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Jinghong Zhang, Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic.

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.

How did these changes affect those at the heart of Puer tea production in Yunnan? Here Zhang's presentation excels. Parts of her book read, in fact, like a suspense novel: Who will undercut whom? Will the buyers find out they've purchased counterfeit tea--or terrace tea that's being passed off as (rarer and thus more precious) forest tea? Are the price-fixing rumors true? Zhang takes her readers into the tea villages--most notably Yiwu, located within the "Six Great Tea Mountains," the source of most of the tribute tea that was sent to Beijing during Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Here, older trees or newer terraces of "large-leaf" tea, Camellia sinensis assamica, are picked by hand and processed by workers traditionally belonging to the same family. Leaves are sorted, stir-roasted, rolled, dried, fermented, shaped into cakes, and wrapped. The author documents this process in a series of seven supplemental films that total nearly three hours and are freely available at the University of Washington Press' website. These videos vividly portray both the broader landscape (physical, social, cultural) as well as individual lives and family dynamics. The division of labor--and the friction that results--is more pronounced in the films than in the book. In one film we witness, for example, a matriarch doing the bulk of the processing work, while the patriarch smokes, drinks, and entertains friends and visitors, some of whom have traveled to Yiwu to witness "authentic" Puer tea production in situ.

The question of authenticity pervades Zhang's book. Aged Puer tea is not commonly consumed in Yunnan; Yunnanese have historically preferred newer tea. In fact, aged Puer tea was not particularly valued for its flavor until the end of the twentieth century, and the tea was typically aged in the humid environments of Guangdong or Hong Kong rather than Yunnan. Improvement with age is now considered the "distinguishing feature" of Puer tea (97), which has come to be known as a "drinkable antique" (100, 109), its value increasing with age. The rise of a nostalgic cultural discourse in metropolitan China over the past two decades has coincided with the revival of the private tea industry (the Chinese tea industry was nationalized in the early 1950s) and likewise contributed to Puer's recent elevation of status. Indeed, the revival and designation of the "Ancient Tea-Horse Road" between Southwest China and Tibet as a site of cultural interest--the "ancient caravans" of Zhang's subtitle--was initiated by Yunnanese scholars as recently as 1989.

Among the eight tea-related books I have reviewed in these pages (see Gump 2008, 2011), Zhang's stands out. With her emphasis on those involved in the conceptualization, production, processing, trade, promotion, consumption, and appreciation of Puer tea, Zhang offers a nuanced narrative of often contradictory perspectives. Her book is thus a window into the "endless debates, controversies, suspicions, and revisions [that] relate to Puer tea's meanings, values, regulations, and representations" (197-98). Given these continuously shifting elements of the tea culture, Zhang concludes that "a singular and authentic historical truth" about Puer tea "may never be verified" (200), yet her book offers a valuable contribution on the state of Puer tea at the outset of the twenty-first century.


Grinnell College


Gump, Steven E. 2008. Review essay of the books Tea: Legend, life, and livelihood of India, by G.P. Baroowah; Tea: Aromas and flavors around the world, by Lydia Gautier; The story of tea: A cultural history and drinking guide, by Mary Lou Heiss & Robert J. Heiss; Liquid jade: The story of tea from East to West, by Beatrice Hohenegger; and Tea: The drink that changed the world, by Laura C. Martin. Southeast Review of Asian Studies 30: 213-20.

--. 2011. Review essay of the books The tea enthusiast's handbook, by Mary Lou Heiss & Robert J. Heiss; Tea: A global history, by Helen Saberi; and A complete book on black tea manufacture, by S. Samarasingham. Southeast Review of Asian Studies 33: 240-47.

Kopytoff, Igor. 1986. The cultural biography of things: Commoditization as process. In The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai, 64-91. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
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Author:Gump, Steven E.
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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