Review: Puer Tea

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Jinghong Zhang. University of Washington Press. 2014

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University)

Many scholars believe that the province Yunnan, in southwest China, is one of the most important places in the history of Chinese domestic tea-producing. The ethnic minority groups in Yunnan started cultivating tea about one thousand years ago, but it was in the last two centuries that Han migrants became involved in tea trading and made Puer—a unique type of tea to the region—well known to inland China. The tea is named after a town that was then the center to Puer tea trading in southern Yunnan and is one of six categories of Chinese tea. The writer Zhang, who was born and raised in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, has been familiar with Puer tea since her childhood. Perhaps this underlies her later interest in studying Puer tea: after she realized Puer tea’s growing popularity, and especially the rapid soaring and plummeting of trading prices in the Puer tea market in 2007, she became deeply interested. In tracing the “detailed social biography” of Puer tea, Zhang set out from Yiwu, Yunnan, where tea is produced for several other Chinese cities (e.g. her main research site Kunming). She planned to study its “packaging and unpacking process”—a “jianghu” culture developed around the theme of “handcraft authenticity” (2015:9).

As Zhang explains in her introduction, jianghu, literally means “river (jiang)” and “lake (hu)”[1]; it is often used as an analogical concept in Chinese folklore (related to fantasy novels of martial arts, or more precisely wuxia[2] portraits) and literature, describing a world outside of state governance. This creates a set of implicit yet practical rules and common understandings of righteousness, morality, and authenticity by leading heroes (or xiake[3] in Chinese, similar to vigilantes/knights) and their people. In the following chapters, combining approaches from anthropology and ethnography with unique Chinese concepts such as jianghu, Zhang shows us how the different actors and intrinsic features in the world of Puer tea resembles the world of jianghu in Chinese culture, reflecting current consumer culture and business practices in modern China. The book also presents a complicated picture of contradictions people face in regard to new forms of individuality, social relations, intellectual pursuit, cultural and national characters, and so forth in today’s Chinese society.

Puer Tea consists of an introduction, eight chapters—featuring the theme of four seasons which parallels a yearly cycle of tea producing—and a concluding chapter. While tea as a plant grows as the seasons change, it is also a well-known tenet that human life should follow the seasonal rhythms. The two chapters of “Spring” depict the production of Puer tea as a “sprouting” phase for the book in Yunnan: Zhang introduces the history of Puer tea in southern Yunnan in general by exploring the reconstruction of the “tradition” of raw Puer tea in Yiwu, with specific discussion on the construction of authenticity of Yiwu’s raw Puer tea. Furthermore, by telling captivating ethnographic stories, she sheds light on the aspects valued by consumers and producers who admire Yiwu tea: contrasting the features of Yiwu Puer raw tea with “the other”—the artificially-fermented Puer tea that is produced in much shorter time from Menghai. She shows how both the local and the nonlocal constructed their identities through the making of “imagined originality” which proves its authenticity (53). Further, she addresses the challenges producers in Yiwu are facing while the demand of their Puer tea grows. Indeed, as she points out, the business of Puer tea is like “the world of jianghu,” as it can further reveal aspects of modern Chinese culture as a close-up and condensed version of the transformation the entire society is going through. For example, she addresses the concerns about authenticity of Puer as an aspect of Chinese-style individualism:

Though not a dominant theme in Chinese history, individualism does exist and is quite evident in certain contexts, as in the case of jinaghu actors, whether in reality or in martial arts fiction, Chinese to act bravely in trying situations and to find their own solutions with their own special skills. If the factors affecting the “original aura” of Puer tea production are read as the social distinctions and counterforce among jianghu individuals, such anxiety over authenticity appears to be rooted in conflicting desires activated in the Reform era and by rising commoditization (76).

Thus, as Zhang discusses in this book, although the current official regulations for Puer tea may not be sufficient to eradicate the counterfeits, the competition between multiple jianghu voice for the standard of authenticity has filled the gap and in turn influenced the market in a variety of ways.

The following two chapters of the “Summer” section explain the convoluted relationship of the name “Puer” as a place claimed to be the original/authentic representation of Puer tea, while the controversy of what is authentic Puer remains a topic for discussion. Zhang introduces the debate about the origin of Puer tea between Simao and Xishuangbanna from multiple perspectives. For instance, while contention between these two areas remains central to the local development, it is “unnecessary” on a provincial level. Both areas are in the Yunnan province, and most consumers and even tea experts accept Puer tea from “Yunnan” without making distinctions within that geographical designation. Thanks to the success of Puer tea, the history of Ancient Tea-House Road has also been revisited recently by the Chinese public. The home of Puer tea, as Zhang summarizes, is “transregionally authenticated and multiply imagined” (103). Similarly, while the economic and geopolitical forces transform the definition and packaging of Puer tea, there are also consumer voices evaluating Puer tea and demanding clarifications of the quality standards. These ongoing debates, such as the “heating up” and “cooling off” of Puer tea as a result of “hastened transformation” and the coexisting desire “to package Puer tea” and “unpack it,” resemble the jianghu Zhang proposes, embodying contentions, constructions, and negotiations among different actors in different social contexts (120).

