Meet the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmers’ Coop

April 23, 2016

This Spring, we were lucky to return to Qianjiazhai to meet more of the talented people behind Qianjiazhai’s old tree pu’er and black tea. Through the cooperative, these families and individuals can work together the share resources and knowledge, teaching and learning from each other while protecting and acting as stewards over tea trees in the oldest tea forest in the world.

 

Mr. Zhou is the current organizer for the cooperative.

He has spent his whole life living in Qianjiazhai, and his goal above anything else is to invest in the future of the region. For him, the cooperative is only a start. The cooperative provides the framework for families living in extreme isolation on peaks across the region to work and learn together, to grow stronger and feel hope and optimism in the future of tea craft.

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Mr. Zhou’s first devotion is as an inspirational middle school teacher. Middle school is the highest level of education available in the town of Jiu Jia. Alongside his fellow teachers, Mr. Zhou makes sure that everyone in the township has the basic tools of reading, writing and speaking Mandarin, understanding math, history and geography. In his mind, these are the foundation of success. Farmers without the benefit of formal education will often continue the family trade because it seems like the only choice. With education, Mr. Zhou believes that people can choose to be farmers if they wish, or pursue any other career that makes them happy. The people who stay will bring energy and innovation to the area and make it better for future generations. Mr. Zhou is proud to know that many of his students over the years have gone on to study at prestigious universities across China.

This Spring, Mr. Zhou met us in the nearest large city of Zhenyuan, already an eight hour car ride from the nearest airport in Pu’er. We drove another five hours up into the mountains of the Ailao forest preserve and into the Qianjiazhai region that Mr. Zhou calls home. For one of the most historically important tea growing regions in the world, you see surprisingly little tea from the road. It took some time to adjust to a world of tea production completely removed from the terraced fields that mark almost every other tea growing region in China.

In Qianjiazhai, tea trees much taller than us grow freely among walnut trees, tulsi and dense wildflowers. The tea is foraged, not picked, with land either belonging to a village commune, an individual family or common land that natives to the area have foraging rights on. The complexity and striking quality of Qianjiazhai tea, even young fresh sheng pu’er, is immediately apparent as we climbed the mountain roads.

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Mr. Deng is an inspirational reminder of why we love tea so much, and why it is important to tell the stories of the people behind each cup we have the privilege to sip.

After hours and hours of driving, you finally pull up in the courtyard of a local school. Mr. Deng has helped to support this school and has built his workshop across from the basketball court where children play every afternoon. Seeing fresh picked tea sun drying in propped-up bamboo baskets to the sound of laughing children is a beautiful sight. How can you make anything but great tea in such an environment?

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Mr. Deng and his wife greeted us with the entire 3rd grade class of Zhenyuan Jiujia Wen Gang Cun Primary School. As the kids went back to recess and games of tag, Mr. Deng brought out baskets of perfect walnuts, picked by his own family, and bowls of their own local honey from bees pollinating tea flowers and tulsi blossoms. He steeped us the strongest cup of Qianjiazhai sheng we have ever had the privilege to drink, using about 40 grams of tea for his 10 ounce steeper pot and letting the leaves unfold for a good five minutes. The tea he steeped had just finished drying an hour earlier. The bright fresh flavor of the tea, the creamy subdued sweetness of the walnuts and the herbaceous florals of the honey made for a beautiful afternoon of introductions while the students got back to class.

 

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Mr. Deng has had to work to get to where he is today, in a way most cannot even imagine. Later as we walked with him through the walnut groves below the school, he shared a little bit of his life story. His mother and father were born deaf and mute, forcing him to become very self-sufficient and teach himself spoken language from listening to others. His biggest dream as a child was to learn to read and write, to go to school, but his father couldn’t afford the cost of tuition, books and uniforms, nor did the family have a way to make the long drive to town for classes.

Mr. Deng took the initiative himself. He walked the full day’s walk to school and asked to be allowed to join the class. Though the teachers were skeptical he would be able to keep up with the other students, or even afford to keep attending school, they agreed to let him try.

On his long hikes to school, he picked walnuts all the way into town, and set up to sell the walnuts before and after school. In this way, he was able to raise enough money to stay in classes. At night between school days he slept at school, only returning home once a week.

Mr. Deng attended school formally for three years – enough to teach himself the basics of reading and writing – before he had to drop out to earn money for his ailing father. He continued picking walnuts, slowly expanding into a real business, where he negotiated rights to pick across many acres and partnered with neighbors to pick more, roast walnuts and sell them in larger towns.

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Over the years, Mr. Deng recognized that countless wild tea trees were growing alongside the walnut trees. He and the other villagers would pick and finish tea as an aside. It wasn’t until Mr. Deng met Mr. Zhou that he began to seriously study crafting tea. Mr. Zhou visited to teach in the a nearby town, and one day Mr. Deng served him a cup of tea. Mr. Zhou exclaimed that the quality of leaf was fantastic, even if the craftsmanship was still a bit unpolished. He encouraged Mr. Deng to devote more energy to tea and offered to teach Mr. Deng all he knew about picking, roasting and sun-drying.

