Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

17740311Puer Tea is a study of the tea industry in the distant southwest province of Yünnan. The book traces the path of the Chinese tea known as Pu’er from the remote villages along the Tea Horse Road to the elegant salons of China’s cosmopolitan centers. Author Jinghong Zhang presents her report as a “cultural biography” and centers on the tea business during the decade 1997-2007 when Pu’er tea was a commercial and culinary phenomenon that swept the tea drinking world. She takes a penetrating look at Pu’er tea through the lens of the anthropologist, a perspective sharply focused on the varied spheres of tea, from cultivator to connoisseur.

In the wide realm of tea books, Puer Tea is unusual if not unique in its exploration of the complex social relationships that permeate the tea trade, the intricate yet often opaque bonds that ultimately determine the character and quality of the tea we drink.

Zhang delves into the story of Pu’er tea by simply unfolding village farm life in deeply rural Yünnan. In the process, she artlessly reveals the convoluted social, ethnic, and cultural effects wrought by the sudden interest in a local product, a distinctive artisanal tea that is universally celebrated as Pu’er. Riven by demand, government regulation, hyperbole, and greed, what had been a supplemental cottage craft changed within a decade into a big business industry with both predictable risks and unexpected consequences. Zhang documents the processes by which villagers responded to outside forces like the media and government regulation and she explores the motivating logic of their behavior. Moving from producers to traders, she notes the complaints of tea buyers about the difficulties in finding quality leaf and observes the perils of their business when competition and market dynamics undermine the very relations on which their trade depends. She follows Pu’er tea from the countryside to the city where scientists and scholars are viewed with suspicion and defiance by traders, connoisseurs, and collectors.

Zhang took her inaugural journey into the heart of Pu’er tea in 2002 when she visited the secluded village of Yiwu in Xishuangbanna prefecture. The outside world was beginning to find its way through the back country roads and trails up into the subtropical forests alive with tea. Returning in March 2007, she became aware of changes among the inhabitants but could not have foreseen the events that would adversely affect them in the months to come. Seeking strength in numbers, the villagers formed the Yiwu Authentic Tea Mountain Company, Ltd. in response to government taxation and regulation. Meanwhile the provincial government implemented the Quality Safety Standards during an abnormally dry winter and spring season that severely limited the amount of premium leaves picked from the field. There was a dramatic rise in the price of processed leaves due to limited supply of quality leaf and cut throat competition, followed by a subsequent rise in production costs owing to price hikes and uncertainty of the tea supply. The newly christened city of Pu’er experienced an earthquake on June 3rd that presaged the collapse of the Pu’er tea market and the beginnings of a steep trade decline that was further damaged by the worldwide recession of 2008. In her study, Zhang provides an eyewitness account of a particularly crucial moment of upheaval in the Pu’er tea trade.

Zhang addresses the remarkable diversity and subtlety of standpoints on Pu’er tea from a position of considerable knowledge. Trained in China and Australia, she is expert in field anthropology and skilled in employing the range of requisite anthropological theories, methods and techniques, including video, photography, graphs, and maps. Furthermore, Zhang is from Yünnan and is intimately familiar with the dialectical languages of the province, local and regional values and traditions as well as the historical racial, ethnic, and religious sensitivities of the people. Dr. Jinghong Zhang is a lecturer at Yünnan University and a post doctoral fellow at the Australian National University.

In the eight chapters of Puer Tea, Zhang follows a scenario of rise, climax, and denouement in which Pu’er is initially framed as the single most important activity around which the economic life of one village in remote China is organized. Then the narrative shifts, and peasant interests in the tea harvest, processing, and production give way to the concerns of the urban trader to supply the growing Asian and global markets with fine Pu’er tea. Intent on preserving traditional methods and making an authentic and organic tea from wild and arbor stock, producer and merchant contend with government efforts to regulate production. State efforts to standardize and establish quality control not only result in mechanization and industrialization but also undercut authenticity and quality. Media interest and promotional hyperbole fuel annual inflation at every level – material, production, wholesale, and retail – until confidence falls and the market collapses.

Inspired by the traditional Chinese literary theme and agrarian motif of the four seasons, the author depicts the dramatic rise and fall of Pu’er tea as the promise of spring, the fulfillment of summer, the autumnal harvest, and the harshness of winter. She also employs other traditional ideals such as health, wealth and prosperity, frugality and simplicity, the return to the ancient, and the related compounded notion of the natural, the original, and the authentic.

Of all the Chinese notions, Zhang most deftly uses the concept of Jianghu to describe the chaos of the Pu’er industry. Jianghu is a historical and literary phrase meaning the “rivers and lakes” that described the aquatic landscape of the great region south of the Yangzi. In antiquity, the majestic river marked the boundary between the well ordered north and the anarchic south, between civilization and savagery. In ancient poetry and literature, Jianghu evoked not only an exotic land vibrant with color, texture, and spice but also an alien place of miasmic heat and humidity, barbarity, and the stigma of exile and death. Those who survived Jianghu became Jianghu and converts to a sub rosa culture that thrived on the uncertainties of life. As she writes throughout Puer Tea, the various persons in the book personify characters enacting different roles in a drama set in the turbulent world of Jianghu and tea.

While demonstrating a command of anthropological interests and fulfilling its requisites, Dr. Zhang presents Pu’er tea in a clear and colloquial manner that is easily understood by the lay reader. Her objective view inside the Pu’er industry is a welcome take, especially since the debacle in 2007 and given the opacity of the trade. Filled with insight and revelation, Zhang engagingly provides the reader an extraordinary glimpse into the riotous theater of Pu’er tea.


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



19. December 2013 by Steven D. Owyoung
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