Close to our forests in the Nannuo mountain peak and our own tea factory there are the ruins of this gargantuan, old Menghai Cha Chang facility, whose technological vanguard and productive excellence led the whole tea industry, working on the once imperial tea leaves of the nearby peaks.
It was born in the 1940 after a long period of studies and travels by a team composed by the best world tea expert of the time. The project had been commissioned by the Kuomingtang, the “blacks”, whose aim was to reach the maximum ever expressed by tea, as a pure Chinese cultural symbol.
Mr. Yan Da worked there when he was between 10 and 34 years old, and now that turned 51 he is recognized as one of the best Yunnan tea masters. He guides us in these abandoned buildings where he spent so many seasons touching and smelling the tea leaves, and he tells us “those people bought British machines, and even now I have no idea where England is”.
The factory received the last adjustments few hours before the Japanese army arrived in this nook of the world. From 1949, with the New China, till the ’80s, the factory gathered the tea leaves from all Nannuo mountain area, paying a “communist compensation” to the farmers. At the beginning the leaves came from ancient tea trees, but with new policies and agricultural practices these trees started to be torn down to give space to tea bushes and then, from the beginning of ’80s, with a wide use of chemicals, that causes a great increase in the quantity of leaves processed season after season.
At the beginning of the ’90s the factory had been shut down, because those same farmers who previously ceded the tea leaves for sugar stamps and rice and cabbage, now started to keep their ancient trees leaves and to get rid of the chemicals in exchange of high prices in the free market.
But during the decades when the factory operated, even under strict political guidelines, innovations here constantly occurred. In the 1973 it was here where was invented the process to obtain the ripened pu’er shu pu, now widely produced. That year was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, when luxuries goods were not the priority – if not severely repressed -, as if the attitude of excellence that started here in the ’30s, gathering a centuries old matchless tea culture, couldn’t be stopped.
In the 1996 Dayi Cha Chang had been partially privatized and marketed with the brand Dayi (Taetea), that has hundreds of mono-brand shops.
During the tea season, if you live in any village of the Nannuo mountain area, at 6 am you could be awaken by the local loudspeakers claiming the fresh tea leaves purchase bids offered by the big tea companies, as Dayi is. The prices are fairly low, and they are mostly accepted only by the farmers who stayed awake till dawn to balance the books – money are never enough to cover gambling debts, a new house for the wife second brother, or the pink Wrangler for the second wife, etc. – and it is enough to understand that with these policies only the average quality can be maintained, but not the excellent one.
And yet there are some old employees, already all of them private farmers, grown up touching the tea leaves, taking care of them phase by phase, and this gigantic factory had been a rare mean through which the culture has perpetuated itself, surviving to dull directives, evolving in the new tastes of modernity and, even if now in the comfort of big Land Rovers and big masonry houses, appears as sacre as the centuries made it, as the line of continuity started by the land itself has never been interrupted.