Mr. Deng got in touch with old classmates and raised enough money to build his own workshop, inviting friends and neighbors from his home town to pick tea when they weren’t picking walnuts. He passes on his knowledge and offers a generous price to anyone who can help him pick tea, remembering his own hardship as he got started as a wild forager. He officially joined the Dongsa Farmer’s Cooperative five years ago, and his craftsmanship has been getting better every year under Mr. Zhou’s watchful eye.

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He, his wife, and his neighbors can live a much better life as tea farmers, while also acting as stewards to otherwise unregulated land. By teaming together, they can prevent outsiders from coming in secret and picking trees irresponsibly. They have been able to use their profits to expand the local elementary school that is easier for children to walk to from their homes, and have even dug out and built their own roads to connect remote three-to-four family settlements across the mountain that were once isolated. Mr. Deng’s optimism, self sufficient spirit and eagerness to learn are a source of hope for the whole region, and a wonderful sign for us tea lovers that the craft of tea in Qianjiazhai will continue strong for years to come.

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While Mr. Zhou is a recognized teacher of tea craft (and 4th grade cursive) in Qianjiazhai, we had the privilige to actually meet one of his own teachers, a kind but formidable woman in her mid-nineties who has mastered two distinct techniques for making Qianjiazhai’s uniquely complex and nuanced black tea.

Most Yunnan black comes from the less biodiverse lowlands where the sun and heat encourages faster growth but ultimately less interesting tea. With the help of her son and grandson, this master (who asked out of humility not to be called out by name) was one of the first in the area to use wild-picked high elevation tea from one hundred to eight hundred year trees to make black tea.

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The family started by following traditional Dian Hong technique: allowing the tea to oxidize in the sun before roasting the tea by hand in a wok to finish drying the leaves. The result is a rich, sweet and deep brew that reminds us of a more herbaceous and floral Golden Fleece. After working for several years using these techniques, she decided that she wanted more of the natural flavor of Qianjiazhai to come through. To achieve this, she actually allows the tea to oxidize fully in the sun, before spreading the tea in thin layers on bamboo baskets to very quickly finish the drying process in the sun without applying extra heat. This makes her black tea closer to sheng pu’er in style, and gives it a unique aging potential among its peers.

Her family showed us their older trees, between five hundred and just over one thousand years each, and treated us to some of the just-dried black teas of each style. While Master Zhou has passed on her techniques to several other families, theirs still supplies the bulk of the wild-picked Black tea for the Dongsa Cooperative.

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The Wang Family cares for and protects their 1800 year old tea tree, alongside its younger thousand year and eight hundred year siblings.

Their village near Shang Wen Xian and Wen Cha Cun used to have a slightly older tree yet, but a few generations back it was unfortunately cut down to build a house by a family that didn’t know any better. The Wang family’s trees aren’t regulated by the government because they are on private land, with the oldest tree just a few meters behind the house – but she is good friends with the local preservation corps official, who gave us a ride up the mountain in his 4-wheel drive pickup truck where Mr. Zhou’s little yellow sedan couldn’t go any further.

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Mrs. Wang (and her baby puppy) showed us how her family has built a retainer wall around the trunk of their oldest tree to keep it safe from natural erosion. The oldest tree was quite a sight, but so were all the equally formidable thousand plus year trees growing around it. Mrs. Wang and Mr. Zhou lamented that the only way to get an exact age on a tree is to cut it down.

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Scientists came in to verify the ages of two of the oldest trees in Qianjiazhai at 2700 years and 2500 years respectively. The data and measurements on these two trees and one even older tree in Lincang are used in conjunction with family geneologies and village history to estimate the age of the living trees on private land like the Wang Family. The dimensions can be compared and referenced against the historical age of the town settlement and the exact age count from the tree that was cut down a couple generations back to get very close estimates.

 

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At the end of the day, it is humbling to stand under a canopy of trees who were saplings long before the Song Dynasty and – hopefully – will be around long after we are gone.

Qianjiazhai is an incredible natural resource for its density of old growth tea forest, and a region that we sincerely hope will get more attention from botanists and researchers around the world. There is much to be learned about the genetic biodiversity of what many consider to be the birthplace of tea. In the decades to come, we will see see the whole region charted and mapped with every unique varietal documented. In this way, we might begin to understand why Qianjiazhai’s tea is so striking and unique.

We are working to put together all of our recent charting and measurements, as well as comparisons of different varietals and tree ages in dimensions, leaf size and taste soon to share a glimpse of the complexity of the region.

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We were lucky to spend a good portion of our time in Qianjiazhai getting to know the Li Family.

A three hour 4-wheel drive ride even from the nearest town with paved roads, the Li Family and their neighbors above Bei Die Qing had never seen foreigners before. No one in the village can remember ever leaving their own mountain peak. The Li Family is entirely self-sufficient, growing their own crops and wild foraging for seasonal vegetables to supplement.

