The following translated and edited excerpt comes from Mu Jihong 木霁弘 Ethnic Cultures Along the Ancient Tea Horse Routes 茶马古道上的民族文化, Yunnan Minzu Chubanshe, 2003:166-169.H
We met up with the tea factory director of the now defunct Nannuoshan Tea Plant, Yang Kaidang 杨开当.
The Tea Plant, a subsidiary branch of the Sipu Tea Plant 思普茶厂 in Menghai, closed its doors in late 1999. The factory was set up in 1937 and started operations in 1941, producing varying grades of black tea . It’s director was a Chinese Muslim by the name of Bai Mengyu 白孟愚 (b. 1893). After the harvested leaves were plucked and left to dry in withering trays or long troughs, a machine would twist and break the leaves. There was no pan-roasting process. The tea was broken into fannings or dust particles. We sold the black tea exclusively to The United Kingdom .
Bai Mengyu left Nanuoshan in 1949. The revolutionary cadre Zhao Jinnan 赵晋南 from Shanghai was the first appointed director of the factory after the founding of the People’s Republic. Zhao was among the communists called “southern descending cadres” 南下干部 or “southbound cadres” who were dispatched from the north to newly controlled areas under the communists in the southern tier provinces including Yunnan.
Yang Kaidang arrived at the Tea Factory in 1954. In the 1950s, black tea was exported mostly to Eastern Europe and Russia. The initial processing of the tea was done at Nanuoshan with the finer finishing touches in Menghai County. Annual output exceeded 200,000 kilograms. The quality of the tea was of world stature.
Over a hundred workers were employed at the Tea Plant. The Plant was built in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of the workers were from the Hani cultural group. During the Republican Period Bai Mengyu recruited a large number of Chinese Muslims.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the tea factory closed. After 1945, the factory resumed operations importing tea processing machines from The United Kingdom. The Plant had its own electric generator for processing tea, but the voltage was often too low and we couldn’t rely solely on the generator for light. Several generations have worked at the Plant accompanied to the raucous sounds of tea processing machines.
To reach “The King of Tea Trees,” we had to climb over 1,900 stone steps. Half of the steps were covered in dry grass under a climbing shrub called bitter bush or tonka bean . Halfway up the steps, there were some twenty to thirty tea trees, estimated around one hundred years old.
“The King of Tea Trees” was a protected tree, and the stone steps leading to it were replaced or repaired with funds. Japanese arborists (tree doctors) were also invited to diagnose the condition of the tree. So how did it finally perish? 
Where the remains of this “King” have gone after its death in the mid 1990s is anyone’s guess. It goes without saying that we are deeply concerned about the fate of other “Kings” nestled deep within the tea agroforests. They should be allowed to grow freely without any human interference.
. The Tea Plant was actually founded in early 1938 (March to be more precise) according to several other Chinese texts I have read. Zhan Yingpei (2007:65) writes that in March 1939: “The Nannuoshan Tea Plant used a tea processing machine procured from The United Kingdom to process its first batch of black and green teas. The black tea was exported to Hong Kong, Burma and India.”
. As mentioned in Note  The United Kingdom was not the only market for black tea.
. The botanical name for this shrub is Eupatorium odoratum. The Chinese literally means “aeroplane grass” 飞机草.
. A number of accounts of the demise of this “Tea King” and of its biological death have not been well documented in the Chinese press. The Horse’s Mouth: Puer Tales From the South provides a short but informative piece on the fate of the “The King of Tea Trees”:
The tea agroforests are home to a number of old growth trees that could all be called “Kings” or “Queens.” Since the demise of “Tea King” (c. 1994, 1995), there have been more vigilant efforts to protect other “kings.” The “old” King has been replaced with “new” cultivated varieties of tea trees, many of which are also called “Kings.” Regardless of whether we call them “kings,” “queens,” “princes” or “princesses,” they are all worthy of our adoration and protection.
One sign hanging outside a Hani tea room in Nannuoshan reads of one tea king whose leaves are exclusively plucked by one Hani cultural group family:
History Has Bestowed Upon Us
The Sacred Duty of Protecting
Old Growth Tea Trees
There are many fine eulogies or laments written about trees. The following lines from a poem by Carl Dennis says as much in fewer words:
Every death means a divine occasion
Has been taken from us, a divine perspective,
Though the loss gets only a line or two in the news.
–“Days of Heaven” by Carl Dennis.
The awe and wonder struck moment of seeing old growth tea trees is not something easy to put into words, yet I wrote something down in my tea journal after witnessing a tea forest for the first time in Mengku in early January 2012:
I walk beside tea fields, then continue walking until I meet the terraces, climbing and climbing eventually surrounded by mountains of tea. I stop and gently pluck a large tea leaf, placing it in my hand. When I finally step into a tea forest on Bangma Great Snowy Mountain in Mengku, standing among the tallest of these tea trees, I don’t know the names of the other plants, but one doesn’t need to know the names to feel an eternal present, a silence, a majesty that I feel is speaking to me alone.
