What is authentic pu’erh? This question is constantly asked in Zhang Jinghong’s challenging and informative Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Similar to other buzzwords like artisan or specialty, authenticity is frequently used as a term to push a product (tea or otherwise). The pu’erh world is very guilty of this. It’s no secret that the pu’erh world is full of lots of bullshit and misinformation that are just there to sell tea (read an ebay description). It’s a marketplace built on flat-out lies (ummm..) and numerous softer, difficult to verify lies (i..e why are all the trees ancient and wild?). Zhang’s book attempts to do the impossible and unpack the endless maze of perspectives and opinions in the pu’erh world.
I. THE BOOK
The author (Zhang Jinghong) is an anthropologist and Kunming native. She begins by sharing her own personal experience with tea and pu’erh tea. The book then details Zhang’s search as she travels through various pu’erh hotspots and meets various players in the pu’erh world. It’s told as a story of players or Jianghu (kung-fu heroes) competing against one another for influence and profit. Much of it is set in Yunnan (principally Yiwu and Kunming). To counterbalance this, Zhang begins her travels in Hong Kong and does an an excellent job of procuring opinions from those based outside of Yunnan. The surveys of Yiwu are set in 2007, a particularly interesting year for pu’erh because of the price spike (Spring) and bubble bursting (Autumn).
Note: Kunming is the largest city in Yunnan. Yiwu is a growing area.
Note #2: As an old-school martials arts film fanatic I love the Jianghu analogy. Admittedly the crossover appeal for this book and the chop-socky films is limited.
A few items reported in the book:
- On fake Yiwu tea. According to a rough estimate by Zhang Yi and his clients, Yiwu’s annual forest tea output was less than 100 tons…. but in the market there were 3,000 tons of purportedly “authentic Puer tea from Yiwu.”
Elsewhere in the book, it is suggested that 90% of the pu’erh in the market can’t be authentic(
ally from Yunnan).
- On the speculation/consumption of pu’erh. From a report in 2007: Almost all tea products (95 percent) were bought for speculation and storage, with only 5 percent purchased for actual consumption… Some speculated Guangdong could not drink all of its stored tea for five to eight years.
Zhang’s approach is one of open-mindedness towards the various perspectives and attitudes towards pu’erh tea. Some of these perspectives are old, others are new, others have elements of both.
In what will be surprising to many, Zhang did not grow up drinking pu’erh tea. This is not an outlier and proven throughout the book to be consistent with others surveyed who grew up in Kunming. During the author’s youth in the 1980s and 1990s, pu’erh is treated more as an indigenous product for gifting to outsiders. Kunming locals had little conception of aging pu’erh or ripe pu’erh until the mid-late 1990s (ripe pu’erh was developed in the 1970s). The one Yunnanese native in the book that did drink pu’erh consumed it similar to a green tea (within a year or two of production). In the now booming tea scene in Yunnan, the interest in pu’erh is presented as a “new tradition”.
This Kunming/Yunnan perspective is directly contrasted with a Hong Kong native. Like many HK-natives, he grew up drinking plenty of pu’erh tea specifically during Dim Sum (Yum Cha). The type of pu’erh? Ripe pu’erh or traditionally-stored raw pu’erh. As anyone has consumed these types of teas knows, they are night and day when put against young, fresh raw pu’erh.
While the book occasionally veers towards the author’s own experiences, Zhang’s point of view is far more observational than personal. With so much of our knowledge being built on vendors who are also pushing a product, it is refreshing to have an author and resource with less conflict of interest. This lends a good deal of credibility to Zhang and the book. Most impressively, the book juggles all these perspectives whilst avoiding the romanticization which haunts the salesmanship of the pu’erh landscape.
It’s far too simple to sum up the entire Chinese point of view on pu’erh or even Kunming in a review (or even a book!). Here’s a table to sort out some of the point of views presented. Some generalizations were made.
A Few Perspectives
|Perspective||Preferred Pu’erh||Preferred Storage||Production||Notes/Associations|
|Menghai Farmers||Raw + ripe, machine fine processing.||HK/Guangdong. Dayi. 1950s onwards.|
|Yiwu Farmers||Fresh Raw.||Learning/experimenting.||Raw, hand-crafted fine processing.||Old family brands. Taiwanese. Pre-1950s. 1990s onwards.|
|Kunming Natives||Dry.||Pu’erh interest starts in 1990s.|
|HK/Guangdong||Aged Raw + Ripe.||Traditional.||Menghai. Long-term consumers. Raw pu’erh should be aged.|
|Taiwanese||Aged Raw, hand-crafted.||Yiwu. Long-term consumers. Raw pu’erh should be aged.|
|Food Scientist||Ripe Pu’erh.||N/A||Post-fermentation is important. Raw pu’erh should be aged.|
There’s alot covered by this book that really isn’t available in English anywhere else. Despite the topic pretty much exclusively covering the Chinese pu’erh-sphere, their concerns and tastes are very similar to foreigners thoughts.
I am also reminded to be ever-skeptical. There is ALOT of not so legit “pu’erh”. Limited by distance and language, us westerners really are at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to being fed information. It is easier for us to blindly trust and believe the information we’re fed, but with statistics like the ones listed above, those that are serious about their pu’erh should be exceedingly careful about buying tea solely by the label or brand. This should include healthy skepticism about pretty much everything (age of the trees, the region, storage, etc.).
Much of Zhang’s book explores the question of authenticity in pu’erh. In her search, she gives no easy answers and refuses to wrap her jianghu plot up neatly. For those that like their narratives (or pu’erh) romanticized wrapped up nicely in a box with a red ribbon this might be frustrating and confusing. But for me after a year of discovery into the ambiguously, culturally subjective product otherwise known as pu’erh, Zhang’s approach is right on.