Vil­lagers’ pros­per­ity grows from old tea trees

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA -

KUNMING — Row upon row of mod­ern mul­ti­story vil­las seem rad­i­cally out of place in Laobanzhan­g, a re­mote moun­tain vil­lage sur­rounded by vast swaths of an­cient forests in Yun­nan prov­ince.

The houses em­body the pros­per­ity brought about by the hun­dreds of thou­sands of an­cient tea trees grow­ing un­der the forests’ canopies.

The cen­turies-old tea trees pro­duce sought-after pu’er tea, a fer­mented va­ri­ety prized for its pleas­ant aroma, ini­tial bit­ter fla­vor burst and sweet af­ter­taste.

“Grow­ing, pro­cess­ing and drink­ing pu’er has al­ways been a fam­ily tra­di­tion for me and my fel­low vil­lagers,” said He Sen, 42, a vil­lager who owns a 6.7-hectare tea gar­den.

“But none of us ex­pected that the tea could make such a big dif­fer­ence in our lives.”

Laobanzhan­g boasts a long his­tory of tea cul­ti­va­tion.

For gen­er­a­tions, its 600-plus vil­lagers, most of whom are from the Hani eth­nic group, have grown over 640 hectares of tea trees on the moun­tain slopes. But poor trans­porta­tion in­fras­truc­ture and the low price of pu’er last cen­tury hin­dered Laobanzhan­g’s developmen­t, leav­ing the vil­lagers scram­bling to make ends meet. “In the late 1990s, my fam­ily’s pu’er was sold at less than 10 yuan per kilo­gram to the Meng­hai Tea Factory,” said He, re­fer­ring to the then Sta­te­owned com­pany that mo­nop­o­lized the sale of pu’er in Laobanzhan­g.

He re­called that his fam­ily of seven, as well as their pigs, chick­ens and cat­tle, crowded into a thatched adobe house dur­ing his child­hood and they led a mea­ger life grow­ing rice and corn. He had to walk for five hours on dif­fi­cult moun­tain roads to at­tend pri­mary school.

Things started to turn around for He and other tea grow­ers in Laobanzhan­g when Meng­hai Tea Factory was re­struc­tured in 2004. Tea traders and con­nois­seurs from other parts of China be­gan to pour into the vil­lage, lead­ing to a me­te­oric rise in pu’er’s pop­u­lar­ity and price.

“The price of pu’er jumped to 50 yuan per kg in 2004. De­spite a slump in the mar­ket in 2007, it has con­tin­ued to rise un­til this day,” He said. “Gen­er­ally, the older the tea tree is, the higher its price will be. The tea har­vested in spring will be more val­ued than that reaped in fall or dur­ing the rainy sea­son.”

As the pu’er craze sweeps across the coun­try, Laobanzhan­g has be­come a mecca for pu’er traders and afi­ciona­dos, who swarm to the vil­lage dur­ing har­vest sea­son.

In 2010, He fol­lowed in the foot­steps of other vil­lagers to build a large two-story villa. The house is “a ne­ces­sity”, be­cause he needs the spa­cious sec­ond floor to air-dry the tea leaves.

Yang Jun­wei, the vil­lage’s Party chief, said the tea trees have be­come a cash cow for Laobanzhan­g vil­lagers and the im­pov­er­ished res­i­dents from nearby vil­lages and town­ships. “This spring, over 70 poor res­i­dents from nearby were hired as tea pick­ers to work in Laobanzhan­g and earn ex­tra money,” Yang said.


A farmer dries tea leaves on the bal­cony of his house in Laobanzhan­g vil­lage, Yun­nan prov­ince, on May 30. A farmer har­vests tea leaves in the vil­lage.

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