In summer of 2005, I found myself in rural mountains of Southwest China, near the border with Myanmar (Burma), conducting research for my Master’s in Ecological Anthropology. I was investigating how the Akha families of a small mountain hamlet understand the land types around them, comparing their land terminology in Akha and in Chinese. Tea was a large part of their landscape, having become a high-value economic crop that was lifting the entire village out of poverty. Tea was also rapidly changing their land-use practices, because of the economic incentive and government support for tea cultivation. Tea, the large-leaf variety, grows as a native in the forests of this region, so little effort was needed to establish it in the hilly terrain around the hamlet. When I arrived on the scene, villagers were several years into a new phase of the upland tea market. They were not just growing and picking it for lowland buyers; they were processing it themselves and turning out handmade tea cakes for sale in lowland tea markets.
I spent the better part of that summer living with a host family in this upland hamlet surrounded by swidden fields, tea plantations, and forests. One day in early August, I was invited to join a family that was pressing sun-dried loose tea into the moon-shaped qizibing tea cakes typical of puer tea.
The whole family gathered in the open-air workshop, a simple concrete space built beneath the roofline of their stilt home.
Beyond the pillars of this workspace is the family’s garden plot, with edible chayote vines, corn, bamboo, and other useful plants.
The young children watch as the tea leaf is weighed out in batches and placed in steamer tins.This tea, a large-leaf variety that produces some of the best puer tea, is grown on nearby hillsides, picked by hand in the early morning, brought back to the village, lightly pan-heated to stop the action of certain enzymes, kneaded to break open the cell walls, and then dried in the sun on bamboo mats or concrete platforms. Once sun-dried, the tea leaf is called shaiqing and is ready to be shaped into cakes for long-term aging or sale.
This woman is steaming sun-dried tea leaf until it softens, then transfering it to a thick canvas bag, pressing it tightly to begin formation of the disc shape. In the background, one can see houses of the neighbors, constructed mostly with locally available natural materials. Some materials coming from lowland factories, such as sturdy roofing tiles, are increasingly making there way into the village.
Here, the man adds his body weight to a stone mold and rocks slightly in a circular motion to press the tea into a disc.
Now, well over a decade later, I am still impressed by the simple lessons of that afternoon. Here was a small, rural household carrying out the work of practical economic necessity in a relaxed home environment, using steam and low-tech tools to produce a wholesome product for market.
Despite the humble appearance of this workshop, the economy of this small hamlet was thriving. Young Akha villagers had learned the techniques of tea production that had previously been handled by companies in the lowlands, allowing them to produce a value-added product for direct sale, bypassing the middlemen who used to purchase dried tea leaf from them at relatively low prices that did not adequately reward them for their labors.
Confident of the quality of their product and its value in the tea market, the family worked cheerfully. The afternoon I spent with them reminded me that an industrial process does not have to harm to the environment or be based on labor exploitation in order to be economically successful. The world needs more workshops like these.