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Tea and China's minority nationalities.

Tea and China's minority nationalities

The Chinese population is overwhelmingly made up of Han Chinese, who comprise 93 percent of the country's 1.1 billion people. Of the non-Han Chinese the Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs or Turkic Moslems of Xinjiang are most conspicuous because their customs, languages and ways of life differ greatly from the Han majority. These three minority nationalities inhabit vast border regions of the country, regions which are strategically sensitive, rich in mineral resources and economically undeveloped. For the most part they are nomadic herdsmen or subsistent farmers occupying the wide plains, inland basins and rarified plateaux of China's hinterlands.

According to the 1982 national census there were 3.9 million Tibetans in China, just half of whom lived in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, whose total population was 1.9 million. The remaining Tibetans live in the adjacent provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. Mongolians numbered 3.4 million. Most of them live in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of north China which, with its population of 19.3 million, is comprised mainly of Han Chinese. The Uighurs are by far the largest minority nationality in the western province of Xinjiang and total six million out of a population of 13.1 million. Even in this harsh, far-flung province Han settlers, many of them working on state farms run by the military, outnumber the original inhabitants.

One custom which the Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs share with the Han is their practice of drinking tea as the principal hot beverage. Border tea (bianxiaocha) is the name given to the various types of compressed or brick teas sold to China's minority nationalities. There are no tea gardens in Xinjiang or Inner Mongolia. In Tibet there has been an attempt to plant tea but the area is miniscule and the output negligible. Therefore, border teas is shipped to these areas from provinces where predominantly Han Chinese grow and manage the bushes.

Coarse, large leaves and tips, together with black and green fannings and dust, make up the principal raw materials for border tea. The compressed tea is reprocessed from either crude or refined low-grade teas. Depending on the base which is used, tea falls within the category of black or dark green tea. Dark green (the Chinese word is black, while the Chinese word for what in the West is called black tea is red) is a tea peculiar to China.

This tea goes through four processing stages. The first two stages of fixation (or halting fermentation) and kneading and twisting are the same as for the processing of green tea. Then comes stacking and moistening and finally drying. The stacking and moistening is carried out in three ways to promote fermentation: when the semi-finished product is wet or dry, or to the finished product as repeated fermentation.

Compressed tea can be steamed or roasted and flowers added to make a scented brick tea. In its compact form which is so conducive for transport across long distances and through extreme climactic conditions, brick tea can vary in shape from square, oblong, round, to bowl-shaped. It also has a long shelf-life.

Output of compressed tea forms a small but growing percentage of total tea production in China. In 1980 output was 5,580 tons, or only 1.6 percent of the national output of 343,000 tons. By 1982 15,900 tea out of national output of 401,000 tons, a figure of four percent. In 1986 18,571 tons of border tea raw material was produced in a national tea harvest of 463,000 tons, a similar percentage. By 1988 the output had jumped to 40,000 tons, or 7.5% of national production, with a supply unable to satisfy demand. In some provinces compressed tea is a significant component of tea production. In Human province, for example, it comprised 15 percent of provincial tea output in 1982 and 1986 and in adjacent Hubei province 22.4 percent in 1982 and 26 percent in 1986.

A small amount of compressed tea is exported. Until 1987 volumes were only about 100 tons per annum but in that year the amount rose to 1,758 tons, probably as a result of renewed sales across the land border to the Soviet Union.

The Han Chinese have consumed tea as their daily beverage for over a thousand years but to this day they have preferred to drink either green (since the Song dynasty (AD 960-1280), jasmine (Ming AD 1368-1644), Wulong or black tea (Qing AD 1644-1912), depending mainly on the area of China in which they live. The Tibetans prefer butter tea while the Mongolians and Uighurs, or Turkic Moslems, favor milk tea.

Popular sayings in minority-inhabited areas which give expression to the central place that tea holds in the lives of the people include: "I would rather go without butter and salt for three days than tea for one" and "One day without tea and life is dreary; three days without it and you'll get sick."

The Tibetans cut up, pound and boil the brick tea, strain off the brew, and add it to a mixer containing butter and table salt. It is then stirred vigorously into a milky-white liquid and poured into a tea-pot ready for consumption. Many cups are drunk for breakfast and when the final half-cup remains, barley flour is added and mixed to form a paste, known as zanba. At lunch-time more flour together with milk and sugar is added to the concoction to make a thick paste which is consumed hot.

