The Homecoming of Indigenous Tea Farmers

Written by  賴思妤 (Szu-Yu,Lai), translated by Sam Robbins.

Image credit: photo taken by author

On the side of the industrial road that runs from Nantou to Li mountain, there is a flag that reads “Tea Village” 「原味茶鄉」, announcing your arrival to an indigenous village where you can try high-quality high-mountain tea. That said, tea is not part of the traditional foodways of indigenous communities in Taiwan. So how did “high-mountain tea” travel from the lowland to indigenous communities 2000 meters above sea level? After I interviewed J, a young Atayal (one of Taiwan’s indigenous nations) farmer who had moved back to his tribe, I realised that the process was one of both trying to make a living and reflecting on one’s culture. It was also a process of how to respond to a changing market.

Since the 1980s, Taiwan’s tea industry has moved to increasingly high altitudes. At that time, due to a shrinking overseas market compounded by the oil crises, the Taiwanese government’s tea policy shifted from one focused on export to local consumption. At the same time, as northern Taiwan continued to urbanise, the remaining land for tea farms continued to shrink, leading new players in the industry to set up in the mountainous regions of central and southern Taiwan. This process gradually leads to the emergence of what is now called “high mountain tea”. High mountain tea is renowned for its fragrance and sweetness. The saying “the higher the tea leaves, the more fragrant the tea” has been popularised to promote such tea. The tea farm 2000 meters above sea level on Li Mountain is Taiwan’s highest tea farm.

As for the economic development of indigenous communities in Taiwan—although Atayal communities had begun planting temperate fruit trees as early as the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945)—it was not until the construction of the Zhongbu Cross Island highway in the 1960s, wherein more convenient transportation coincided with a booming economy. Consequently, it thus increased demand to the extent that fruit farming entered its golden 20-year period. However, such high mountain agriculture is especially susceptible to both market and environmental pressures. Therefore, starting in the 1980s, many fruit farmers decided to switch to tea farming. 

Such a shift was not an easy feat. J joked that planting tea was like gambling. Indeed, before you even start selling tea, you have to spend your savings to clean and prepare the land and purchase seedlings, fertilisers before constructing a tea factory. In addition, tea seedlings take three years from planting to be ready for harvest. With the stress of an uncertain path to success and initial income remaining lower than costs, many from the indigenous communities were put off by such tea planting. 

In 1979, the government permitted apple imports, which caused the domestic apple market to tumble. The 1999 earthquake and many other natural disasters made many indigenous and Han people living in the mountains start to cut down the thousands of fruit trees that were 30 years old and instead switch to cultivating tea. Farmers in the mountain areas are all looking for some way to survive and make a living. Even those without any experience with tea decided to take a risk to keep their income secure. 

J’s family had previously experienced such a change. He told me about his experience of becoming a tea farmer. At the start, he knew next to nothing about tea and was filled with anxiety looking at his new tea trees. Later, after relying on constant advanced study and advice for teachers, he became a recipient of many awards for his tea. In high mountain tea cultivation, turning tea leaves into tea lies at the heart of the tea’s resulting flavour. It is difficult to learn such techniques simply by watching or observing. It is necessary to learn from a teacher to learn the real tricks of the trade. J told me that the tea teacher used Taiwanese Hokkien to explain the techniques of making tea, which caused extra difficulty for him as he did not know the language. J worked hard to overcome these obstacles to become the only Atayal tea farmer in his community. 

Tea farming in Li Mountain has three seasons of production. To take advantage of all three seasons, J and other Atayal farmers kept going back and forth between their tribe and tea exhibitions. J tried many different things at the tea exhibitions, sometimes using traditional culture to sell the tea, sometimes instead of using innovative design to sell the products. These experiments reflected how to make sure both the tea and Atayal culture were on display.

Most Taiwanese tea is packaged in a box covered in calligraphy and images of clouds, flowers, and birds. As a result, there is a certain Chineseness to the styling. But J tried to move away from this method and instead wear traditional indigenous clothing and bring an Atayal totem to strengthen the connection between the tea and his indigenous community. The images of Taiwanese black bears, sambar deers, wild boards, owls, and the silliq bird of the Atayal myth on the containers represent a different tea variety. In contrast to placing a totem image on a container, as is usually used to market Atayal products, J used tea as a medium to allow customers to understand Atayal culture, and the response was largely positive. 

There is not enough high mountain tea from Li Mountain produced to keep up with increasing demand in recent years. With increased speculative investment, the total area of tea gardens has increased 8-fold over the last decade. J and other Atayal farmers returned to their tribes as a form of protest against the tea businesses trying to take control of high-mountain tea cultivation, hoping instead to create new opportunities and a new industry for their communities through their hard work. At the same time, they hoped to use this opportunity to address the depopulation and cultural weakening of indigenous tribes. For second-generation tea farmers like J, he first entered the industry simply as a way to make a living. Slowly, through cultivating tea, processing tea, and selling tea, he realised that tea was a way to make money and reflect on his relationship with his culture. Even if he faced many difficulties along the way, he never let go of his own culture. Rather, he slowly made the tea economy a part of indigenous culture through his entry into the tea industry. 

When people in Taiwan think of indigenous communities, they think of millet, traditional clothing, and other stereotypical markers. However, from the story of Atayal tea farmers in Li Mountain, we can see that such static imaginings don’t bind indigenous peoples. Admitting to Taiwan’s rapidly changing culture and economy, cultivating tea became a way for Atayal people to reflect on their own culture and relationship with mainstream society. Although tea is not a part of the Atayal people’s traditional culture, it has slowly become a crucial part of how Atayal tribes market themselves through legal and economic changes. 

Szu-Yu Lai is a co-author of “searching for Taiwan’s flavour”. She undertook research on the high mountain tea industry from 2014-2017. She was previously a high school teacher and cares about education, the environment and agriculture. 

This article is part of a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味”). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here, and read the introduction to the special series by the book’s editor here.

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