It was the first time I met such trees and their immensity was of mythic proportions. I had read and seen illustrations of old tea trees and tea gardens across Pu’er in Shen Peiping’s Enter the Kingdom of Tea Trees (2007) spending hours flipping through its pages awestruck. Now standing in a forest of tea trees, I felt a renewed reverence for all green beings, a timeless green space, uncontained, unlimited, moving toward the source of tea, perhaps to find some prelapsarian tea picnic or gathering in the forest. It was like watching the world begin in one place.
I spent a fair amount of time feeling the bark of the trees with my palms as I looked down at their roots then craned my head to infinity, wondering what stories they held inside. “We are firmly rooted in this place,” whispers a tree,” but certainly not unfamiliar with journeys and migrations. Tea seeds have journeyed along rivers and tributaries, lying exposed to the elements, to the insects, the birds, the animals. The natives have cultivated tea for a millennium and longer, gifting us with vibrant tea communities.”
Not my first beginnings with tea, but certainly where my heart opened and opened again to the wonder and enchantment of the green leaf and the revelation that tea trees are also storytellers, stories that have always been here, the kind that can silence the mind and heal.
Zhan Yingpei “Nannuo guchashan,” in Pu’ercha Yuanchandi: Xishuangbanna (“Nannuo Old Tea Mountain,” in The Birthplace of Pu’er Tea Production: Xishuangbanna), Kunming: Yunnan Chuban Jituan Gongsi.
The following translated and edited excerpt comes from Mu Jihong 木霁弘 EthnicCultures Along the Ancient Tea Horse Routes 茶马古道上的民族文化, Yunnan Minzu Chubanshe, 2003:195-196.
The interview took place on October 15, 2000 at Zhou Yunzhen’s home in Menghai, Yunnan province. He was eighty-seven years old.
The process of rolling the tea includes the “firing” of the tea in large dry woks or cauldrons rolling or kneading the tea leaves, then rolling and shaping the tea leaves after the “kill green” (shaqing) or pan-roasting fixation process.
I was six years old when I arrived in Menghai (then called Fohai 佛海) from Menggang District 勐岗区 in Jinggu 景谷, Pu’er 普洱, situated in the southwest of Yunnan province. My earliest forays into the world of processing tea began at The Hongji Tea Company 洪记茶庄. I started my apprenticeship there when I was sixteen.
Most of tea technicians who made Hongji brand tea–over one hundred of them–came from Dali, northwest Yunnan. A rolling tea expert was brought in from Simao 思茅. There were four tea rolling technicians stationed across seven tea woks or cauldrons. Other tea technicians included one who weighed the tea, another who bruised or tore apart the tea leaves to promote oxidation, a process that literally translates as “chop tea” 剁茶 in Chinese, and two technicians who supervised the piling of the tea leaves and stoking of the fires during the dry pan-roasting or “firing” process.
Hongji’s boss was Dong Yaoyan 董耀延. He was from Tengchong 腾冲 in the province’s far northwest bordering Burma. His main business was selling sea slugs 石璜 and opium 大烟. In 1924, The Hongji Tea Company was founded in Menghai. With its proximity to Burma, the region opened international tea markets via Burma, India and Tibet .
At the height of their business, The Hongji Tea Company produced an annual output of 75,000 kilograms of tea. There were only seven large cauldron to “fire” the tea leaves. At the Xinmin Tea Company 新民茶庄 in Menghai managed by Dao Liangchen 刀良臣, I was rolling 100 kilograms of tea a day, from seven in the morning until one in the afternoon. We produced “Seven Sons Tea Cakes.” One stack consisted of seven pressed cakes tied together at the top, middle and bottom with bamboo shoot husks. Each cake weighed 425 kilograms.
The tea leaves used were fine, mature leaves referred to as horsetail tea 马尾茶, black twig tea 黑条茶 and larger, older leaves, typically, huangpian 老黄片. Varying grades of tea were pan “fired,” or roasted in large cauldrons then left to dry directly in the sun or under ventilated enclosures .
After the specific quantity of tea leaves was weighed out, it was placed into steamer tins with a perforated bottom, a process which softens or moistens the tea leaves. A cloth bag was placed over the tin. With a quick flip of the steamer tin, the tea ended up at the bottom of the cloth bag. The tea leaves were then compressed into a disc shape before twirling it and tucking the loose end into a knot at the center. The next step involved placing the cloth bag cake under a heavy stone press with added weight by standing on top of the stone with both legs balancing in a quick wobbly “skateboard” fashion so the cake was uniformly pressed into its flat disc shape.
The steamer tin was one foot high with 5-6 liang (250-300 grams) of the older huangpian, over 1 liang (50 grams) of the “black twig tea” and over 2 liang (100 grams) of horsetail .
. Some of the major tea companies in Menghai from 1910 to the 1930s include:
Hengchun 恒春 (f. 1910), producing 20-30 tonnes of Pu’er tea cakes a year.
Keyixing 可以兴 (f. 1925), producing 80-120 tonnes of Pu’er tea cakes a year.
Hongji 洪记, a branch of Hongshengxiang 洪盛祥( f. 1924), producing 200-400 tonnes of Pu’er tea cakes a year.
Hengshenggong 恒盛公 (f. 1928), producing 100-300 tonnes of Pu’er tea cakes a year.
Xinmin 新民 (f.1928), producing 100-300 tonnes of Pu’er tea cakes a year.
