Jinghong Zhang, Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

By Gump, Steven E. | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

Jinghong Zhang, Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic


Gump, Steven E., Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Jinghong Zhang, Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. xii + 249 pages.

If one were to imagine an ideal ethnography of a commodity, one might envision Jinghong Zhang's Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. A "cultural biography" in the Kopytoffian sense (1986), or a "social history" in a more popular sense, Zhang's book considers how identity, history, and cachet (or "urban chic") infuse Puer, examining the contexts and conditions of categorization, custom, and commercialization. Whether construed as commonplace or culturally foundational, tea does not escape this layering of meaning (Zhang uses the term "packaging") and becomes a worthy object of study.

Zhang, a native of Yunnan, the mountainous region in southwest China that is both the birthplace of Puer tea and the modern center of its production, is a lecturer at Yunnan University. This book, her first, revises her 2011 doctoral dissertation at Australian National University. The book is engagingly written (each chapter opens with a vignette from her life or fieldwork), carefully edited, and bountifully illustrated, with nearly fifty images, principally monochrome photographs, mostly taken by the author herself. Another nice touch is the set of detailed maps with which the book opens and to which Zhang frequently refers. Yunnan borders Burma, Laos, and Vietnam and hosts numerous ethnic groups: maps make this geography clear and immediate.

Zhang organizes her discussion according to a conceit of the four seasons. This nods to Daoism and Chinese literature but does not particularly add to the volume. I feel similarly about her frequent invocation of the metaphor of jianghu, literally "rivers and lakes," which refers to a fringe or outlaw space somewhat removed from reality--the traditional world of martial arts fiction. Granted, tea experts use this metaphor themselves, to the extent that a trade magazine named Puer Jianghu was established in 2007. "The meanings of jianghu, historically and contextually, can explain how the tapestry of Puer tea is woven by multiple actors and the authenticity of Puer tea is contextually packaged and counterpackaged," Zhang explains (23-24). Such flights of fancy are marginal, however. Most readers will approach Zhang's book in search of clear information, and they will be neither disappointed nor frustrated.

As Zhang explains in the introduction, the Chinese tea culture is ancient: textual records indicate a tea market existing in Sichuan, Yunnan's northerly neighbor, as early as the sixth century BCE. Tea culture spread across the Chinese empire during the Tang dynasty (618-907), with the populations of different regions settling on different tea preferences. There are six "official" types of Chinese tea--green, yellow, white, blue-green, red, and dark. Puer is technically a dark tea, but its contemporary proponents argue for its re-categorization as an independent variety. Red teas and dark teas are fully fermented, while Puer tea is post-fermented either naturally or artificially (using a process involving careful control of temperature and humidity that was invented as recently as 1973). Zhang does a laudable job describing the production and finishing process of Puer tea, in both the text and an appendix.

In 1997, the reversion of Hong Kong to China triggered the selloff of stockpiles of aged Puer tea as owners relocated. The primary buyers were Taiwanese connoisseurs. (The same connoisseurship that applies to wine, cheese, chocolate, and coffee extends to tea, as do the French concept of terroir and the Italian-born concept of "slow food.") A group of Taiwanese "tea madmen" subsequently "launched the rediscovery of the origin of aged Puer tea" (41), leading to infrastructure investment in Yunnan, the renaming of cities and counties (including the renaming of the Yunnanese county of Zhongdian to Shangri-la in 2001 in an effort to encourage tourism), the passage of Quality Safety Standards in 2006, the opening of tea-related museums, and a massive wave of tea speculation that involved as many as thirty million people in 2007--precisely when Zhang was conducting her fieldwork in Yunnan. …

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