This article is an interesting read about the development of plantations in Yunnan’s pu’er industry. I left out some sentences here and there as the author seemed very eager to repeat himself at times. I didn’t feel it worked as well in English. As always I try to preserve as much of the original content as I can, while working to create something that flows as well as possible in English. Thank you for your understanding.
I should also mention that while I found this article incredibly interesting, I am not trying to convince others to align with these opinions. I simply found them to be a perspective that might be different from the predominant ideology we hear in the West. I also fully acknowledge that while this article paints a certain picture of plantation teas, there are certainly still sketchy productions of plantation pu’er today. This article seems more focused on the larger actors within the industry, and their overwhelming interest in creating products that fit the demands of the consumers they cater to.
During the early 1980s, demand in the pu’er tea market increased. In order to develop and produce more pu’er tea, the most pressing matter was to rapidly expand the area allocated to tea planting, and increase production for area used. The most effective means of expansion was plantation tea. The plantation tea of this era is defined by modern agricultural and cultivation techniques. New crop was planted closely (compactly) and produced high yields of tea leaves. The tea in these plantations generally came from younger trees and newer varietals. After successfully concentrating a closely grouped area, rows would be sprayed with pesticides and fertilizer and pruned between rows. This method of plantation management brought about high yields among tea gardens.
In reality, plantation tea’s management methods are not the traditional tea cultivation methods known to China. Plantations introduced popular modern global industrial agricultural methods. These new ways actually were implemented in a few early tea gardens during the early years of the Republic (ROC/民國*), even in parts of Yunnan there were a few small examples of these methods being used (For example during the 30’s and 40’s Fohai Tea Factory using these methods in what is the present-day established Menghai Nannuo Mountain Experimental Tea Garden). This kind of planting method had already seen heavy introduction into other sectors of agriculture during the 1950s. It became a symbol of the modernization of tea cultivation; a scientific approach.
Large scale implementation of plantation methods began in Yunnan during the 1980s, not only establishing a plethora of new tea plantations and gardens, even to the extent of reducing the amount of ancient garden production, reforming even larger areas for planting of new plantations and gardens. Today, heavy reflection regarding the plantation expansion of the time has been done. Some look back with bitterness and hatred; however, what should be fully understood is this: the praise of plantation tea of this time was based on knowledge at the time. During the early years of reformation, with many things still to do, all of society felt a fierce thirst for the promises of the “Four Modernizations**.” Plantation tea received praise while old tree tea was left out in the cold; this was a natural phenomenon caused by the times.
Into the early 2000s, modern pu’er gained prominence with great momentum, beginning to create new romances about the world of pu’er tea. During this time, a new understanding of plantation tea formed. The recognition of plantation tea was primarily focused on introspection into its methods. At the same time, there was a returned praise for gushu tea. The new recognition of plantation tea was almost entirely negative. Plantation tea was seen as low quality, pesticide riddled, poor tasting tea. In short, in the understanding of plantation tea this time, aside from production quantities, everything about it was seen as sub-par compared to gushu tea. Plantation tea became a stepping-stone underneath gushu, without a single redeeming quality. Perhaps plantation tea should be reformed and even discontinued.
Needless to say, this new understanding of plantation tea increased the level of knowledge surrounding pu’er tea and simultaneously contributed to the rapid increase in fame and price attributed to gushu tea. This new wave of understanding also promoted action for plantation tea. Due to the new reflections about plantation tea, ecological and forestation reforms became a critical objective for plantations, helping drive an increase in the quality of plantation teas.
Today, despite efforts and reform, a new recognition of plantation tea is in order. That is to say, the understanding of plantation tea from 10 plus years ago that still persists today is inconsistent with the current situation of plantation teas. It has come time that this be corrected. The old perception of plantations being high-yield, low quality, pesticide soaked tea does not fit the picture of modern-day plantations. Because of well over a decade of ecological reform, today’s plantation teas are absolutely nothing like they were at the turn of the millennium! In the world of pu’er tea, many people still hold this antiquated perception of plantation tea.
So what is the true picture of plantation tea today? At least the following few points are worth giving attention:
True State of Affairs #1:
A huge portion of the plantations from the 1950s and 1980s have already undergone ecological change and management, as well as a hands-off approach to re-forestation. They are no longer the shrubbery they once were. Today’s “plantation” teas, have already had decades of growth, with many trees no longer looking like bushes. These grown trees from plantations and gardens have increased dramatically in quality. Some may even approach gushu tea in terms of their quality. These teas hold no resemblance to the concept of plantations many hold.