Fuxing 复兴 (f. 1930), producing 20-30 tonnes of Pu’er tea cakes a year.
Dingxing 鼎兴 (f. 1930), producing over 20 tonnes of Pu’er tea cakes a year.
Lili 利利 (f. 1930), producing 30-50 tonnes of Pu’er tea cakes a year.
Other tea companies in the article (with no mention of annual output or when the companies were founded) are:
. Global Tea Hut’s May 2017 issue write in their excellent and highly informative magazine devoted entirely to Pu’er Tea that the sun-drying process or phase “facilitates and encourages fermentation by reactivating the microbial worlds that live in the leaves.” Global Tea Hut: Tea & Tao Magazine, issue 64, p. 9.
. Horse tail 马尾草, also called “rough horsetail” or “scouring rush” is a medicinal plant. A product description from Alvita Organic Tea Horsetail gleaned recently from Amazon reads: “Horsetail (Equisetumarvense), named for the plant’s resemblance to the tail of a horse, has graced the earth for centuries. Native American, Ayurvedic, traditional European and contemporary herbalists alike recognize the benefits of this ancient herb, traditionally using horsetail to support urinary tract health.”
I brought up the addition of this herb with several tea technicians from Mengku and Menghai in early April 2019. None of them had ever heard or read of blending medicinal herbs such as horse tail or other herbs with Pu’er tea cakes. The addition of this herb was possibly only for selected raw Pu’er tea cakes for selected (international) markets. I will have to dig deeper into other textual sources to find out how widespread this practice was during the final stages of tea production in tea companies/factories in Menghai and elsewhere across Yunnan in the early to mid twentieth century. The practice may very well have been erased, but it might also continue to this day.
Timothy Don wrote a piece titled “Visual Histories: Trade” posted on the 3quarksdaily website December 31, 2018.
It says so much in the opening paragraphs about trade and human interactions that are found throughout much of this blog that I want to quote some of its finely wrought sentences here:
A line and a theme have emerged through the [trade] iconography I’ve been following: to trade is human. We buy and we sell; we exchange, barter, haggle, negotiate, promise, vouchsafe, con, steal, acquire, and unload. It’s what we do; it’s what we’ve always done. The allure of trade lies not so much in the goods amassed as in the frisson of exchange: the contact with another human being that occurs in the act of trade. The slipping-ness from one to another. The handshake, the greased palm, the unctuous smile. The flow, the liquidity. The intimate bond that is established between two people when they make a deal. To trade is human. It’s dirty and oily and sexy.
And yet, underneath trade, there is something else going on. Something very faint, something very fragile, something that only adds to the excitement and the value of the goods on the table, is put at risk each time a trade is made. This something is trust.
One can insure and indemnify, initial the pre-nup and sign on the dotted line, hedge one’s bets and engage in arbitrage. But one can always get screwed, because ultimately, in every act of trade, the thing being exchanged is trust. And there is no way to make sure that the person you’re doing business with is trustworthy until after the fact, until you have risked trusting her. To trade is human. But the daemonic force, the divine spark that drives and enlightens trade, is trust. No trust? No deal. No trust? No love. No trust? No trade.
Here is poem that originally started out as a novel many moons ago. It is not strictly a historical document but much of the content is anchored in history not the imaginative realm. My deepest thanks again to Michael Soper for guiding me in all kinds of crucial ways and for providing timely comments and encouragement. I would also like to thank Jacek K. Belc for reading several drafts of the poem. His enthusiasm has given the work the energy and momentum to carry it through to the end.
If you wish to quote any part poem please contact me. I am also humbly asking for any small donations that don’t exceed US$5 which can be sent to my paypal account: email@example.com
Inspector Shan and the Imperial Tea Heist
for my brother Damian
Acres of burial shapes
Shrouded in daybreak’s fog
A web of ghost energy
Hovers over inscriptions
Long buried in grave grass.
Spirits slumber and stretch
A cypress tree bows its head
Hidden beneath the river’s mist.
My grandfather spoke in my dreams
Of a mountain peak
Chanting with the cosmos in its idleness
And the Taoist monks who came to pick herbs
Placing them in wicker baskets
For the winter’s keeping.
A hermit too
Who found his way down a path
Feet beneath wet leaves
A butterfly he met two summers before
Could have mistaken it for a falling snowflake
If it was winter.
A grass thatched hut
An old man pruning his rose bush
And a tree whose roots splay like a giant duck’s foot
across the garden.
I loved my grandfather’s play-ful-ness
How he brought his own telling to a story.
And then me to make up an alternative ending
Coz he would often declare, perhaps
Pontificate is more accurate:
“There are really no endings, my child, just pauses in between.”
I’ve always loved to watch, observe
Notice a bruise on an arm
And wonder how it got there, for instance
The hide and seek dimensions of peoples’ masks.
My education honed by a long apprenticeship
A seed nourished and transformed
By the soil my teachers gave me.
I became more gut, less mind
Given the license to also daydream
To wander, to drift, to hibernate
To yield to the unstruck silences
Beyond the soil, beyond myself.
I read up on geomancy and architecture
Which impacted the way I see things.
