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Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

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Puer tea has been grown for centuries in the "Six Great Tea Mountains" of Yunnan Province, and in imperial China it was a prized commodity, traded to Tibet by horse or mule caravan via the so-called Tea Horse Road and presented as tribute to the emperor in Beijing. In the 1990s, as the tea's noble lineage and unique process of aging and fermentation were rediscovered, it achieved cult status both in China and internationally. The tea became a favorite among urban connoisseurs who analyzed it in language comparable to that used in wine appreciation and paid skyrocketing prices. In 2007, however, local events and the international economic crisis caused the Puer market to collapse.

Puer Tea traces the rise, climax, and crash of this phenomenon. With ethnographic attention to the spaces in which Puer tea is harvested, processed, traded, and consumed, anthropologist Jinghong Zhang constructs a vivid account of the transformation of a cottage handicraft into a major industry―with predictable risks and unexpected consequences.

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272 pages, Hardcover

First published September 12, 2013

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Jinghong Zhang

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Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews
Profile Image for Autoclette.
35 reviews39 followers
February 10, 2017
Growing up in a Japanese American household, tea was for me, ubiquitous. My mother practiced Japanese Tea Ceremony, so lovely tea things were all around me, in fact I even kept my toy soldiers in the ornate tea canisters my mom would give to me when they were empty.
I say this to to underscore the initial joyful shock of tasting Pu-erh for the first time being no stranger to quality teas. I was in a depressive mode, and just happened into Chicago's only Chinese Tea House. Upon my first sip of the dark soup I was so transported, that I felt bewildered, as I was encountering something indistinct that I could not place, a memory, an emotion. The complexity and aroma, autumnal, yet sweet, of the earth, but full of light.
The feeling of well being (Cha Qi) this tea gave me was so pleasant and long lasting that it was as if a bell was ringing inside of me.
Written in an almost detached way, the way one might observe a circus, not without humor, this wonderful book goes a long way towards explaining the perplexing cultural and aesthetic rabbit hole I was about to go down. This ancient, (often counterfeited) tea which people horde and age like wine, travel across the world to find in its authentic form, and trade and speculate on like gold.
This tea colors my dreams.
Profile Image for Nicole Wilson.
Author 1 book8 followers
May 15, 2019
Definitely a must read for anyone who loves tea, especially puerh. I love that Zhang gives many perspectives on the story of the 2007 pricing bubble. Most of us here in the US did not have access to all of those nitty gritty details.
Profile Image for Eustacia Tan.
Author 15 books254 followers
January 31, 2019
If you’ve been to a Chinese restaurant (especially one in Hong Kong), you’ve probably had puer. It’s a post-fermented tea and is said to aid digestion. I heard a lot of things about puer, about how Malaysia (and I suppose by extension, Singapore) are great places to age it, about how people buy them for investments, and many conflicting stories about their origin. Many people say that puer was discovered accidentally when caravans carrying tea to countries trading with China were exposed to the elements. This caused the tea to grow moldy, but instead of throwing it away, people realised that this fermentation helped to mellow the taste of the tea. But in a recent workshop, someone told me that puer was ‘invented’ in the 1970s, and that other forms of dark tea are much older than it. So you can see how I was confused. When I found this book, I thought it would be a good way to learn more about the tea and see if I could clear up some of the conflicting ideas I heard.

Puer Tea centers around the 2007 bubble and crash of puer, focusing on how the rapid rise in the value of puer tea transformed the industry for this specific category of tea. Although the book says that the prices have stablised, my colleagues recently attended one of the huge tea fairs in China and reported that many of the booths were focused on puer – clearly the popularity (and profit-making potential) of puer is still there!

This book is divided into four sections – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – and eight chapters. The author talked to tea farmers, merchants, and consumers during and after the bubble to get a sense of what was going on. Apart from the book, there are also accompanying videos, which can be found here. I will freely admit to being more of a book than video person (unless we’re talking Netflix – there’s a reason why I never got into Booktube), but I found the presentations, which were like slideshows, about rough and fine processing to be interesting.