For example, there are many Jingmai mountain teas on the market that are ecologically managed plantation teas. The age of the trees have already hit several decades, and the appearance of the trees looks like that of arbor tea. The teas from these tea gardens when tasted by experienced tea connoisseurs has been said to have very little difference from Jingmai mountain’s gushu material. The taste has become very similar to gushu tea. Your average tea drinker would likely be unable to distinguish the minute and subtle differences between these ecological tea garden teas and gushu material from the same area. Unfortunately plantation tea carries a negative perception for many, so reputable labels will change their teas to “Large Tree (大樹茶),” “Arbor Tea (喬木茶),” or “Unkept/Set-Wild Tea (野放茶).”***
True State of Affairs #2:
Even though the majority of quality ecologically managed plantation tea comes from relatively young trees that still hasn’t grown into arbors, quality is constantly improving. In some cases these teas may not even lose out to gushu teas from the same area. For example, Yiwu tea district’s mansong smaller tea trees: even though much comes from plantations, the teas aren’t using the same cultivation or propagation techniques of previous times. There are no added pesticides or fertilizers. All that is left is a naturally ecological “hands off” approach to management and growth.
Today, the tea garden plantations established in Yiwu’s mansong area have already gained a quality name for themselves. Their quality holds a place in a relatively high rank. It doesn’t seem to be losing out to Yiwu’s gushu teas by the slightest amount. There are many similar examples, like Pu’er Simao’s entire ecological gardens and Menglian county’s NaYunHongZhen ecological tea plantation gardens. They have already for some time now passed EU inspection standards, being exported to Germany and other EU countries. These quality and prices of these teas have even surpassed that of some region’s gushu teas.
True State of Affairs #3:
The true foundation of the sustainability of Yunnan’s pu’er market is plantation tea. It could be said that this is the most important truth about plantation tea. In 2015, Yunnan produced a total of 360,000 tons of tea. The comprehensive total production value surmounted 600 billion RMB (approx. 60 billion USD). Among this, about a third of this was pu’er tea production, at approximately 100,000 plus tons, and a total value of approximately 20 billion RMB.
It should be noted that a 200,000 ton quantity of tea, making up the remaining 40 billion RMB earned was Dianhong, Green Tea, Chagao, and other categories of tea. Within these categories of tea, very few even play with the idea of gushu material, despite contributing to 2/3 of the Yunnan tea market’s earned value. It is also almost entirely comprised of plantation tea. When we look at that remaining 1/3 that pu’er tea has contributed to, it should be noted that large tea companies such as Dayi, Xiaguan, and Qicai contributed to a significantly large portion of that production quantity and value. It should also be noted that their mainstream productions do not flaunt being gushu.
Despite not being gushu products, these products have been publicly recognized as being fine quality productions in the Chinese tea market. The point here to be made is that the supports of the pu’er tea market, and backbone of brand value in reality is plantation tea rather than gushu.
It is commonly said that in previous national inspections for pesticide use, Yunnan teas show with the lowest quantities. These high-quality teas being randomly tested are plantation teas.
The implications here are that it is time for a refreshed recognition of plantations in Yunnan.
When you praise gushu tea and famous tea mountain teas, of course you can maintain the original view: gushu tea from famous mountains is the true good stuff. If you’re an individual who follows your gut like myself, you only respect your own taste, and what fits well with you. Good tasting tea is good tasting tea.
If you’re like the Germans with their rigid standards, you may only respect scientific logic. In that case, do as they do, only do as they do, only drinking pu’er that has passed the strictest agricultural standards of the EU. Perhaps only that is good pu’er tea to you. This kind of tea drinker need only focus on logic and results. Whether or not a tea is gushu or plantation, if it passes the tests it is “good” tea.
So if we mix the concept of people like myself, and those with strict standards in mind for a moment here, “good” pu’er tea must hit the following requirement:
- Good taste
- Safe to drink
Perhaps, for people that aren’t as well-off like myself – for consumers that care where their money is spent, we need to add a third requirement: affordability.
When we add up all these requirements and go to look for products to consider, naturally, we find a majority of them will be ecological garden plantation tea, much of that being from ecological-type smaller trees, larger trees, and unkept/wild trees.
I’m sure that there are some people out there that may purse their lips in disappointment, looking at me and thinking to themselves “That crap is still just plantation tea.”
To that I cover my mouth and chuckle quietly. They must think that all the gushu-labeled teas they bought are exactly what they claim to be.
*The Republic of China was established in 1912, indicating that to some degree, these agricultural methods were being implemented somewhere around the 1910s to 1920s.
**The Four Modernizations (四個現代化) were policies enacted in the 1980’s by Chinese Communist Party Leader Deng Xiaoping to modernize agriculture, science and technology, industry, and national defense. It is easy to criticize the move towards plantation teas during this time with an ex post facto lens, but it’s important to remember that these economic reforms ushered in a new economic era for China. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and opening of China was eagerly embraced by citizens that for previous decades may not have had the economic opportunity that would soon be available to them. Much of China’s wealth (and nouveau riche) can be attributed to these policies.
***It was difficult to come up with an easy quick translation for 野放茶. The idea is that there is minimal management of the tea trees. They are essentially left to their own devices. Although they were originally planted, their growth has been essentially removed from almost all human intervention.