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Into the Deep Green

The Pu’er tea forests of Jingmai Mountain in Yunnan Province are the latest UNESCO heritage site in China. Local people are excited, but also anxious whether the new designation will disrupt the unchanged life they have lived for a millennium

By Yi Ziyi , Ni Wei Updated Jan.1

People walk in the dappled morning sun in the tea forests of Jingmai Mountain, Pu’er City, Yunnan Province (Photo by Wang Wengui)

A winding mossy path zigzags through the tranquil green, into the depths of the old-growth forest. On both sides stand towering trees, cradling the old tea bushes in the middle. Villager Nan Kang holds a thin twig, poking at the wild grass underfoot now and then. “Watch out for snakes,” he warned.  

Treading on the soft leaves, he stopped at the foot of a mountain and said, “This is the earliest tea forest developed by us Blang people. This was where our ancestors lived when they first came to the Jingmai Mountains and settled here. It’s our sacred mountain.”  

Mount Aileng, the one Nan Kang pointed to, is a small peak among the Jingmai Mountain range, located in the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, Pu’er City, Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. On the mountain grow huge old tea bushes that the Blang people have lived alongside for centuries. Around one-tenth of the tea trees are over 100 years old, the oldest one nearly 400.  

A man of medium build with tanned skin, Nan Kang is of Blang ethnicity, born and raised in Mangjing Village, Lancang County. He is clad in traditional Blang clothing, with a tea leaf pattern embroidered on the chest. As the totem of the Blang, this pattern is seen everywhere.  

An enormous change has awakened the peaceful mountain region. On September 17, 2023, the Cultural Landscape of Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain in Pu’er was listed as a world heritage site at the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. These ancient tea forests that slumber by China’s southwestern border are now for the world to see.  

The Jingmai Mountain range nestles between the Nanlang River and the Nanmen River. There are two mountain ranges within the Jingmai belt: in the north-south Mangjing range there are five ancient Blang villages, and in the east-west Baixiang Mountain range there are another four ancient villages inhabited by Dai ethnic groups. The ancestors of the Blang and Dai settled in the forests and cultivated tea bushes 1,000 years ago. Now on Jingmai Mountain, one still can see five well-preserved tea forests and three protective shelter forests.  

The newly selected heritage site consists of these five tea forests, three shelter forests and nine villages. The remoteness is what preserved the old tea forests and the traditional lifestyles of the mountain peoples.  

“There are still other old tea forests in Yunnan. Why was only Jingmai Mountain chosen as a UNESCO heritage site? The reason is that in this place, you can not only see the old tea forests, but also well-preserved traditional living styles of ethnic groups, and the inseparable relationship between tea and people,” Professor Chen Yaohua of the College of Urban and Environmental Sciences at Peking University told NewsChina. Chen has been dedicated to helping Jingmai Mountain’s application for UNESCO status for over a decade.  

Tea Tree Spirits 
Nan Kang said that the people of Jingmai Mountain have an old tradition: tea farmers plant a “tea spirit tree” in front of their own tea bushes. This spirit tree is an embodiment of the faith and moral values of local people, reminding them to revere every bush as nature’s blessing and to avoid overcollection.  

He paused by a seemingly ordinary tea tree. There stood two one-meter-high wooden pillars – one, carved with delicate patterns, stood for the scepter of the tea spirit, the other held a bamboo basket on its top with ritual foods people prepared for the tea spirit. This was a tea spirit tree for a particular household. The Blang say it symbolizes the very first tea tree planted by their ancestors 1,000 years ago. Every year, right before the picking season, tea farmers hold a ritual under the tree to offer sacrifices to the tea god.  

Faith still plays a vital role in life on Jingmai Mountain, a place where Buddhism mingles with local beliefs. The most salient among them is the worship of the tea god and tea farming ancestors.  

Following Nan Kang, our reporter saw traces of these folk beliefs all along the mountain. In the deep forest of Aileng Mountain, there was a stone sacrificial altar called “the altar of the tea spirit.” In the middle stood a three-meter-tall pillar, on the top of which there were two wooden planks spread like wings, carved with animal and geometric patterns. Five sacrificial pillars stood on different corners of the altar, representing the five ethnic groups who have lived in the area for generations – the Blang, Dai, Hani, Lahu and Va. On festival days every year, the Blang people gather round the altar, holding rituals to summon the tea god.  

People on Jingmai Mountain worship trees, not only tea trees, but also other kinds of trees they relate with divinity. Halfway up Aileng Mountain, there is a 100-year-old banyan tree some 50 meters high. It has more than 70 black beehives on its branches, inhabited by quite large bees, which the local people call “the killing bees.” The Blang, who regard the Banyan tree as the tree of the bee god, forbid people to collect honey from the hives. On some festive occasions, the Blang also hold rituals there.  

The deeply set local beliefs and inherent reverence for nature compel people on the mountain to consciously protect the surrounding natural environment, ensuring the ancient tea forests are preserved intact to this day.  

The people of Jingmai Mountain take part in a ceremony to worship their tea farming ancestors (Photo by Zi Peiping)

Wisdom of Tea Planting 
Behind the stone gate with a carving that says “the Old Tea Forest of Jingmai Mountain,” there lies a cobbled path that ends deep inside the forest. Both sides are thickly lined with 30-meter-tall trees. This is the Dapingzhang Old Tea Forest, one of the five tea forests listed as the world heritage site and the only one open to the public.  