Moving clues around physically
Usually writing them out on scrolls
So I can see all of them together at once.
I look for clues everywhere
Some hiding under floorboards
Behind a cracked mural or a flower bed
Often piggybacking on others.
You take something said
And riff on it for a little
Then something shapes and gels
If you’re paying attention.
I try to keep my cool
Even when my habitual reactions
Get the better of me.
Crime both on and off the page
Has intensified my own experience of reality.
Tongues are generally mute during an investigation
Pulses beat in panic mode
Running still in the heat of fear.
It’s my business to remember
What others choose to forget
What lies veiled under events
What lies behind the patterns
Until something very real appears.
The emperor is far away
Yet his messengers find me
In these far-flung mountains.
I no longer thirst to catch criminals
The next day always brings further crimes
Another round of disheartening news
And so it goes on and on.
I can’t help but revisit cases, however,
Places I return to each day
Even if only for a few moments
I still mourn a closeness to them
Yet now, I want to get as far away from
the courtrooms, the magistrates sternly banging their gavels,
The rackets, the worst side of people
Retreat to the quiescence of my mountain cabin
Revisit the biographies of eminent poet recluses
Who hid under the wings of resting eagles on cliff tops
And recite my favorite lines from the eleventh century Chan text Records of the Blue Cliff.
I’ve been called many things:
Obsessive, fastidious, bothersome, irascible
I’m a fool too so I’ve been told
The keeper of moral principles
Intrigued how power operates
How justice is fought
People killing, lying, stealing
As readily as they are loving, smiling, giving
Even when people behave abominably
I still believe we can transform evil and malice
Into luminous stars.
My reputation came unlooked for
Promoted to Inspector during a case
To knock off the emperor in the Forbidden City.
They tried to strangle him
But the knot in the noose slipped.
The Forbidden City is by some estimates
The murder capital of the Empire
A palatial playground bristling with steely bristles
Daggers glittering in the sunlight.
It’s a cruel world in there
Intrigue and plots abound
Malicious tongues reporting for duty
Even the trees don’t sleep well
The rhododendrons bear witness too
Demonic, tectonic forces
And truth an answered call.
The emperor’s most intimate retainer
A eunuch who stands guards at his bedchamber
Privy to his emotions, his idle thoughts
The rhythm and rhyme of intimacy
Finally spilled the beans
Exposing the court astrologer’s fortune cookie
And several of the emperor’s high consorts
Before being hacked into a thousand pieces
And all their other secrets with them.
Eunuchs, for good reason, get a lot of bad press
Meddling in state affairs
Scheming better than anyone else
Educating their cronies in vice
The court scribes can’t keep up
With their sinister doings.
Some involved in shady antique deals
Treating the palace
Like it’s their own imperial gift shop
And others, setting things on fire.
Not all were maligned in their ways.
One of our finest historians, Sima Qian, had offended the emperor
Chose castration rather than death, arguing that it
Would enhance his masculinity
The emasculated scholar-official then scribed
His brush into the annals of history.
At this time of the day
I practice calligraphy
Less interested in merely copying a master
Drawn more to the interiority
Of his imagination.
I have this habit of talking to my brushes
Like a conversation with a friend
Allowing me to step back
Redial the imagination, anxiety dissipating
Then pretty soon there’s stuff to animate.
But it’s in poetry that many of my conundrums
And hunches are revealed.
And as I think of these precious moments
My celebrity summons
An imperial tea heist
Along a section of road
In the southwest of the empire.
The road is a route known as the tea horse roads,
Made famous by horse diplomacy and tea.
Modern and ancient worlds
Journeyed by day and rested by night
Paths and trails, some call bleak, others romantic
Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, Nepal, India & beyond
Other routes bound for the northern capital, Southeast Asia
Others still to the afterlife.
Here humanity rubs against each other–traders, monks, the literati
Poets, writers, pilgrims, hermits, heretics, soldiers, couriers, brigands,
Other predators–leopards, alligators, demons and spirits
Thousands of pack animals, human portage
Blistered feet across landscapes
Some slipping undetected across borders
Aided by those now lost to history
A bond of humans, animals & trade
Altered by the close proximity
That commerce demands.
It isn’t just tea—
Pelts, medicines, incense, jade, sugar, salt, musk
Precious metals (bar and powder form) opium
Sandalwood, copper, utensils, rice, oil, corn, potatoes
Dried dung compressed like tea cakes
And on shorter distances
Corpses placed in caskets
As roads expanded and became regular trade and mail routes
So too the number of attacks
Bandits, gangs, bloodshed
What trade routes are possible, the blackbird sings,
Without the flow of goods and bandits?
Smuggling tea across mountains
All efforts by the authorities are futile
Despite the penalties, the severe beatings
Even death won’t curb it.
Commanders rally their soldiers
But you can’t catch all of them
An imperial tea tax forced merchants to band
Tea commerce armies.
You see there’s much at stake in the world of tea—
Power, money, prestige
The tea merchants’ men
Poised to do battle
Against the emperor’s troops.
A gang usually never attacks close to home
So they can return unsuspected
And resume their normal, other lives—
Farmers, blacksmiths, bakers, butchers, tanners, other trades.