I don’t think I summarise the book in a way that does it justice, so I’ll just write down some of the things that I’ve learnt about puer tea:

The first is about processing. Unlike most Chinese teas, puer is made with large leaves (camellia sinensis var. assamica) instead of the small-leafed plant that is more popular in China (camellia sinensis var. sinensis). There are also two distinct processes:

1. Rough processing – The end result of this is maocha, which is basically green tea. The tea is harvested, stir-roasted (also called ‘killing the green’), rolled, and then dried.

2. Fine processing – The end result of this is tea. Fine processing can be further subdivided into two types: for raw puer and for ripe puer (artificially fermented puer). For raw puer, where the tea is allowed to ferment naturally, the tea is steamed, shaped, pressed, dried, and wrapped. For ripe puer, the tea is first fermented for two to three months, before being dried, steamed, shaped, compressed, dried again, and wrapped.

The second is the fact that where the leaves are from makes a big difference. If the tea is forest tea, by which they mean that the tea is collected from tall trees that are often very old, it is more expensive that terrace tea as it is “considered to come from a more ecologically healthy environment and was thought to taste much better.” Terrace tea refers to tea that was planted in terraces and which was only cultivated in Yunnan from the late 1970s and early 1980s onwards. This was a bit of a surprise because I remember hearing from someone else that cultivated tea was ‘superior’ to wild tea because when the tea trees grow too tall, the leaves lose a lot of flavour or something like that. Sounds like we’ve got two different marketing stories going on.

The third thing I learnt was about different puer regions. I was completely ignorant about the different places where Puer came from (I knew they had to be from Yunnan but that was about it), so it was interesting to learn about Yiwu and Menghai. Yiwu is famous for their raw puer tea which are often made in small family farms, while Menghai makes both raw and ripe puer. Menghai is where the first tea factory (Menghai Tea Factory) was set up, marking the start of mechanical tea processing in Yunnan. Menghai is also famous for the “Menghai taste” in their puer, which comes from the climate there.

The fourth thing I learnt was that it is not easy to define puer. I’ve always defined it by location, the same way I define darjeeling tea, but I’ve since learnt that as the importance of having a clear identity of puer tea grows, the more controversial it becomes. This “controversy is situated in the context of China’s transformation, the consumer revolution, and the desire of undeveloped regions, such as Yunnan, to promote themselves.” Basically, everyone wants to claim their puer as ‘authentic’ and the Yunnan government wants to use it to promote tourism and themselves. There are people who think that the tea was ‘overcooked’ by the government, but others think it’s too ‘raw’ and that “stronger, clearer, and more scientific regulations and supervision” are needed. And as demand outstrips supply, leaves from other regions enter the market, making it harder to identify ‘authentic’ tea. Teas that were sold in Yiwu as being the “authentic forest tea of Yiwu” were “found to be terrace tea leaves from the same region or, even worse, blended terrace tea leaves from somewhere far away.” Not to mention that there used to be something called “Puer green tea”, which many people might see as a contradiction – how can a tea be puer and green at the same time?

One chapter in the book also ties the question to authenticity to the consumer’s image of puer. Many people want to think of puer as an ancient tea and will even travel to Yunnan to look for the most authentic version. But as one interview put it, he traveled to Yiwu but found that “different grades of Maocha are secretly being blended.” While you can “discover a clear and clean version” of Maojian (a green tea from Henan) “if you go to its hometown”, the interviewee felt that “the same standards for Puer tea do not exist in its hometown.” While part of it may be due to the presence of mixed tea leaves in the tea, his disappoint may also be due to “[t]he contrast between propaganda and experience, between imagination and reality, between the perfect past and the uneven present.”