We arrived on a Friday, which the local kids have off from school. It takes so long to get to school that children will stay at the school for three days straight and sleep in boarding rooms, before walking home to be with their families for the rest of the week. Teachers try to fit in as much as they can into three long days, but even still, the situation makes it difficult for local youth to really excel in academics. The kids of the whole village – cousins and siblings – were playing together in an inseparable gaggle. When we first arrived, only the bravest two kids were willing to peek around the corner and see what we were up to, but they quickly realized that we were just like everyone else, and got back to their games.

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The Li Family was drying several kinds of tea in their courtyard. While sun-drying is by far the best way to finish pu’er, it can be challenging up in the mountains. One moment, it will be sunny and beautiful, and then in three minutes a cloud will drift by and it starts sprinkling. While sharing tea, we would get into conversations about the best wild-foraging finds of the season, and then have to break and all run outside to bring the baskets of drying tea under the eaves while rain clouds passed us by. The effort is absolutely worth it in the final flavor.

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In the spring time, everyone eats together in one room in the Li Family’s house. We were lucky enough to sit down and share a meal of wild vegetables served as fragrant salads, savory omelets and rich soups. The kids were mostly interested in the chicken, running in to grab a chicken leg in one hand while holding a honeycomb in the other. We talked a lot about the changing urban landscape in China and the fact that the old communist health care and welfare systems are going away, leaving many people to fend for themselves. Mrs. Li thinks that in another decade, when more roads are finished and reliable electricity makes it out to the villages, that people in the countryside like them will have it much better than city people for the first time in centuries. She loves hier life in Qianjiazhai. Everyone at the table agreed that their lives require real suffering, but the suffering is balanced by natural abundance.

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They took us down the mountainside after lunch. The mountain is covered in old wild tea trees. There are none of the terraces we associate with Fujianese teas – only steep rocky mountain soil, wildflowers and tea trees between four feet and well over twenty feet tall.

We picked out a centuries old tree whose buds were perfectly ready to harvest. While the buds are the prettiest part of the finished tea, in Qianjiazhai, much of the nuance and complexity comes from getting as much of the tender stem and young leaves mixed in with the buds as possible. Mrs. Li and her family only picks a tree once in a season, and picks the full clusters of buds and leaves for the best flavor, while creating a clean break for the tree to put out new buds and actually keep growing for the future generations.

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One of the hardest parts of picking tea was climbing the tree. The branches lower down were certainly thick enough for a stable footing, but higher up in the tree, it seemed like a real risk that a branch might break. Mrs. Li and her mother were able to balance at the very top in flip-flops to help pick those last leaves. Like many in Qianjiazhai, the Li Family prefers to finish and dry the leaves from any tree that yields a kilo or more (usually at least six hundred years or older) in their own baskets to keep them separate. Once the tea is finished, Mr. Zhou will press the tea into separate single-tree cakes, or create a blended tea from a couple dozen trees if he is looking for a very specific flavor.

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After we finished picking the beautiful tree overlooking a deep mountain valley, we climbed back up to the Li Family’s workshop and got a low fire going over the huge tea drying wok. Mr. Zhou helped them bring in the larger flatter wok for tea to improve their process, just as he’s acting as an advisor on the construction of a larger workshop closer to the tea trees.. We tossed the fresh leaves over a low flame for about ten minutes to start withering them. Mr. Zhou explained how the process was different from green tea: because the temperature is so much lower, the heat doesn’t stop the tea from continuing to grow and age. After the quick low temperature firing, we spread the tea out in bamboo baskets and slid the baskets onto the roof to dry in the sun.

The Li Family’s left a deep impression with their incredibly genuine warmth and hospitality, as well as their true love for their land. Villages and families like theirs provide a functional alternative to the plantation model of business, where land is all owned by one company and picked by laborers who never see their finished product. This village is nestled between more trees than they can pick, and everyone pitches in to produce the very best.

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10 Responses to “Meet the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmers’ Coop”

  1. James Vandegriff

    Thank you to all the families involved in making the tea we have enjoyed. I appreciate the dedication it takes, and appreciate your bringing us the story, David. All the best, Jim Vandegriff

  2. Such an inspiring story. I’m so happy you’ve shared this story! I’m so happy to know more about those who care so much to raise such lovely tea! I’ll be praying for blessings and care for this coop!

  3. Ron and Denise DeBlois

    Thank you so much for sharing, I wish we could have been there with you. We love the teas you have and knowing the history behind the families who craft the tea, makes it so special.

    • Lily Duckler

      Thank you, Ron & Denise! Visiting our partners in Qianjiazhai is definitely a challenge, but once you’re finally there, there are few places more welcoming or inspiring.

  4. Getting to know more about the farmers who bring us wonderful teas, is so inspiring. It’s just wonderful to hear about a place so natural and removed yet now, thanks to this article, just a click away. Thank you for this glimpse.

    • Lily Duckler

      Thank you, Marsha! There is so much more to share about this region, these teas, and these people – hopefully, we’ll be able to get more interviews translated to share with everyone soon.

  5. Thanks for sharing the stories of your visits. So much to learn about tea! Such a long history…here is hoping young people will stay and continue to take care of the trees.

    • Lily Duckler

      Thank you, Hugh! We hope so, too – sharing the region’s tea more broadly and directly will certainly help give a more compelling reason to continue protecting the trees and furthering the craft.

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