Sunshine filters through the tea trees. The forest provides the best light conditions for the Yunnan large leaf tea to grow. Under the midday heat, this shade-enduring tea species that prefers warmth and moisture can grow at its best and yield the maximum amount of tea leaves. 

“The tall trees help create the best growing condition for the tea groves. This is where our ancestors’ wisdom lies,” Xiong Dengkui, an associate research fellow of the Lancang Museum, said as he walked along the high path, panting slightly from the exertion of walking over 1,000 meters above sea level.  

Xiong pointed to the three different vegetation layers: the towering trees at the top, the tea groves that reach about human height in the middle and the herbaceous vegetation at the bottom. The three layers create a unique organic ecosystem – the trees shade the tea groves while the vegetation and fallen leaves fertilize the soil. The biodiversity in the soil gives tea bushes a natural defense against pests and diseases.  

This cultivating method is called “tea under the trees,” originating on Jingmai Mountain. Understanding the growing habits of the Yunnan large leaf tea, ancestors on the mountain utilized the ecological environment of the forest: they cut down parts of trees and shrubs and preserved enough deciduous trees for natural shade. Under the shade, they grew tea bushes and created tea plantations. Xiong told NewsChina that this particular growing method was later introduced and used elsewhere.  

This tea-planting wisdom goes even deeper. In the periphery of every old tea forest there is a well-preserved protective barrier forest 40 meters wide, where the felling of trees is prohibited. This shelter forest, “the back” as the Blang’s ancestors called it, is used to protect tea trees from wind, frost, pests and diseases and wild animals. If a tea forest gets infected with pests, the natural shield of the shelter forest prevents its spread.  

The local people’s bond with tea has lasted over 1,000 years. When in the 10th century, when the Blang discovered and settled in the Jingmai Mountain, it was covered with primitive forests and wild tea bushes. The Blang were hunters, but when they discovered the medicinal value of the wild tea, they began to domesticate the species. Tea was primarily used as medicine to cure sores and other conditions.  

In the 13th century, the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and the Pagan Empire (now Myanmar) had frequent armed conflicts in the border areas of Ruili, Yunnan Province, forcing the Dai people who lived there to flee. Some Dai people moved to Jingmai Mountain, bringing their more advanced production technology and refined culture. Since then, people of the Blang and the Dai lived, intermarried and planted tea together, developing shared habits and cultures.  

A 100-year-old banyan tree full of black beehives that local people call the “tree of the bee god”(Photo by Ni Wei)

Wengji Village, a traditional Blang ethnic village located in Jingmai Mountain, Pu’er City of Yunnan Province, maintains its traditional way of life after being listed as a UNESCO world heritage site (Photo by Ni Wei)

Old and New 
Today, people still live in traditional log cabins where the house is suspended above the ground and supported by log pillars. This architectural structure is to protect the house from damp.  

Every village on the mountain maintains its particular layout. In each village there is a center with a raised platform at its heart, where they hold religious activities. Every road in the village crosses the center. At the highest point of every village stands a Buddhist temple. These villages were all built along the highest mountain in their surroundings. That particular mountain is regarded as the holy mountain of that village.  

Chen Yaohua told NewsChina that even though the old faith still plays a role in local people’s lives, it does not mean they lead a primitive life. Modernity arrived in the villages long before. Even the village elders are obsessed with watching videos on Douyin (TikTok). Some traditional dwellings have been transformed into guesthouses.  

Lots of mountain people send their children to the towns and cities for better education. The younger generation who once studied and worked in cities brought new changes to their hometowns. Yan Kan, a young man who used to live in Beijing, founded a coffee brand and is an online influencer making quality short videos about his hometown. Ye Xiang, a Blang woman who majored in financial management, livestreams to promote her mother’s tea brand.  

Along with the decade-long process of declaring Jingmai Mountain as a world heritage site, the fame of the mountain’s Pu’er tea has grown. Tea-related income accounts for 90 percent of the total earnings of the mountain’s residents. According to authorities in Pu’er City, the average price of Pu’er tea produced on Jingmai Mountain increased from 500 yuan (US$68) per kilogram in 2010 to about 1,200 yuan (US$164) per kilogram in 2022.  

The mountain has also witnessed a rise in tourism in recent years, as leading firms like China Tourism Group and hotel brands such as Bolian, Aman and Songtsam have arrived.  

During the Spring Festival holiday this year, over 7,000 tourists visited Nuogang Village on Jingmai Mountain, a Dai village with a history of over 600 years. Nuogang is the best-preserved Dai village on the mountain, with 96 structures listed as national key cultural relics. Tourists came to experience the old ways of tea-making and enjoy the scenic beauty. But the rush of tourists put a strain on the village, as it still lacks enough accommodation.  

From administrators to villagers, people on Jingmai Mountain are looking forward to the upcoming tourism boom, but not without uncertainty. Zhang Pi, director of the Conservation Administration of the Old Tea Forests of Jingmai Mountain, told NewsChina that even though the old tea forests have been successfully listed as a UNESCO cultural heritage site, only one tea forest should be open to the public to better preserve the local biological environment. Jingmai Mountain still needs to preserve its millennial tranquility, despite the expected rush of tourists.