Mongolian herdsmen normally boil tea in a wok and add a little salt. For festive occasions or when entertaining guests, a more elaborate preparation takes place for the serving of milk tea. First, the green or black brick is cut up and pounded to pieces. Then the tea is boiled for several minutes and the residue dicarded. The brew is poured into a large wok, milk stirred in and boiling water added. The tea is then poured into a metal tea-pot and salt added according to the degree of saltiness or sweetness desired. Sometimes some roasted millet is added.

The Uighurs drink their tea in the same way as the Mongolians but with the one major difference. To compensate for the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet they swallow the leaves with the liquid.

Chinese minorities drink tea as a daily necessity. These people live in harsh climactic areas, often at high altitudes, and eat a lot of red meat, particularly mutton. A large intake of liquids is necessary in such an environment. The vitamins in tea, especially vitamin C, help compensate for a fresh fruit/vegetable deficiency and tea drunk after meals helps in the digestion of the fatty, greasy food.

It is claimed that the average. Tibetan drinks 30-50 cups of tea a day which is equal to five-to-seven liters. At the beginning of the 80's, tea consumption in Xinjiang (home of the Uighurs and Kazakhs) was 0.5 kg per capita in urban areas, 2.5 kg per head in rural areas and in pastoral districts it had reached 5.0 kg per head. The large difference between urban and rural consumption in Xinjiang is probably attributable to the fact that most Han Chinese live in urban areas while the Uighurs and Kazakhs inhabit rural and pastoral areas.

All of the above figures were significantly higher than the national average of 0.22 kg per head in 1983 and would make the herdsmen of Xinjiang among the highest tea consumers in the world. In fact, in most of the provinces of China where minority nationalities live in greatest numbers, tea consumption is above the national average.

Chinese feudal rulers from 641AD onward, during Tang dynasty, implemented a policy of "controlling the border through tea." Tea, which was in great demand among the non-Han peoples living in these regions, was traded for horses, which successive Han dynasties, until the time of Mongol invasion and the establishment of the Yuan dynasty (1272AD), required for their cavalries. This policy was called "the tea-horse law." In the early 20th century, the British rulers of India used tea as a trading weapon to undermine Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The British used the Chinese product in order to promote the sale of Indian tea from plantations they had established the previous century.

Since the establishment of the People's Republic six provinces have been assigned the task of producing border tea. In decreasing order of importance they are Hunan, Yunnan, Hubei, Sichuan, Guizhou and Shaanxi. In Sichuan province, the area of tea fields assigned to the production of border tea has increased from 20,000 ha in 1949 to 126,666 ha in 1981 and the number of processing plants from 3 to 15. The volume of tea procured by the state purchasing agencies has risen from 2,500 tons to 12,000 tons over the same period. By allocating production targets to these provinces, supplies are guaranteed and the minority people, who have no love for their Han Chinese rulers, can be assured that this precious basic commodity will be available all year round.

The principal varieties of compressed tea are Fu Brick from Hunan and Sichuan, supplied mainly to Gansu, Xinjiang and Quinghai; Kang brick from Sichuan, supplied mainly to Tibet; green brick from Hubei (one brick weighs 2 kg), supplied mainly to Inner Mongolia and Gold Tip from Sichuan and Guizhou. Other varieties of compressed tea are black brick, which is supplied mainly to Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi; scented brick, supplied mainly to Shanxi; millet brick, supplied mainly to Xinjiang; puer tea from Yunnan, which is popular in Hong Kong and among overseas Chinese communities and Liubao tea from Liubao village in Guangxi Autonomous Region.

Chinese government policy documents constantly refer to the strategic necessity of ensuring supplies of tea to the minority nationalities. For example, a May 1982 notice of the Ministry of Commerce, State Prices Bureau and the State Nationalities' Commission stated in part that border tea "is a daily necessity for the minority nationalities, and developing border tea production has great significance for thoroughly implementing the [Communist] Party's nationalities' policy, strengthening the unity of the nationalities and consolidating the border areas."

In the years immediately preceding the marketing reforms of 1984, the central government used fiscal and pricing policy to encourage the production of border tea. In 1980 the sales tax rate on border tea was halved from 40 percent to 20 percent. In 1982 procurement prices were raised 10 percent, an effective increase in return to producers over two years of 30 percent. Following the increase in procurement prices, allocation prices as well as ex-factory crude tea prices were also raised. Wholesale and retail prices remained unchanged with the subsequent substantial losses or subsidies, termed policy-type losses, borne by local governments in border-tea consuming areas.