They are not heroed in verse, prose or art
Yet every tale narrated along the roads, paths and trails
Never fails to mention the bandits rustling in the shadows.
Brigands will befriend travelers, the muleteers
And then, usually kill them—knife, dagger, or a smoldered handkerchief
Divide the spoils and vanish in the woods.
There’s no telling where they run and hide
You can seal off roads, trails, even garrison towns
But try sealing off the mountains.
Some of the wealthier merchants pay off bandits
so they won’t loot their cargo
I guess some of the bandits don’t get paid enough.
A local magistrate suggested placing signs
Along sections of the roads— Looting Strictly Prohibited
Thank You For Not Killing Anyone
Police Escort Next Bend
The Empire Ain’t Got Time for Robbers
For Every Disobedience, The Rod Awaits Without Mercy
“It’s worth a try,” he chuckled
“I know they’ll still do it in spite of our notices.”
My first day on the margins of the empire
Sultry weather despite a sudden downpour
Anticipating when a rainbow will paint another sky.
I’m told to prepare for humid days, the elephants,
The giant insects, the harsh shrieks of peacocks
And the frogs that chorus at sunset.
I’m staying in a courtyard owned by a local magistrate
No shortage of servants and guards
Already in love with the rock garden, the gnarled pines
The thrush that comes back again to sing
A new song order at dawn’s chorus
When I notice things slowly come awake
And the goldfish sketching colors in the pond.
A young man appears: barely thirty, medium height
Solid build and swarthy complexion
His boots stand muddy at the entrance.
A servant takes his parasol
And makes a perfunctory bow
“Good morning Sergeant Zhao.”
“Has Inspector Shan arrived?
“Yes sir, he is in the rock garden. Allow me to escort you.”
We greet each other with courtesies
Then return to my quarters.
I pour tea and learn the sergeant once served
As a bodyguard for a local chieftain
Handy with all kinds of weapons
Including crossbow and small pike.
“Where are we again sergeant?”
“Sipsongpanna, Inspector, bordering
Burma, The Kingdom of Xang and Vietnam.”
The tea the magistrate gifted me
Somersaults my tastebuds
A magic potion stirred in
palette’s light green.
“Your assistant Sergeant Kong
Is not accompanying you Inspector?”
“I lost him three years ago.
He was attending a murder trial
Not as far south as here
Mengku, that’s the place
and came down with a bout of malaria.
The indigenous people who live in the valley
Have far stronger constitutions
By the time I got word of his condition
The pestilence had finished him.
I treated him like a son, you know.
He kept me on my toes, always gave his best
And was never dull company.
That episode has stayed with me like a splinter
And who knows when I can finally take it out.”
Two attacks, two separate caravans
The first attack—
one of the main three roads leaving Yibang
The victims—a well-to-do Tibetan merchant
His son, two muleteers.
The proprietor of the inn where he was staying
Some 20 li from the crime scene
Said the merchant had two large wooden chests
Which he proudly announced were his bounty
His final words before leaving:
“I will return when my business brings me.”
The perpetrators could no doubt smell the same bounty
Silver taels would soon rain down at faraway taverns
Other coins kept for bribes, rewarding promises.
A savvy bandit leader reminds his men:
Never spend a haul at local drinking holes,
Gambling dens or pawnshops
Coz the law will surely make the rounds.
Five days after the first attack
A second, a tribute tea caravan
Soldiers armed with halberds
An official on-the-map route
From Yibang to Pu’er, then Kunming
Before proceeding north to the capital
The caravan ambushed
All sixteen men
Ten muleteers, six soldiers
A thousand taels of silver for any information
Leading to the capture of the culprits
Though the empire was willing to yield
A lot more ounces of silver and gifts.
Handbills drafted and posted within hours
A pair of guardians
Imprisoned on a temple door
Look out and ponder
When does a bandit
Stop being a bandit.
I knew something of Yibang
One of the six tea mountains
All crowned as cradles of Pu’er Tea
And home, we are told, to the first cultivators of tea
The Pu. I don’t want to merely repeat myth and legend
Though I suppose it might be true
But in retelling it, I’m kind of re-owning it
So what harm is there in reinventing the Pu
And their connection to tea or suggesting it was
Other hill tribes as well?
The finest tea buds from Mansong village
A fragrance said to rival all the broad leaf buds
On all the other five mountains.
When infused, the buds float to the top
Their needle hair stems stand upright
Kowtowing in deference to the emperor no less.
The tea plucked in early spring
Before honoring the dead during
The festival of Purity and Brightness
When flowers announce their fragrance
And the sky begins to blossom again.
Meanwhile, the necessary toiling from
The frontlines of the tea world
Tribute tea drives tea farmers and their families
Into the mountains
Bitter times, sad songs
Their hardships are no bedtime story.
Tea like salt and precious metals
A constant flow of coins for the royal coffers
Power’s hubris too requires finances in the afterlife
I’m told that more tax is collected from the six tea mountains
Than any other tea area across the empire.
One of the toughest jobs plucking tea
Yuan Gao, the governor of Huzhou
Said as much in the mid eighth century
Witnessing the bitter toil first hand.
Hard to imagine anyone
Would idealize such work
But some male poets, I have to say
Painted an entirely different picture
A beauty pageant of young women
No mention of the brambles, the thorns
Or the stumbles and the falls.
