Like many involved in labor-intensive agrarian endeavors, tea pickers must often wrestle with the forces of Nature, although capricious weather conditions are not always the nemesis. What some laborers eventually succumb to is an excruciating ennui that hampers human creativity and sabotages the human spirit. Tea-picking ballads must have been born out of the need for self-entertainment and for spiritual survival and salvation.
In Taiwan, the Hakka people, the aborigines, and the Hoklo have all participated in the tea trade. However, like lei cha, tea-picking ballads, also called mountain songs, circulated only among the Hakka tea growers. A few YouTube videos capture precious moments of this folk music being performed without pretension in the most natural setting. One can’t help but predict that these songs will soon be sung more frequently at concert halls than amidst verdant vegetation.
Perhaps it was humans’ penchant for complexity that led to the creation of tea-picking operas, which require professional singers, a stage, and an audience. In Taiwan, one of the most well-known tea-picking operas, also performed in the Hakka language, tells the story of an unemployed man named Zhang San-lang. At the urging of his wife and sister, Zhang leaves home to peddle teas. Zhang befriends a beautiful shop owner in the marketplace and ends up staying for three long years. Meanwhile, Zhang’s wife embarks on her own journey to find Zhang. Like Western operas, specific songs are performed during each act. For example, Zhang sings a “peddling” ballad in the marketplace. When Zhang’s wife seeks advice from an ill-intentioned fortune teller, she sings the “oracle” song. How does the story end? Zhang confesses his infidelity and is forgiven by his wife.
Tea-picking operas gradually evolved into grand tea-picking operas, in which tea often plays no role. Even the famous Buddhist parable Mulian Rescues His Mother, or Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing his Mother from the Underworld, has been retold via the unique art form of the grand tea-picking opera!
China surely has its own vast collection of home-grown tea-picking operas. Just take a look at this Wikipedia page in Chinese. Knowledge of the Chinese language is not necessary to count the number of entries, catalogued per province and region. Being an opera lover, I have yet to add the contemporary opera Tea: a Mirror of Soul to my must-see list. Instead, it’ll be much more fun to hear a live performance of tea-picking ballads somewhere at high altitude, where sounds resonate and echo.