My Magical Escape

The never-ending rain beats on the window, creating a rhythmic symphony of pitter-patters. The morning mist curls around the mountains, leaving only the very tops of them to be seen. The faint, slightly damp scent of tea wafts through the air, drifting from room to room until reaching mine. This serene, peaceful atmosphere is what I woke up to every day for an unforgettable few weeks in August.
I was in a village called Mangjing, which lies right on the outskirts of Yunnan Province, and the outskirts of China, on one side of the Jingmai Mountain. I, along with eleven other students, had chosen to come all this way to shoot a documentary. The people who lived in the Mangjing village were of the Bulang Minority, and to learn more about the Bulang people, we spoke to their de facto leader, the Last Prince of the Bulang Minority.
He seemed reluctant to open up at first. “After the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the idea of a Bulang royal family was abolished,” he said hesitantly. “Therefore, my father, who was the king at the time, was the Last Bulang King, and I am the Last Bulang Prince.” As he described how globalization had changed Bulang culture since then, I realized that the loss of the royal family symbolized the loss of traditional Bulang culture as a whole. I looked around and saw kids wearing Hello Kitty slippers, playing with iPads—a lot of them unable to even understand the Bulang language.
This was when I realized the goal of our documentary: to help recover the traditional culture that was lost after modern society started to influence Bulang life. We would capture all the aspects of traditional Bulang life, such as clothing, music, tea, and holidays, so that one day, the younger Bulang generations would understand how their ancestors lived, a life that they never had and probably never would. From our conversation with the prince, he described two unique aspects of Bulang culture that stood out most.
“Our ancestors left us a message before they passed,” the prince leaned in, almost signaling for us to listen closely to what he was about to say. “They said: ‘If we leave you livestock, they will eventually perish. If we leave you gold and treasure, you will use it all. Thus, we will leave you a grove of tea trees, which you must protect and preserve, throughout generations.’ So, if you ask me what type of bond our people have with tea, the answer is that tea is everything. We were the first to discover it, and now we are the source of the world famous Puer tea, so everything we have comes from tea. It’s our gold, our silver. Without it, we can’t live a happy, prosperous life.” What struck me was that even though so many other parts of traditional Bulang culture are disappearing, tea still remains. The lives of the Bulang people are deeply intertwined with tea, to the point where you can feel the warmth, spirit, and soul of the Bulang people encapsulated in just a sip of their Puer tea.
When I asked the prince about a tree full of beehives that I’d seen, he chuckled. “That tree is called the Tree of the Bee Gods, as we worship bees as angels.” I found this very strange, as in my mind bees are menaces rather than divine beings. But it all became clear when he continued to explain. “Since ancient times, we have observed how the bees all lived in that same tree, together, peacefully, without destroying each other. We strive to live by the harmony that the bees in the tree display, incorporating it into our daily lifestyle. We believe in harmony—harmony with each other, harmony with nature, harmony with the universe.” These words struck me. That mantra—no strife, no conflict, just pure, peaceful living—is beautiful and something that the rest of the world could learn from.
During my time in Mangjing, I befriended a little Bulang boy named Aifu. To me, he represents everything I love about the Bulang people and the Mangjing village. He is kind, happy, and full of positive energy. Although modern culture has affected how he lives, he still maintains a sense of innocence in his own little bubble—just living his own life, unconcerned with everything that is going on around him.
I think that feeling is what I will miss the most. Throughout my time in that village, I was disconnected from the rest of the world. I wasn’t worried or stressed; I was merely soaking in everything around me, letting myself be taken through the day without much thought about tomorrow. I was in my own paradise, my own magical escape, living. And that feeling of just purely living is one that I will cherish throughout the rest of my life.

The village of Mangjing

Heaps and heaps of Puer tea in a Bulang storage room

A Bulang woman at one of their holidays, in traditional Bulang dress

Aifu (the Bulang boy I befriended) and I (he’s holding a football that I gave him and taught him how to play with)