Frontiers as Dilemma

By Po-Yi Hung, National Taiwan University

Ancient Tea Forest, Image Credit: Po-Yi Hung

Ancient Tea Forest, Image Credit: Po-Yi Hung

From relative obscurity a few decades ago, tea from Yunnan, especially Pu’er, has become a fashionable, must-have variety in the tea shops of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Surging demand for Pu’er — often advertised as wild tea even if it is from the plantations has made farmers here rich and encouraged entrepreneurs to carve out more plantations from jungle-covered hillsides…Tea from Pu’er was popular around the region in ancient times: historians describe “horse tea trails” that radiated from Pu’er, the main trading center for the tea, into northern and eastern China, Tibet and beyond…The recent surge in popularity is attributed to newly affluent, health-conscious Chinese who believe that Pu’er tea lowers cholesterol, cures hangovers, helps fortify teeth and trims away fat.”

Above is an excerpt from the article,  A Tea From the Jungle Enriches a Placid Village, by Thomas Fuller of The New York Times. It discloses a juxtaposition of both “ancientness” and “fashion” of Pu’er tea, a tea produced on China’s southwest frontier. This juxtaposition, in fact, conveys current dilemma regarding development on the frontier.

Frontier (bianjiang) carries the connotation of ‘backwardness’ (luohou) in China. On China’s frontier, including southwest China, this connotation of ‘backwardness’ applies not only to the physical frontier landscape, but also to the people, especially China’s ‘minority nationalities’ (shaoshu minzu). China’s southwest frontier, paradoxically, also denotes a place where pristine nature is well-preserved due to its lack of modern development. As a result, frontier landscape becomes the material form of ‘unpolluted’ nature, where the minority nationalities live harmoniously with their ‘primitive’ lifestyles without damaging their environment. The paradoxical meanings of landscape on China’s southwest frontier, being ‘backward’ as well as being ‘natural,’ have situated development on China’s southwest frontier in dilemma. On one hand, development seems imperative to counter the prevalent ‘backwardness’ in southwest China. On the other hand, development seems threatening in terms of its potential to destroy the landscape of pristine nature on the frontier. Primitive nature and modernized development become two incompatible desires coexisting on China’s southwest frontier.

In a paper published in Area, I use tea production on China’s southwest frontier as an example to demonstrate that dilemma is not an end result, but a mechanism to rearticulate the relationship among frontier, the state, and the market economy. Data are based on ethnographic research in the village of Mangjing. Mangjing is located in Jingmai Mountain (Jingmaishan), a renowned tea mountain in Yunnan, a province on China’s southwest frontier. Most of the villagers in Mangjing are one of the minority nationalities of China, Bulang (or Blang). Specifically, I discuss the state-led project in transforming the modern tea plantation to “restore” a landscape deemed as “ancient tea forest” (guchalin) or “ancient tea arboretum” (guchayuan). In Mangjing, the ancient tea forest was considered by the state as form of backward culture and lagging-behind economy. As a result, many ancient tea trees were clear-cut for planting either the “modern” terrace tea (taidi cha) or other crops. Nowadays, the growing market of ancient tree tea, in turn, has substantially created new economic, cultural, and political values of ancient tea forest. In consequence, the state, ironically, has launched a restoration project to bring back the missing ancient tea forest.

Looking into the tea story in Mangjing, I found that dilemmas on China’s southwest frontier have been forged by the Chinese state with its incompatible desires between “modernization” and “primitiveness” of the tea landscapes in Yunnan. Meanwhile, the incompatible desires and the resulting dilemmas on China’s southwest frontier have further mobilized the state to flexibly rework its power to reconstruct the frontier to meet contingent market demand. Based on the shifting meanings of tea landscapes, the state has flexibly “shuttled through” the dilemmas between development of modernization and preservation of primitiveness on the frontier.

About the author: Po-Yi Hung is an Assistant Professor in Geography at the National Taiwan University. 

 Hung, P.-Y. (2014), Frontiers as dilemma: the incompatible desires for tea production in southwest China. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12120

60-world2 Fuller, T. (2008) A Tea From the Jungle Enriches a Placid Village. New York Times. Last accessed 9 September 2014

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