The last thing I learnt was that there are tea connoisseur’s in Yunnan who are calling for Puer to be classified as its own tea category, separate from dark tea. The reasoning behind this is that the post-fermentation process for Puer is very different from other dark teas. Of course, the rising price of puer at that time may also play an unmentioned part. I don’t agree with the argument, but now I see understand the reasoning behind the people who insist that Puer be classified separately.

Overall, this is a pretty interesting book. It’s fairly academic in tone, but it does present a detailed view into the recent history of puer as well as the issues and controversies that surround it. If you’re looking to learn more about puer tea, you might want to consider this.

This review was first posted at Eustea Reads
Profile Image for Alex.
184 reviews14 followers
June 2, 2018
This is a one of a kind book. It's very hard to find well-researched books about the tea world in English. This is an extraordinary book that digs deep into the roots of Puer tea, it's speculative bubble during 2007 and the relationship with China's recent history.

Maybe the part I enjoyed the most wasn't the Puer tea stories per se, but the relationship between tea, culture, and history. It's fascinating to read about farming conditions in inland China, how the revolution affected people and the impact of the Cultural Revolution of 1966. It also shows how Chinese people go around the official mandates, the gray scales, the different ways of thinking and the brutal difference between urban and rural China.

The book brushes on the academic at some points but the feeling goes away as fast as it comes. It's worth reading through all of it. I wished some of the sources she references in the book, though, were translated into English because there is so much more to explore here. It's definitely a great book to read if you're into China, their way of thinking and, obviously, into tea.
Profile Image for John.
40 reviews3 followers
August 6, 2017
This book provides an informative account of the author's encounters with the makers, sellers, and consumers of Pu'er tea. Zhang acquaints the reader with Pu'er tea's history and the debates swirling around this product. Her storytelling is engaging, and her accounts are rich, though they might have benefitted from more attentive editing. Her interesting use of 'jianghu' (a term referring to a Chinese literary tradition of martial arts practitioners dwelling on the margins of society and living by their skills and their wits) as an analogy for the cultural milieu surrounding Pu'er tea does open up some interesting angles, but in places it feels strained. The imposition of this concept--drawn from times, places, and literatures far removed from the fields and tea shops in question--is not always a clear fit for the situations being discussed. Nonetheless, the book is an engaging starting point for people interested in tea cultivation and culture.
Profile Image for Dave Lusby.
49 reviews4 followers
December 6, 2015
Fascinating to read about the "pu'erh bubble" burst of 2007, where the price of tea rose to ridiculous heights before predictably crashing leaving a lot of speculators with huge stocks of tea worth pennies in comparison to what they had laid out. Woven around this crash are histories of teas (pu'erh in particular) and detailed descriptions of growing-harvesting-processing-storing pu'erh (possibly of interest only to tea-heads.
9 reviews
February 19, 2018
The book is a sociological study of the puer tea market, which includes the tea growers, tea makers, tea traders and consumers. It cuts through a lot of the myths surrounding puer tea and although the book doesn't directly say so, it implies that much of the appeal of puer tea is a search for status, tradition and authenticity by modern Chinese consumers. The book is about tea but what it has to say about modern Chinese society is fascinating and should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about China. The book focuses on Yiwu (a puer tea growing town) in 2007. I would love to read a follow-up book about the puer tea market as of now.
Profile Image for Nowen.
5 reviews1 follower
November 17, 2019
Zhang provides a clear, concise, and unbiased overview of the historical context and development of puer tea, including: the geopolitical history of the regions where puer tea is grown, how tea began interacting with the Chinese cultural sphere, how the structure of the puer tea industry changed during different periods of modern Chinese history (Republican era, pre/post Cultural Revolution), the debate between raw versus matured puer tea, the speculative market for puer tea during the mid 2000s, and the differences between terrace tea versus forest (ancient tree) tea. This is one of the best primers for insight into the Chinese tea industry.
Profile Image for David Haberlah.
160 reviews2 followers
September 4, 2021
Highly readable anthropological study of Puer tea’s fascinating history, ecology, consumption and commodity chain. I was surprised to find “ancient” tea culture to be reintroduced from outside mainland China, city names to be changed, authenticity to be contested between both sides of the Mekong and other drama. All served as a delicious dark brew of facts and fiction, observations and stories that become more interesting with multiple steeps and age. Fantastic work by Yunnan writer and ANU postdoc Jinghong Zhang! I also enjoyed this interview with her for the National Library Australia https://soundcloud.app.goo.gl/QCz1UMi...
Profile Image for Slim OysterHiatus.
107 reviews1 follower
February 8, 2021
Perhaps the only academically presented English language book on the cultural, historical, anthropological, and economical aspects of the puer tea trade. It is well researched, informative, and thorough, and I found it filled in a lot of the holes in my own knowledge of what the elusive and heavily debated puer actually is.
Profile Image for Max.
81 reviews9 followers
July 14, 2018
I loved this study about this much debated Heicha which involves interviews, film clips and great written analyses. I see myself coming back frequently to look up quotes and segments. If you are into puerh or just tea in general this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Daria.
9 reviews
September 10, 2019
There is lot of good information about pu erh tea, but it feels like tea facts with business facts doesn’t connect, it’s like jumping from one to other. I wish this book would be edited by a professional writer to make it more joyful to read.
Profile Image for Andrew Brooks.
237 reviews14 followers
March 17, 2023
I had hoped for a discussion on teas. This is not. This is a college textbook of advanced Sociology, that uses " tea as a metaphor"
70 reviews3 followers
January 11, 2014
I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads, and am grateful for the gift.

