Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic (Culture, Place, and Nature) Paperback by Jinghong Zhang (University of Washington Press)

The literature in English on Chinese tea is still rather limited, while that in Chinese is reaching the size of the famous tea mountains themselves. This important book is a major contribution to the English speaking world of people interested in tea.

I saw my first Puer tea cakes in Beijing in 1983, but not knowing what kind of tea they were I dismissed them as a kind of very cheap strange tea and thus missed the chance to get to know some of the most interesting tea on the market at an early point. My next encounter with Puer tea happened in 2005 and 2006 when I was visiting different tea places in Hangzhou, Fujian and Guangzhou with some Chinese tea experts. Besides studying and enjoying the local teas there was always much talk about and interest in having some Puer. At a tea appraisal in Guangzhou I got to see and taste hundreds of very different Puer tea cakes. Frankly speaking, I had at the time no clear idea what I was enjoying, but got fascinated and began my study. It took years to find any reliable information in print and only through drinking with connoisseurs in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and with Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese did I begin to truly appreciate the many differences. This eventually led me to join a tea tour to Xishuangbanna and other parts of Yunnan in 2011. The small group met in Kunming and was joined by the anthropologist Jinghong Zhang, the author of this book, and after flying down to Jinghong we immediately set out for Yiwu, one of the main places of her research over the years, and for the first time, the veil was lifted and I got to know some of the secrets of Puer. However, even after another visit to Xishuangbanna the following year there were still many unanswered questions about this tea shrouded in mystery.

Jinghong Zhang's contribution is of immense value as it answers many of those and even unthought-of questions. The book does not describe, compare or discuss many details about particular Puer teas like other books and articles about Puer tea, but gives an insight into the history of Puer tea, from its earliest beginnings as tribute tea and an export article carried on horseback and mules to distant lands over long mountain trails and up through the Qing dynasty until everything changed in 1949 and what happened then. The book reveals how handcrafted Puer tea was replaced by State factories, how ancient tea trees in the natural environment of the forests were felled to give way for terrace plantation and finally, how, after a lapse of half a century, the tea farmers of Yiwu who had been reduced to mere providers of raw material for the tea factories, were encouraged and taught by some Taiwanese how to make tea as had their ancestors from the remaining ancient tea trees which eventually lead to a craze about Puer tea. It is really a very engaging story of Post Mao Reform China. The book covers all relevant subjects of the rediscovery of Puer tea, its boom as a financial investment due to the tea’s improvement with age and therefore increasing value to its sudden bust in 2007 and the consequences this lead to for both growers, producers, merchants, investors and, of course, the drinkers of this fabulous tea due to various factors fully explained and much more.

This book alone (there is no other such study) describes an important chapter of tea history. It is very well researched, not only scholarly and through all relevant literature, but with a lot of field work, personal experience, interviews with major actors in that history and everything related. The book is very well written and weaves its story around the Chinese concept of Jianghu, literally meaning “rivers and lakes”, but referring to that non-governmental and therefore unregulated space in which hermits, knights-errants and others outside mainstream played their roles in society in an unpredictable way and who have been the subjects celebrated in literature and on film. It is a very interesting angle on this complex history and goes a long way to explain the fascinating story of Puer.

The text gives a lot of well documented references. At the end, the book gives a systematic description of the different kinds of Puer tea. Each chapter has substantial notes There is a full list of reference works, an index, and not least, a glossary of all Chinese words and statements appearing in the book covering everything from tea to philosophy and politics etc.with the English translation and including the respective Chinese characters, which is of great help to those familiar with Chinese.

I can warmly recommend this important book to all seriously interested in the history of Chinese tea in general, and it is an absolutely must read for all lovers of Puer tea.

This from a life-long drinker of tea living in Japan and deeply immersed in Japanese tea ceremony and all aspects of tea.

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