Zhang Jinghong’s Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

This is a review of Zhang Jinghong’s Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Please also check out TwoDog’s review. More people need to read this book. Seriously!

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.

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans & Urban Chic

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans & Urban Chic.

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.

II. PERSPECTIVES

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.

III. REFLECTIONS

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.).

IV. CONCLUSIONS

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.

There are also supplementary videos that are worth watching on the University of Washington Press site.

This entry was posted in Aged Pu'erh, Article, Raw Pu'erh, Ripe Pu'erh, Tea Learning and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Zhang Jinghong’s Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

  1. Bob says:

    Hi!

    Nice review! I think this book is mandatory reading for all western puerh enthusiasts. Although I have to admit I bought it, read half of it in one weekend and then forgot to finish it… 🙁 And the videos are great too!

    But I have one question: you mention that “… it is suggested that 90% of the pu’erh in the market can’t be authentically from Yunnan.” Is this really true or did you perhaps mean “Yiwu” instead of “Yunnan”? I find it hard to believe that 90% of puerh would not even be from the Yunnan region… I know they sell some tea from Laos and Burma as puerh, but that can’t be 90%… On the other hand, I can easily believe that 90% of “old tree Yiwu” tea on the market is not from Yiwu…

    • James says:

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes it really is a great book worth reading.

      I ended up looking up that quote:
      “A popular saying tells consumers that 90 percent of Puer tea in the market can’t be authentic.”

      I don’t think this is restricted to just Yiwu, but it’s unclear how exactly they’re qualifying teas as “fake” in that sense. Eitherway it sounds like a very unofficial 90% number.. Still, I definitely believe there’s some truth behind it. There’s plenty of tea from elsewhere in China, Sichuan, Guangdong or Hunan (http://www.white2tea.com/2015/01/08/8-tons-fake-dayi-puerh-seized-puer-tea/) that gets mixed in. Assuming you are not located in Asia, we are probably more insulated from alot of the more obvious fakes by simply having more reputable vendors sort through it all for us at the tea market. I very much doubt that 90% of the pu’erh I’ve tried qualifies as “fake”.

      Cheers,
      -James

      • Linda Louie says:

        I read and enjoyed the Zhang’s book. While I was in Yiwu last year, I had tea with Mr. Zhang featured in the videos. He happened to be our driver’s cousin. What a small world! I, too, doubt that 90% of the pu-erh do not originate from Yunnan, even in 2007 before the crash. It is highly likely though that 90% of the so-called teas made from the old trees are “fake.” I heard from a source that teas made from old trees constitute only 2% of the total yearly pu-erh production in Yunnan; however the market seems to be flooded with teas that claim to be made from old trees.

        • James says:

          Hi Linda,

          Thanks for stopping in and your insights. I really love this book.

          Small world indeed. When I saw the video with Zhang, I was amused to find his tea selling on Yunnan Sourcing.

          Cheers,
          -James

    • James says:

      ps. I’ve changed the article to reflect more accurately what was said. Thanks for pointing that out.

  2. Hello James,

    Great entry! Perhaps it is our nature to think positively and therefore be inclined to believe and trust what we are told and what is written on the printed labels that makes these numbers so shocking initially. However the more you invest your time to study and learn about puerh tea the more you come to the realization that for the teas out there (90% being really questionable teas) these numbers are far from exaggerated.

    I try to provide a sense of this in my articles on the Chinese tea market but for many people, especially those starting their journey into puerh tea (myself included one time) the initial reaction is one of shock and disbelief. After a while this changes to acceptance as you become more diligent towards identifying for yourself what constitutes big tree, Yiwu, Banzhang, etc. With more knowledge and experience under your belt you develop extreme care with your purchases because you have come to know the market. At the same time you are wiser and develop a keen sense for recognizing what is genuine.

    Despite the challenge this creates for tea enthusiasts I believe that the journey into puerh tea can still be both a wonderful and fulfilling journey.

    Best, Varat

    PS: For those interested my articles on the Chinese tea market can be found here
    http://theguidetopuerhtea.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-tea-market-series-in-china.html

    • James says:

      Hi Varat,

      Thanks for stopping in. As someone that has combed through these tea markets, I’m glad (and not so glad) that you can attest to a few of the figures in the book.

      Warmly,
      -James

      ps. Been enjoying the posts!

  3. Puyuan says:

    Most of the fakery is founded upon the use of taidi or xiaoshu tea from whatever place in lieu of an appelation (like Yiwu) or the “gushu” moniker, or both. There is plenty of taidi and plenty of xiaoshu tea across Yunnan, it doesn’t need to be smuggled from elsewhere necessarily. Though legitimate gushu tea from Laos or wherever else is indeed smuggled across the borders to fake, say, “Guafengzhai” (not a very meaningful appellation in itself, mind you).

    That aside, I’d guesstimate that most gushu on the market is either cut with xiaoshu (not taidi, though that happens on the sad large bottom end of the market) or xiaoshu only.

    I have to say that to buy “fake Yiwu” you would have to be looking for exceedingly generic tea (“Yiwu” in itself is a thousand things and one), which is never a good idea in the first place… “Yiwu Zhengshan” was once a respectable moniker that referred (mostly) to a classic style of tea from that mountain, say, like Luoshuidong/Mahei. Chenyuanhao still presses a tea with that name alone, but I’d suggest looking for more specific names if you don’t quite know what you are buying.

    In regards to puer tea in Yiwu, since prof. Zhang’s peripathetic investigations the local yield has surely risen. Because more tea was planted, yes, but with gushu too. I can’t count of the fingers of both hands the number of remote obscure forest patches, all very different and distant from one another, where tall yefang trees have been found in the last few years. And there are many I have not heard about. These are beyond Guafengzhai village, Wangong village (which is somewhat of a recent addition too) etc. Very limited yields, but when you add them all up…

    • James says:

      Hi puyuan,

      Thanks for the comment and details! Much appreciated. You bring up some really good points, with remote villages (GFZ, Wangong, etc.). That’s something I hadn’t really thought about that, but that does make sense and lines up with what I know. Another solid point with the blending. I agree with this and suspect that this is quite prevalent everywhere, including more than a few of our western vendors that are otherwise regarded as reliable.

      After looking up that quote again, it’s clear that it is a fairly ambiguous off-hand comment. Quite unclear what people mean by authentic in this instance.

      I also suspect that those that principally go through (reputable) western vendors deal with a much different fake situation than those that are combing through Maliandao or the Guangdong tea markets.

      Cheers,
      -James

  4. Peter says:

    The comments under this article reflects what is written/studied in this book. I have known ‘Kathy’ Zhang for many years and she gave me a lot of precious knowledge and most importanly she formed my ‘tea’ direction. Thank you again Kathy in this way. I am glad that your book makes it to the ‘west’. I know some of the characters from the videos, I drank tea with them, I sold their tea and I must say they also developed/move in some way since the videos was made. The puerh field is developing rapidly and we will see what happens in 10 years time span.

    What is important from my personal ‘side’. Drink, drink, and you drink more samples, your own mind will tell you what is good. If you drink and follow your mind, not your thoughts, the things you read and heard, you will end-up with the authentic teas. I come back again and again to thoughts like I should write to each of my tea how much gushu it is, how old the tea trees are and how authentic these teas are but I always come to the conclusion that the real tea gourments will find out for themselves.

    At the end the good tea is not about words, about abstract ideas, it is about taste, about the feeling you get, about the moment you experience, about the people made it and brought it to you.

    • James says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for stopping in and commenting. Your own experiences and thoughts on pu’erh are much appreciated.

      Cheers,
      -James

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