As tea drinkers, it is easier to see the intersection of tea and humanity when the cup is in our hands. It can be more challenging to appreciate the people involved in bringing that leaf to our cups, but our Information Age has certainly helped. Seeking to further peel away the layers between people and tea, I asked Brian Kirbis to give us insight into the Bulang people of Yunnan Province for 2 reasons. The Bulang of Lao Man’e have been connected to tea trees for centuries, which gives them a fuller perspective. Secondly, the Bulang have largely focused on the cultivation and harvest of the plant, leaving the later stages of pu’er production to others. It is they who can reveal to us how that first contact between person and plant shape both.
1. How would you characterize the relationship between Harvester and Harvested?
There are a number of approaches to this question: tea as labor & commodity; tea as social custom; tea as ancestral inheritance. In my early encounters with Ai Wennan, a native of Lao Man’e and retired administrative head of the Bulang Mountains, he repeatedly referred to tea as the lifeblood of the Bulang people – an inheritance from their ancestors, the source of their cultural identity and material well-being. I recall, in 2006, him leading me through the village and pointing out all the changes that had taken place in the recent years of tea industry development, tying those changes to the long durée of village history from the time their ancestors settled that valley nearly 1,400 years ago and established the first tea gardens.
In the Bulang village of Mangjing in the Jingmai Mountains, the oldest tree in each old-growth tea garden is believed to be the spirit of that garden. A portion of the income from the harvest of that tree goes to the village for sociocultural projects such as assisting economically disadvantaged members of the community and revitalizing local cultural and spiritual institutions. In such cases, internal regulating mechanisms intersect with market forces to ensure the integrity of the community.
2. Your video shows women doing the plucking. Have you noticed that women and men of Bulang have different attitudes towards the tea trees and/or harvesting?
Women clearly do the majority of tea plucking. However, I have often seen and joined in with men working in the tea gardens. In my experience, distribution of labor generally seems to depend on what needs to be done on any given day and who is available to share the work. Within the tea mountains, I have seen men and women, old and young engaged in every aspect of village life – child-rearing, cooking, fieldwork, commerce, etc.
Where differing attitudes towards tea are more pronounced is between older generations with a memory of poverty or hardship and younger generations unaccustomed to labor and drawn to mainstream society. For such young people, they often see tea as a means of departure from rural life. I would suggest that with greater connectivity between rural regions and cosmopolitan centers this stigma will not stand out so poignantly and the jarring effect of such a direct confrontation between contrasting lifestyles will be reduced. Indeed, this is already apparent and there are young people, and oftentimes women, who are taking the initiative in ensuring the rich inner life of tea communities.
3. You have been back several years now, and seen the same people do the same work year over year. How have you noticed their individual attitudes towards the trees and harvesting change?
There are instances in which collaboration with knowledgeable tea producers allows farmers to embrace the artisanal aspects of maocha production and acquire a deeper understanding and appreciation for tea culture. Within popular discourse around Pu’er tea one often hears it stated that Pu’er has been enjoyed by upland farmers for millennia. To be clear, Pu’er tea as we generally know and enjoy it was rarely produced or consumed by the tea farmers responsible for its raw material, maocha. This is changing, however, and collaborations between farmers and producers are increasingly taking place. Such collaborative spaces are vital sites in which the evolution of a worldview based on tea is effected. They are also the sources of the highest quality Pu’er.
4. How does village life differ between harvest seasons and non-harvest periods?
This varies from ethnicity to ethnicity and village to village. At the heart of this variation, however, is a yearly agricultural cycle and associated ritual complex. Village activities such as home-building, religious and civil observances, or visiting relatives and tourist destinations all occur outside of seasonal labor configurations. Unfortunately, I have yet to experience the luxury of an entire year in the field to participate in a complete yearly cycle of Bulang village and ritual life, though this is something I hope to remedy in the future. I will, however, be visiting the Yunnan-Burma border town of Daluo very soon to celebrate the Bulang New Year, known as Sankanjie. While the Bulang are Theravada Buddhists and celebrate the Dai New Year Water Splashing Festival as well, the former holiday is distinctly Bulang and predates the arrival of the Dai people and Theravada Buddhism into Xishuangbanna.
5. The Leaf.org article talks about periods when there were (pressures) to over-harvest. Is that still a significant issue for the Bulang? What social or cultural pressures help discourage over-harvesting?
This is largely a question of supply and demand, not only for the Bulang but all tea farmers. Though there is an inherited knowledge of the age at which new plantings can be harvested or how often and within what seasonal periods tea should be harvested, I have not noted any explicit regulations pertaining to sustainable harvesting practices within the villages. There are points of intersection between Theravada religious practices and/or pre-Buddhist animist beliefs and the ecological environment.
It is also the case that some outside producers of Pu’er tea who enter into extended relationships with tea farmers provide financial incentives by way of higher maocha prices to ensure that healthy tea gardens are maintained and over-harvesting is not taking place. One tea producer told me that, when working with tea farmers, he tells them that a healthy tea garden should wear a hat, a belt, and shoes. This refers to: 1) the forest canopy which provides filtered light, 2) a greenbelt of enclosing vegetation, and 3) a base layer of forest litter and vegetative growth. Collectively, these three components regulate sunlight, temperature, moisture, and nutrient-cycling, providing the type of unique microclimate in which biodiversity is enhanced and higher-quality leaf material can flourish. Similar to the complex conditions required for the most sought after maocha, the environmental ethics of tea evolve at the nexus of local and scientific knowledge, market interests, national policy, global ideologies, and consumer desires.
Brian S. Kirbis has been conducting anthropological fieldwork on Pu’er tea in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province since 2006. While his research engages with the vast ecological and cultural complexity of the region, his focus is the Bulang ethnicity village of Lao Man’e, which has a history approaching 1,400 years and is surrounded by some of the most notable old-growth tea gardens in the world.
Brian has lectured and brewed tea throughout the United States and China. He is currently launching an organization, Theasophie, comprised of a rich network of tea ancestors, farmers, producers, scholars and drinkers committed to a flourishing ecological, cultural, and spiritual landscape of tea centered in Xishuangbanna and adjacent tea growing areas of upland Southeast Asia. At the heart of Theasophie is the evolution of consciousness effected through plant-human relations and the transmission of mind between East and West through tea practice.
Theasophie Press will offer media in both digital and fine art formats ranging from original translations from the Chinese tea literature to film, photo, and audio ethnographic field documentation.
Brian is available for presentations and brewing service while in the United States and for private tea commissions during seasonal fieldwork in the tea mountains of Xishuangbanna.
For more information, please visit: www.theasophie.org
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