Gifts to the empress, the emperor’s favorite consorts
Visiting envoys, the dignitaries
Glue for the affections, the alliances
That’s what tribute tea is.
Spring flowers will dare not open
Until the emperor has drunk the first
Spring tea. Nature too must
Submit to the emperor’s mandate.
Those imperial messengers ride unimaginable distances
“Express tea” as it’s called must reach the emperor
Before the fifth day of the third lunar month
To perform his ancestral rituals.
Back at my lodgings, I sit in the rock garden
Both cases intrigue me as do the bandits—
Marginal, a sort of chameleon-ness
In the woods, out the woods figures
Rash and heartless yet friendship, loyalty and honor too.
Sparing lives when it suits them
But will betray or slay their own as well.
There are those who look the part
But aren’t bandits at all.
Anyone can turn crooked
But none can be entirely noble and upright.
Nothing ever quite black or white
Nor black and white like the magpie.
On the way to the crime scene
Open to vast yellow-filled fields
A pulsing swirl of impulses that scoffs authority.
I will have to admire them from horseback until
I can lie in the fields, a heart-to-heart
With these wild free, intoxicated spirits.
The sergeant draws bridle and points to a flat stretch of road ahead
“Some boys who were playing hide and seek
In the cornfields nearby reported the gruesome spectacle, Inspector.”
“Decimated” was the actual word the sergeant
Used to describe the carnage
Throats slashed with the precision of a surgeon’s knife
Death decided by intention and speed
The caravan looted, stripped of tea and other empire pieces
Other corpses—money belts, gold, silver trinkets
Daggers and swords, a button from a soldier’s coat
A slain animal resembling a wolf or bear
And shards of broken mirrors.
The attack rolled out across the empire
People had given up being shocked by
The news of yet another highway robbery or tea heist
But the ambush of emperor’s caravan
The bloody and brutal nature of the attack
Sent seismic ripples throughout the land.
Who would have the gumption to execute such an attack
For what is the emperor’s dominion
Wrote one imperial scribe who like other writers
Refrained from any speculation in print
Tongues more loquacious than ink brushes
In the taverns and brothels.
The news stirred anxieties about more attacks
Fear embracing all possible connotations.
Someone knew the exact number of the caravan’s men
A plot in which I believe many were involved
We didn’t see faces, says one of the mules with stammering lips
Still bruised, trying to unpack some of the lingering fear
A flash of light, then a turbulence,
Bodies, gestures, pandemonium
Then they were gone.
A muleteer once told me
When a caravan is ready to depart he gets the jitters.
What use are the prayers, the blessings
If an alligator is mistaken for a log and
It almost bites your friggin’ head off
And fate finds you all of a sudden
Without you looking for it.
One of your muleteers falls from a bridge
Not coz he fell
But coz he jumped
Or your head mule worn down
From some gut-wrenching illness.
The mirrors recalls a case
Several years back
Bandits pointing mirrors to the sun
Reflected light blinding their victims.
The robbery doesn’t go to plan
One of the bandits is caught
Ends up in prison awaiting trial
Dies before he can plot his escape.
I have a thought of Sun Zi and his craft of war
Never march your armies toward the sun
A battle fought no one can see.
But if you get the angle just right
The sun high enough
Before it blinks its eyes
Not to blind your eyes
But holding your foe
To its blazing.
The case received its fair share of publicity
One scholar-official wrote a piece: “The Broken Mirrors Mystery”
Meticulously reenacting the attack in all its gory detail.
Is it possible the essay could have been
A blueprint for the attack?
As for motive, let us define it not as a drive
That propels someone to behave in a certain way
But an impulse of moving here and there
Doors that slam and swing open, vulnerable to the winds
Until finally a beginning and end
With all the finicky details in between.
“What do you suppose is the meaning of this attack Inspector?”
“We can only guess,” Sergeant.
“But a number of potential suspects spring to mind:
Local chieftains, Ming loyalists, disgruntled imperial soldiers
A magistrate stripped and exiled to the margins working up
The strength to exact vengeance.”
Consider the local chieftains.
Replacing them with Qing civil magistrates
Not a frontier policy
The chieftains were going to give up lightly.
They could see what was coming
Drawn into tenacious struggles
Over territory, forgotten sites, nomadic roots
The trees, fields and eagles rebeled with them too
Raising wine cups in homage to subversive verses
Lending voices to defiance and protest.
The ancient rulers and their ministers were a cruel lot.
If they didn’t like someone or you didn’t submit to their rule
They would find ways to frame, to blackmail, to accuse,
Dragging you into crimes you didn’t commit,
Then into a three-legged bronze cauldron you go
From my combing of the dynastic histories of Yunnan
“Barbarian,” “savage,” “untamed,” became normative titles
To describe the cultural groups in Yunnan
Names all too familiar I guess to
The chieftains and their tribes
Such is the racial attitudes of those in power.
Ortai, the much feared and hated governor-general of
Yunnan and Guizhou
And other Qing-appointed commissioners
Imperial orders to “pacify” the “barbarians”
To prove their mettle and that of the empire.