As someone who prefers to just drink water, I never expected to read a book on tea. This book proved me wrong. It pulled me in with the combination of modern and historical perspectives, intermixed with the personal experiences of the author. Just by reading this book, I think I have gained valuable insights into many elements of China, including history, culture, politics, and economy.

The technical details of the tea as well as aspects of Chinese culture were at times confusing, but I could usually understand most of the information. The author's use of charts, maps, and other aids helped with comprehension of the material. In addition, it is clear that the author put considerable research into the project. I think that his well-placed quotes by various scholars on the subject boosted the book's professionalism.

However, as the book progressed I had increasing difficulty grasping what was going on. This problem largely stems from the lack of consistent chronological progression in the book. The book often jumped back and forth between different time periods, each period containing clues about the events in the other periods. This made it confusing to unravel the mysteries of the puer tea bubble, and left me unsatisfied. A mystery in a book can draw readers in, but making the answers too cryptic leaves the readers feeling betrayed in a sense.

I think that a more steady, chronological approach would have made the story clearer to readers. The author's use of personal experiences helped give character to his story, but it also contributed to the chaotic structure of the book. Still, I admit that the author's blending of the various times along with his personal events gave a unique flavor to the book that makes it interesting in its own way.

Overall, the book was very interesting and enhanced my knowledge of China, but the chaotic flow of the events made me increasingly disinterested in reading as I continued. The book has a lot of potential, but needs to gain a stronger structure to make its messages clear to readers.
Profile Image for Pamela Hamon.
33 reviews7 followers
March 8, 2018
This book explores the cultural, anthropological, and economical forces that drove the business of Puer tea based on Yunnan, China in the 2000s. The book includes snippets from many interviews, events, and conversations across Yunnan over the period leading up to the pricing speculation crash in 2007. The book reads in an more academic voice, so be prepared for that. However, it is impeccably sourced and researched, and you may be compelled to trace down source material for further exploration.
Profile Image for Phillip.
798 reviews4 followers
May 3, 2017
3.75 / 5.0
Detailed informative ethnographic study. Very illuminating. Written from viewpoint of novice. Complex subject matter analyzed in a very straight forward manner with no preconceptions.

Took a bit for author to find voice at start.
Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews

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