Inside the Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er, China, a World Heritage Site

The tea landscapes of Asia – with an intense, calm sense of beauty – are the past and future of their rural environment and communities, says the International Council on Monuments and Sites' (ICOMOS) report on Tea Landscapes of Asia in 2021. ICOMOS says this paradigm of a cultural landscape – resulting from the harmonious interaction between humans and nature – should be represented on the World Heritage List.

Now, receiving the recognition it deserves, the ancient tea plantations of Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er,  China, have become the first cultural tea landscape World Heritage Site focusing on tea cultivation and tea culture.

“There are 18 World Heritage properties related to agricultural landscape in the World Heritage List, including six of beverage plants, two related to coffee and four related to grape wine, but none of tea,” the World Heritage Committee previously noted.

In fact, only last year, the traditional tea processing techniques and associated social cultural practices in China were inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and in 2023 the ancient tea plantations of Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er, China was designated as a World Heritage Site.

The decision was made at the 45th meeting of World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia last month. The committee is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that selects the sites to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The nominated property is located on the Jingmai Mountain in the southwestern border area of Yunnan Province, with widely distributed tea plantations.

Tea – as one of the major beverages of the world – has important agricultural heritage with outstanding universal value. And tea culture-based agricultural landscape is a combination of material and spiritual cultures.

The World Heritage Committee said the region of the Jingmai Mountain, the landscape formed by the close ties between man, tea trees and land, is an outstanding example of the harmonious coexistence of man and nature, reflecting the integration of local people and natural landscape, which is well preserved even today.

“The cultural landscape formed by cultivation of tea trees is not only a representative of local culture but of traditional Chinese tea culture,” noted The World Heritage Committee. “It represents regional features and national culture. Chinese tea culture integrates Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, and connects nature and man, functioning as an important medium for human communication and cultural exchange.”

The World Heritage Committee said: “Tea, spread from China to the world, makes important contributions to the world's culture. Different from other heritages represented by agricultural technology or regional cultures, the national culture embodied in tea plantation landscape is of the essential significance.“

The famous Assam tea plantation in India, tea plantations in Sri Lanka, Shizuoka tea plantation in Japan, etc. are mainly terrace tea landscapes with standardized modern cultivation. They are professionally managed by limited corporations with large scale. In contrast, the ancient tea plantations of Jingmai Mountain are cultural landscapes formed by adaptation to the nature under extreme conditions. The local people discovered, domesticated and cultivated tea to form a traditional way of ancient tea cultivation in natural forests, which is still in use today; thus, creating a sustainable ecological system and land use mode.

The World Heritage Committee noted that in the nominated area, the highest elevation reaches 1,662 meters (Nuogang Mountain) and the lowest reaches 1,100 meters (Nanlang Valley). Ancient tea plantations are mainly distributed in the mountain area of 1,250 to 1,550 meters above sea, and they concentrate in three areas: Manggeng-Mengben ancient tea plantations, Jingmai Dapingzhang-Nuogang ancient tea plantations and Mangjing ancient tea plantations.

In a total area of 1,870 hectares, there are about 1.13 million ancient tea trees, of which the oldest tea tree has a history of 1,400 years. Less than 10 percent of the tea trees are aged 500 to 1,000 years, about 30 percent are 300 to 499 years old, and the average age of the tea trees in the entire biocenosis is about 200 years.

The nominated area is not only the largest and the best-preserved ancient tea plantation area of the region, but also the largest ancient and cultivated arbor tea plantation of the world.

The Wisdom of Ancient Agricultural Civilization

Around 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, tea plant species in southwestern China survived the Fourth Ice Age. Approximately during the 10th to 14th centuries, the Bulang and Dai ethnic ancestors successively migrated to Jingmai Mountain. They discovered wild tea tree communities in the forest, which had medicinal properties, and decided to settle in this area. They built villages in the forest and limited the development of the tea gardens around the villages.

Chen Yaohua, director of the World Heritage Research Center at Peking University, said that this thousand-year-old ancient tea garden is a testament to human tea cultivation models and an exemplary model of mountainous forest agriculture development. The inter-cropping tea plantation model here is well-preserved and embodies people's simple ecological ethics and the outstanding ecological wisdom of rational natural utilization. “The Jingmai Mountain ancient tea garden further proves that southwestern China is the birthplace of tea trees and the earliest place in the world to discover, use and cultivate tea trees,” he said.

A ‘Living’ Model of Harmonious Coexistence Between People and Nature

The heritage area of the “Pu'er Jingmai Mountain Ancient Tea Garden Cultural Landscape” includes five vast and well-preserved ancient tea gardens, nine ancient villages scattered within them, and three separate protective forests between the ancient tea gardens. This region is home to various ethnic groups, including the Dai, Bulang, Hani, Wa and Han peoples. For centuries, these indigenous ethnic groups have coexisted with tea, fostering a harmonious relationship between humans and nature.

In Jingmai Mountain, tea trees came before residents, and forests existed prior to villages. The mountain nurtures tea, and tea nurtures the people, while the people protect the mountain. The indigenous communities here are grateful for the gifts of nature, cherish every inch of the land, and regard the ancient tea gardens as an integral part of their lives. They have established a series of local regulations and community agreements to protect and care for this homeland.

Regarding the local traditional techniques of tea planting, harvesting and processing, as well as the tea culture centered around “harmony,” and the unique tea ancestor rituals, Yaohua explained that the local community continuously promotes their protection and development. This is achieved through activities such as compiling and publishing books on ethnic culture, actively applying for intangible cultural heritage status and nurturing inheritors.

When Protection and Development Go Hand in Hand

Guo Qiang, deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, explained that since the initiation of the World Heritage application process, the National Cultural Heritage Administration has guided Yunnan Province and Puer City in issuing and implementing three specialized laws and seven regulatory systems, including the “Jingmai Mountain Protection Regulations of Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, Yunnan Province,” “Puer City Regulations on the Protection of Ancient Tea Trees,” and the “Guidelines for the Construction of Jingmai Mountain Heritage Sites,” establishing a comprehensive protection and management system based on the law and regulations.“

Through the protection of residences, environmental improvement and infrastructure construction, the living quality, living environment and cultural development of all ethnic groups in Jingmai Mountain have significantly improved,” said Qiang. “The original tea industry in Jingmai Mountain has been effectively protected, contributing to rural revitalization and benefiting the general public.”

The ancient tea gardens, with their centuries-old history, continue to thrive and bring new vitality in this new era.

Xian Gong a tea grower, is one such example. Thirteen years ago, she pioneered the development model of “one place yielding four incomes” and created a “tea travel lifestyle” that combines cooperatives, tea factories, inns and experiential shops. Last year, Xian Gong led 50 women to establish a cooperative, build a tea factory, and operate a homestay inn. Currently, the cooperative has 229 members and owns more than 9,000 mu (about 600 hectares) of tea gardens, with an annual production capacity of 200 tons of raw tea.

Roopak Goswami has worked for more than two decades as a newspaper journalist in Northeast India. Tea is his passion, and he covers the global tea industry regularly for World Tea News.

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