Men such as these have long sworn allegiance
To protect the emperor’s honor.
It reminds me of his war generals
Horsing the vast spaces of the empire in quests
Returning to the capital to share their battle wounds
With the Son of Heaven and his entourage.
An elaborate procession follows
Horses neighing unapologetically
During the thunder of drums
Nostrils flare to still some of the anxiety
While hooves continue to pace solemnly
On cobblestone paths.
Stray threads of catkins litter the air
Fans poised to shield
The throng of heads in long lines
Crane to see the spectacle.
Where are the generals’ servants
Reminding them as the slaves did
In ancient Roman:
“Abjure the honors and power
You’re a mere mortal, remember,
And will die too.”
I too Sergeant would be peeved if you called
My people by any other name
And then write it down to history.
“Your people, Inspector?”
“Now that you mention it, I do see the semblance Inspector.
I have never traveled that far north.”
There will surely be an opportunity for that Sergeant.
But let me tell you a thing or two about detective work.
It’s all about problem-solving, puzzle pieces,
You start to examine stuff and in the course of figuring,
The unexpected turns
Facts unknown, the inferences,
Suspects ruled in, suspects ruled out
A pendulum oscillating between time, resources and emotions.
In some cases, there are plenty of motives and suspects
But nothing to connect them to the crime.
Leads, hunches that feel right
But others that end up way off base
I admit some of my cases have ended without resolution
Hovering like a shimmering red leaf in midair.
This case will be a tough nut to crack Sergeant.
We’re dealing with dangerous
powerful people both in the criminal world
And in some of the highest offices in the land
Lives linked by secrets, unresolved dealings
Long buried but not forgotten.
To be sure, there is room for error in any crime
But this attack was executed with such finesse
I’d go as far as saying mastery!
I’ll have to report my findings to the emperor
But I’ve already scribbled down some ideas for
A piece titled “Ambush as a Fine Art.”
In later times, a poet wrote:
The emperor’s tea caravan on a path to ruin
A pack of wolves, stealthily moves
The baffling questions of identity
The unresolved remains just that
Tethered to neither justice or retribution.
It was a morning that drizzled
The rain bird’s prayers heard
Before dawn by a sleepless deity.
In the early hours I pray too to my wife.
Had she lived to see me ride an elephant
Would she recognize me now
More forgiving, less judging
Kindness that wants to flower
To open itself again
The moist palm-throng ear
A gentle caressing
A growing shared affinity.
I am happy to announce that my anthology of poems inspired by the Tea Horse Roads is now available. Sixty poems in all.
If you would like a copy, please send me an email at:
The book is in PDF format. I am giving it away for free, but please consider supporting this labor of love with a small donation not exceeding the equivalent of US$5. Every little bit of financial support, however small, helps enormously.
Money can be sent to my paypal account at:
The only catch is that you need to have a paypal account as well to do the transaction.
It’s come to the that time of year when some of the best Spring Pu’er teas come into my possession.
One of the finest that I am drinking is a 100 gram tea cake, a raw Pu’er courtesy of tea maker extraordinaire and tea brother Li Xingze.
I wrote up something about the tea not so long ago:
Among the lofty tea trees and agro-tea forests of Dazhong Mountain 大忠山 located within the Great Snowy Mountain Ranges is Dazhong Mountain Village, Mengku, a village made up of about a dozen householders of the Lahu culture group.
Close to 2,000 meters above sea level, Dazhong Mountain is covered in mist for most of the year and receives plenty of rain. It is an ideal environment to plant and grow large or broad leaf varietals of tea.
The tea is sourced from old growth arbor gardens and plucked from the finest buds in early Spring using traditional processing techniques which are entirely handcrafted. A full-bodied tea with delicate honey-scented and fruity lingering aromas that continues to unfold and surprise with each infusion.
Contact me if you are interested in purchasing this exceptional tea.
I am selling them in bundles of five cakes for US$25 dollars. So five cakes will cost US$125. This price excludes postage.
Below is a poem I have written based on the Bulang cultural tea hero A’leng 艾冷. Some of the source material is taken from The Bulang Cultural Group of Mangjing Village (2009) by Su Guowen 苏国文.
I spent several days at Mangjing Village and close to a week on Mount Jingmai 景迈山 in January. Jingmai is in Lancang County 澜沧县 about two hours from Menghai 勐海 in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan.
I started crafting the poem in early February.
Ai’leng: Tea Warrior
The sun wakes up like an ancient city
Tigered stripes now diminished
As brighter orange unfolds
Wild geese arch their latticed wings
In quiet determination
Melody is not the emphasis
Yet it spreads out across the sweep of hills
Disappearing into a white abyss
& me, another sip of tea.
From the rocky precipice,
An old dragon hides in cloud’s cauldron
Sequestered in his library
The rarer books clothed in brocade
No silverfish to eat through the pages or
Moths or mice, though if they too were readers
It might be a different meal.
A few mythical phrases appear in the dawnday light
Sky’s fissures break open
The ephemeral physiques of clouds
Start to rain in ragged sobs
Ink brushes falling from the sky
Smeared across the earth like numbers
Erased from a blackboard.