In 1983 the agricultural tax on the raw material for border tea was reduced from 20 to 10 percent so as to reward producers and stimulate production. The ex-factory price was lowered by 5.6 percent to increase sales and reduce business losses. In the same year the sales tax rate on border tea was reduced again, from 20 to 10 percent with the savings to be passed on in reduced retail prices so as to expand sales. Yet local governments in consumer areas, in order to contain budget deficits by reducing price subsidies, moved to increase retail prices. In Inner Mongolia prices rose on an average of 45-50 percent. In 1984 Tibet lifted its prices by 7.0-60.5 percent. In the following year Xinjiang, after increasing its retail prices, was still selling tea at a loss or just breaking even, as were other sales' areas.

The July 1983 notice of the government in Inner Mongolia announcing the price increases, stated that the retail price of brick tea had not been adjusted since being fixed in the 50's. But over the same period allocation prices had risen considerably. For example, the allocation price of green brick had risen by 113.49 percent from the 1956 price of 49.65 yuan per dan (50kg) to 106 yuan in 1982. Annual subsidies had reached 5-6 million yuan.

When measures to liberalize the marketing of tea were introduced in 1984 border tea was excluded from the new arrangements. Nationally-assigned procurement quotas remain in force for the production and allocation of border tea supplies. As the Ministry of Commerce stated in its report of May 1984: "Border tea is an indispensable daily necessity for the minority nationalities and to guarantee supplies has great significance for strengthening unity of the nationalities and ensuring the stability and unity of the border areas. The minority nationalities inhabit vast territories and communications are difficult. Therefore stable channels and planning are required to produce, transport and store tea."

The report also suggested the establishment of county production bases for border tea. Sichuan and Guizhou were to set up bases for the production of Kang brick and Gold Tip to supply Tibet and Qinghai, also the home of many Tibetans. Hunan was to produce Fu brick, black brick and scented brick for Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia. Hubei was assigned the task of producing green brick and corn brick for Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. Yunnan was to produce Kang brick and other compressed teas for Tibet and compressed tea for Sichuan. Long-term production-sales agreements were to be signed and the central government would issue procurement targets for implementation by the relevant provincial bodies. An appropriate level of reserves was to be built up.

In the five years since liberalization, tea farmers in the above provinces have understandably been most reluctant to supply low-quality leaf for border tea at mandatory prices when they can obtain much greater returns by plucking high quality leaf for the processing of green or black tea. Not only are prices higher but with the outbreak of "tea wars" in 1987-88 the mad scramble for the product by state purchasing agencies, state, collective and individually-run processing factories and private merchants resulted in enourmous price hikes for producers.

For example, in 1988 the price of green tea shot up, leading farmers to switch from black and compressed tea, much to the consternation of the government. The state purchasing agencies were only able to buy 60 percent less than 1987 purchases and almost 50 percent less than 1984 amounts. But given the marked increase in output since 1980 these figures must be open to question.

In recognition of this problem the government has increased the purchasing price for raw material for border tea. In 1987 prices of crude black and old green teas from Hunan and Hubei provinces were increased by 10 percent, based on the 1983 list prices. The level of procurement price increases for other border teas was left to the local authorities to determine, but it was to stay close to 10 percent. In 1988 procurement prices were raised by a further 20 percent all round and again in 1989 by an unspecified amount.

The special treatment given to border tea is an indication of the centrality of tea to nationalities policy. The central authorities attach great importance to guaranteeing regular supplies of tea at affordable prices to border areas. They have enough problems with unrest, particularly in Tibet, without providing secessionists with a further pretext to complain of unfair treatment from Beijing.

Yet, this exemption from market reforms which has been granted to border tea stands in stark contradiction to the faltering attempts elsewhere to introduce the discipline of the market to regulate supply and demand. Farmers are prevented by the policy of mandatory purchases and fixed prices from responding to price signals and obtaining the best available return for their crop. Output of border tea has surged ahead but at the cost of alienating Han Chinese tea farmers who are forced to produce it, adding to the budgetary burden of governments in consumer areas and failing to deliver supplies to the consumer in sufficient quantities at acceptable prices.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Author:Forster, Keith
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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