Old Man'e and the tea: Many flavors of transformation | investinchina.chinaservicesinfo.com

Old Man'e and the tea: Many flavors of transformation

China Daily Updated: 2023-06-30
Ethnic groups enjoy a good harvest in their tea plantations nestled on the Erlong Mountain in Pu'er city, Yunnan province.[Photo provided by Zhang Wei/China Daily]

Southwest China's Yunnan province expected to expand its annual production of sector to 500,000 metric tons by 2025

KUNMING — Though spring, the peak time of year for tea harvesting, has passed, farmer Yan Yanjiao finds himself still busy, navigating his SUV along narrow dirt roads leading to tea gardens on mountain slopes.

The 31-year-old heads the village of Old Man'e in the Blang Mountain ethnic township, located in Menghai county, Yunnan province, along the China-Myanmar border. Home to a little over 1,000 people, the village boasts large acreage of Pu'er tea plantations at an elevation of 1,500 meters above sea level.

Pu'er is a variety of fermented tea traditionally produced in Yunnan. In Old Man'e, tea bushes blend with lush tropical flora and are somewhat hard to spot, presenting a starkly different scene from neat rows of tea bushes.

"April is the busiest period. About 3,000 to 4,000 people flood into our village to pluck, make and buy spring tea. The village is filled with cars from almost everywhere, and buyers definitely need to place orders early for good-quality leaves," said Yan, Party chief of the village.

Cash crop

Old Man'e village has a history of over 1,300 years and its tea-planting and drinking culture has been passed down through generations. Most villagers are members of the Blang ethnic group, one of the 56 ethnic groups in China. As descendants of the ancient Pu people, the Blang live at high altitudes and practice agriculture, cultivating primarily rice, cotton, sugar cane and tea in the rich soil of the tropical climate. Tea has become an important ingredient in their cultural life. Local sacrificial activities, weddings and other rituals often require the use of tea in related ceremonies.

A tearoom and a room for drying leaves are fixtures in almost every household.

"Pu'er tea in this village has an overbearing bitter taste, but the bitterness does not linger and a certain sweetness comes back soon," said Zeng Tieqiao, deputy director of the Tea and Green Food Industry Development Center in the county, who is also a tea expert.

The average price of tea can fetch 2,000 yuan ($276) to 3,000 yuan per kilogram, becoming a "cash cow" for villagers, he said.

Old Man'e is catching up with Old Banzhang, a village already famous for its tea trees, located about 15 kilometers away. "These centuries-old villages are now believed to offer premium quality tea, and their village names are becoming de facto brand names," said Zeng.

The Blang mountain villages' tea business took off over the past decade. Poverty-relief campaigns have allowed tea enterprises to market tea for farmers, build roads and other infrastructure, and improve lives in the once-impoverished villages.

Prior to their success, families could barely make ends meet if they only grew tea. "When I was young, fresh tea leaves were only three or four yuan per kilo. Tea-planting was not more profitable than growing vegetables," said Yan Kan'er, a 36-year-old villager. Yan is a common surname in the village.

About 20 years back, his family had about seven hectares of tea plantation, and still had to grow other crops to survive.

Now more than 40 preliminary tea-processing facilities have been built in the village. Tea makers use smart machines for many processes, such as picking out weeds and withered leaves, and yet still retain traditional methods, in which tea-cultivating masters brew leaves in giant iron pots heated by firewood.

Rural revamp

Yan Yanjiao, sturdy and deeply tanned, spends the day checking on tea plantations to learn about output, and posts livestream sessions at night on his Douyin account, "Old Man'e 75", which is also the address of his home. He has over 20,000 followers.

Yan was elected village Party chief in 2019 after working for three years in the tea business.

"After graduation, I sold fast food, fruit and jewelry, and I did not want to come back to the mountains. I did not return until 2016," he said.

Yan studied ways to make tea water more clear by adopting certain processes. The subtle change in taste was welcomed by buyers.

"On one hand, it is the supply side. I need to guide fellow villagers to plant well, with proper watering, and refrain from using fertilizers. The other is the demand side. It is important to understand what tea drinkers need," he said.

Having yet to develop a similar savviness in livestream marketing, farmer Yan Jiaoxiang still relies on word-of-mouth among his clients. "When producing top-quality leaves, I mail some to my clients to try out and if they like it, they will buy it," he said.

Though this year's spring drought slashed output, sales have not been affected, he said. "The average price is about 800 yuan per kilo. Not bad," he added.

Considered a global mecca of tea growing, Yunnan's tea industry generated 107 billion yuan in output in 2021. According to a plan, by 2025, the province's tea planting area will be stabilized at around 500,000 hectares, with an annual production of 500,000 metric tons. It plans to gradually expand its green and organic tea plantations.

Despite the fact that tea leaves can be picked almost year round, villagers are advised to skip summer picking season to let the plantations "rest", said Yan Yanjiao.