An ancient hymn of tea leaves and harvest
Of tea seeds earliest peregrinations
Traveling like a wandering bard or minstrel
Carried on the wings of hungry mountain birds
& weather’s capriciousness
One mountain, four seasons
One tea leaf, one ancestor
Ai’leng, great chieftain of the Bulang
Destiny held in his hand
A pebble to evaluate, to turn over.
His purpose, however, did not stray:
More growing, more fearless spirit
Proving his mettle in battle
& revealing tea’s balm
To cleanse, to invigorate, to heal
To treat the wounds of hunt and battle.
The Bulang originally had a word for all the leaves
from trees called “la”
It evolved into a different character
Specifically the tea’s medicinal, healing properties.
The word still exists in the Bulang tongue
Other meanings too:
“Preserved dried meat,” “the end of the lunar year”
A veiled suggestion of dried meat and the green leaf
In rituals of an earlier past
Tea is a verb, not object or thing:
Growing it, cultivating it
Drinking it, ritualizing it.
When nouns become verbs
All things are alive, vivid, significant,
They grow, change, interact.
Embrace tea’s curative powers, says Ai’leng
Kneeling before a tea tree
To whom he believes he owed his victories
His mantra in battle: “I am a potent tea leaf.”
Meanwhile the Dai King’s army gathers.
The trees in the forest become Ai’leng’s soldiers
Pounding the earth, the way an elephant
Might pulverize a giant pumpkin
Or communicate when danger threatens.
A clap of thunder will not do
Ai’leng’s men for now
His most valuable currency.
The Dai King’s troops can barely stand
Even when the pounding ceases
While the Bulang women eat Goddess of Mercy clay
Waiting for the enemies in their bellies
To purge during pregnancy
Or it just a ruse to force the King’s troops
To rethink, to turn, to retreat from pillage
No captive beauties to trophy this time.
No stranger to sacrifice
Ai’leng made many of them.
The Dai King couldn’t beat him by brute force
So an alliance formed, tea warrior and the King’s seventh daughter
An amicable bond yet nothing forgotten
No courting, no intimate moonlight trysts
Gifts flowed, the scribes whined, coins plied their trade
Sky and earth in harmony
Sweet dew and cranes descended.
I have always said a mountain is not just a mountain
But a place where
A warrior born blind slayed a tiger
A place where
A deity opened its eyes and it was day
& when it closed its eyes it was night
A place where
A mound was made from the bones of a dragon
& a prince from a distant land placed
A stone on it so we don’t forget
A place where
Silence is restored.
Here on Mount Jingmai–“scenery stride mountain”–
biodiversity lounges with the mushroom-colored stones.
The spiders, the ladybugs, the scorpions
Who too are curious about their own mortality
Yet know of an eternal presence, a timeless message
Another palette of deeper green in the tea forest
Before Ai’leng’s time perhaps, and before the village elders
Carried water from a mountain spring in bamboo tubes
To the Tea Spirit Shrine
In Springtime, when things begin again
The plants, trees, animal life
Energies arranging themselves from different angles
Like face masks showing different emotions
Where ambiguity is spiritual
Or should that be the other way round
Nudged awake through recitation, drum beats, tribal celebrations.
The beat of the drums brought my ancestors
The beat of the drums brought the Tea Keepers
From a faraway mountain resembling a plump elephant
& an abundance, an exuberance, you might say,
of wild flowers and tea.
The stories have always been subject to change
Breaking, as they do, into brand new pieces:
Ai’leng, you’re the roots of our lives
You run through our veins
You are the progenitor of the Bulang tribes
Some say you are in another realm
So I need to pray and remember
But each time I drink tea
There you are in my cup.
Can I sleep at your altar tonight
As there are no more stars to climb to your door.
Spring seems to happen all at once
Buds open and crown the mountain
Shades of green, ochre and parsley
Looking down at the roots
My heart slowly upward
As if watching the world begin in one place.
When do stars turn into tea leaves?
How do you shape a mountain into verse?
How to unravel the mysteries of tea said to be lost to us?
Why does this tea taste so damn good?
It has Ai’leng’s signature all over it!
A signature of sacrifice
Not giving up one thing for another
But an offering, a surrender
Something beneath the ground and above
Brings everything to a stillness
An impulse to remember an unfinished past
Tea buds with their beguiling and ethereal eyes,
Yet known by other names:
Glimmering sacraments of white drops
Plucked like lute strings
I come down the tea tree
No greater love than this:
Bliss & sweat in equal measure
Despite a graze that might turn a tad burgundy
The morning adjusting its tuning pegs.
By evening I begin to see with something
Other than my eyes
The moon’s light breaking on the water
As if it is breathing, water caressing rocks
Lunar’s shadow lingers, suspended by a breeze so slight
Someone sings in the distance
Can’t make out the lyrics
It is a love song.
Memory opens us to
Tea seeds once journeyed along these pages
The rivers, the tributaries, the oracular utterances.
Ai’leng pays no heed to borders
He & many others are seafarers, correction, teafarers
Lost in mist at tea’s dawn
The wind light
The tea trees attentive to our distress calls
Cradle us in bud and two adjacent leaves.
Over the Bulang housetops
Another bud and two leaves
There it stands
A paean to place
A paean to tea
in the leaves.