The remorse of autumn is a common theme in Chinese literature. In the autumn section (chapter 5 & 6), Zhang investigates the local families involved in the private tea business. Through ethnographic materials, Zhang shows how the preferences of consumers in Taiwan affect the changes in Yiwu, and thus profoundly transformed Yiwu’s local culture. In the jianghu of Puer tea, the standards of the valued and the appreciated “are open to the influence of history” (141). Many local families had stopped other activities such as raising livestock, growing rice, or producing soy sauce, dedicating their time and energy in the Puer tea business instead, which brought them better income. At the same time, similar to the fair-trade coffee business in Rincón (Mexico), Daniel Jaffee discusses in “Brewing Justice,” the potential price fluctuation for products such as coffee and Puer tea can be quite unpredictable and therefore dangerous to family businesses. In the time of the coffee crisis, the sudden plummeting of coffee prices had greatly changed the producers and their families’ lives (2014). In the case of Puer, people have encountered a recession of the market in 2007, which leads to another process of transformation in local practices that Zhang proposes best described by the Chinese concept hua.

In traditional Chinese philosophy, the concept of hua refers to “ubiquitous transformation.” In the jianghu context of Puer tea, Zhang argues that hua “intrinsically indicates the strategies and settlements employed by multiple actors to transform an unsatisfying situation into a comparatively more satisfying one (145).” For instance, people use “chenhua” to refer to the “aging” or “fermentation” process in storage, which transforms “the astringent feature of raw Puer tea” into “a mild, smooth quality” (145). Despite the lack of the government’s effective supervision, a practice such as chenhua allows local people to redefine the authenticity of Puer “flexibly and pragmatically,” recontexualizing and transforming local pragmatic strategies.

The last section of the book, Winter, presents tea tasting events in teahouses in Kunming (complemented by the films she recorded). Zhang was most elaborate on the one organized by Sanzui (one of the most influential tea websites in China), which discusses whether the aged Puer tastes better and what condition it should be stored in to produce the best taste, in order to resolve the “battle” taking place on the Internet (their website) about the issue. According to Zhang, the tasting is more about human interaction (human space) than the supposed thematic tea storage space on site. In her analysis, she proposes that this event touched on “multiple layers of space.” For example, the space for the topic of this event—the tea storage space and the site where the tasting actually took place—the teahouse, are two layers of space she mentions. What is interesting to me is the role of cyber space: it was the cyber space where all these people first discussed Puer tea, which then turned into a debate that made it seem necessary and possible to hold this event in the teahouse. Further, the sensorial information of the event was recorded in the form of photos and articles posted on the website, and the discussion of the tasteful experience in the event also flourished on the website later that day, instead of an immediate discussion at the site of tasting. These interesting facts reflected how people constructed their identity in the real-life tasting event quite differently than they would have on cyber spaces. At the same time, we could also see the sensorial representation of the actual event on the internet as another dimension of the actual tasting event—people could post their pictures and comments to the website in the tasting session and also read other posts. In a way, it is quite similar to the function of social media ten years from then, which also makes me wonder what the tasting would be like today with the prevalence of the social media. I imagine most of the people would post pictures and videos on site to their WeChat moments (in Chinese, it literally means the “friend circle” among one’s contacts, and mostly consists of the friends in one’s life. Almost everyone has access to their WeChat and Wechat Moment[4] at any point on their phone, as long as the phone can use cellular data), which can reach almost any Chinese in theory. Many business like Sanzui and organizations have their official account on WeChat in order to take advantage of the access to the immense user market.

Zhang’s Puer Tea provides a rich and multi-perspective ethnographic account of the jianghu of Puer tea in China in the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially in connecting the packaging and unpacking of different actors in the process of “making” and transforming the authenticity of Puer tea. By investigating into a variety of narrations and representations, Zhang presents us a snapshot of contemporary China where debates and contentions are constant and ever-changing.

Jaffee, Daniel, 2014.  Brewing justice: Fair trade coffee, sustainability, and survival. Berkeley Univ of California Press.

[1] The Chinese character for jiang is “江” ; hu is “湖.”

[2] Chinese: 武侠

[3] Chinese: 侠客

[4] Wechat (微信) is an instant massaging app in China. Wechat moment is a social media platform in this app. People can post pictures, videos and messages to their friend circles and read others’ posts in it.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, China

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