China gains world's first tea culture UNESCO heritage site status

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Late on Sunday night in a remote mountain village in southwest China's Yunnan Province, a crowd burst into applause after receiving the news that their native tea forest lands had been inscribed on the World Heritage Site list at the 45th session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee.

People from multiple ethnic groups wearing traditional clothing joined a celebratory bonfire on Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er City, Yunnan.

The Cultural Landscape of Old Tea Forests of Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er is China's 57th UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world's first tea culture World Heritage Site. Tea, coffee and cocoa are the world's three major non-alcoholic drinks.

The newly inscribed World Heritage Site encompasses five ancient tea forests with a total area of 18,000 mu (1,200 hectares). It covers nine villages, which together have more than 5,000 residents, most of whom are members of the Blang or Dai ethnic groups.

Jingmai Mountain is home to communities of well-preserved ancient tea trees, and the local history of the human cultivation of tea trees can be traced back more than 1,000 years.

Zhou Tianhong, deputy director of the Administration for the Conservation of the Ancient Tea Forests of Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er, said that Jingmai is one of the world's largest artificially cultivated ancient tea forest sites, home to more than 1 million tea trees that are over 100 years old.

Tea originated in China and became popular globally over time. The Jingmai heritage site vividly shows the origins, development and dissemination of Chinese tea culture, he said.

The ancestors of the Blang and Dai people were early settlers on the mountain. They discovered the value of tea and regarded it as an integral part of their lives, and their descendants carry on the traditional management of the ancient tea plantations, preserving the ecosystem by maintaining half original, half cultivated tea forests.

In the crowd on Sunday night was Su Guowen, 77, who lives in Mangjing Up Village and is revered by locals as a practitioner of the tea-spirit worship ceremony of the Blang ethnic people. He remained stoic during the announcement and later warned people not to become complacent.

"The heritage status has been conferred to honor the creation of our ancestors, but the preservation of that heritage depends on us. We need to carry forward our traditional values and keep in mind the sayings of our ancestors -- preserving the land and the tea trees is saving gold for our offspring," he said.

Over the years, Jingmai Mountain has maintained its great biodiversity while supporting human settlements and tree cultivation. Village regulations and local constitutions help stop tea farmers from applying chemical fertilizers or pesticides to the ancient tea forests, as tea trees rely on natural nutrients in rainforests for growth. Locals have instead adopted natural methods of preventing plant diseases and pests in the tea forests, such as planting camphor trees to repel insects.

Aikan is a member of the Blang ethnic group and a resident of Wengwa Village, which is located within the World Heritage Site, and he was among the local representatives who accompanied experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) during their evaluation of Jingmai's UNESCO World Heritage Site application.

"I understood that their priority concern was whether the protection and utilization of the ancient tea forests here were sustainable," he said.

He told the foreign experts that the villages were built halfway up the mountain -- all lower than yet close to the tea forests, which are located at an approximate average of 1,500 meters above sea level -- while their farmlands were developed in low-altitude areas.

This land use has ensured that the tea forests have been minimally disturbed by human life and production for 1,000 years, he said.

Zhou said that the 13-year efforts for the World Heritage listing has put pressure on the local government to improve supervision over the protection of the tea forests. More than 20 rules and regulations have been implemented or revised for that purpose.

Renovations of traditional buildings in the villages have also been carried out in that time, and infrastructure has been upgraded.

According to a survey carried out by the Yunnan forestry and grassland administration, there are 910,000 mu of tea forests with trees over 100 years old in the province, collectively containing about 54 million precious tea trees. These resources account for 97 percent of the country's total.

Yunnan's tea plantation area totaled 7.49 million mu last year, with an annual output of 500,000 tonnes of raw tea materials. Tea products from Yunnan are exported to more than 30 countries and regions.

In 2022, traditional tea processing techniques and their associated social practices in China were added to UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Yang Decong, deputy director of the Yunnan provincial culture and tourism department, said that the double tea culture UNESCO heritage listing would stimulate tea culture tourism, which would boost the development, inheritance and international dissemination of Chinese tea and tea culture. 

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