build good relations with the people of the village, undertaking such activities as building a road for the village. In addition, Chen Shenghe also feared that others might be convinced that they were forming a monopoly, so he stressed that other tea buyers were very much welcome to come purchase maocha. He hoped that through their efforts, Lao Banzhang tea would be able to guarantee quality while preserving the natural environment.
A part of this effort was the construction of the initial processing plant in Lao Banzhang village, which is scheduled to be completed in July or August. In the future, they will purchase fresh tea leaves from the tea farmers at a set price. They then plan to invite the most skilled locals to the plant to roast the tea, knead it, and dry it in the sun. This will ensure a rela tively stable level of quality of the maocba as well as improved hygiene.
As far as the tea farmers are concerned, a set selling prices provides a safeguard to their income. Is it possible that some villagers will be unwilling to abide by the standards and seeking even higher profits could secretly carry tea out of the village to sell? When asked this sensitive question, the present and former heads of the village responded in unison:
"Tea carried out the village must contain a ticket. If someone is found to have secretly sold tea or to have mixed in outside tea, they will be punished by confiscating three years of their tea harvest." Yang Sanpa continued, saying: "I don't believe this situation could occur, because the people of our village are all devoted to positive feelings and mutual trust. For Several hundred years, we have worked together a collective spirit."
After lunch, we traveled to a tea growing area near the village. We saw all different sizes and shapes of large tea trees sprouting with emerald green buds. Branches grew from the trunks of the trees to cover them like umbrellas. The fine new buds grew straight upward toward the sun, spreading over the entire hillside. A tea-picking song lightly broke the silence of the mountains. People picking tea displayed their nimbleness, climbing up and across the green trees. This naturally caused us to fall into this wondrous rhythm that echoes the regeneration within the mountain forest, I reached out and picked a bud and two leaves, placing it in my mouth and lightly chewing it. The fresh green fragrance of the tea slowly followed the rhythm of my breath, releasing layers of fragrance and returning with layers of huigan.
We returned to the village and noticed dark clouds suddenly filling the sky and hastening our departure, In an instant, it was raining. We were forced to rapidly say our goodbyes to the villagers and get underway. We once again came upon that large stretch of grassy hillside. The dirt road was unable to withstand the more than ten minute assault of rainwater, and we came upon a delivery truck stuck in the mud and unable to move. It was stuck in the middle of the road, and vice president Tang Haibin decided to use his cell phone to call the village head and request assistance. Looking out the window of the car while waiting for help to arrive, I watched the small drops of rain floating in the air, slowly sucking away our energy. Surrounded on all sides by the falling rain, we had no choice but to sit quietly. Everything outside became imaginary. In the rain, the imagination becomes especially intense, and especially remote.
The rain calmed my mood. It caused me to realize that the fragrance of the Lao Banzhang tea was still resounding in my mouth. This lead me to think of Puerh tea's future. Mankind is willing to repeatedly reinvigorate the life force of these thousand-year-old trees, and is willing to repeatedly travel the bitter rainy mountain roads, steadily walking through the mud towards the future.