Puer Jianghu Wild West Urban Chic

Puer Tea, Urban Chic, and the Wild West

Welcome to the Jianghu

Puer tea and its authenticity are in a constant state of negotiation. Visit any tea forum or crowded tea table and debates echo throughout. Opinions like, “That is not Puer tea,” and “This is Puer tea,” are declared with such supreme confidence that you’d think the participants were discussing the blueness of the sky or warmth of the sun. Yet, despite the loud voices and self assured declarations, only one fact about Puer tea remains clear; nothing is clear. Author Jinghong Zhang bears witness to this tussle for authentic truth in her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic.

Before I delve into Zhang’s study on Puer, which should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the subject of Puer tea, I must first come clean about some of my personal bias. After attempting to read certain texts about Puer in the past(which shall remain nameless, so I don’t begin torching bridges), I could rarely read past the second chapter before my gag reflexes kicked in. Some books were ego driven expressions of tea mastery that were more masturbatory autobiography than Puer book. Others were harrowing, overblown tales of adventure and discovery of uncharted worlds that would make Marco Polo blush. And in some texts, nearly every photo features an elderly villager in traditional garb, with the information skewed towards selling the idea of fabled “1,000 year old trees” as a giant advertisement, rather than serving as a tool for learning.

 

Zhang manages to escape these common trappings by utilizing her perspective as an mindful observer. She carries no banner and pledges allegiance to none. She is just another tea drinker wandering the jianghu.

Puer tea tree
An old arbor tree in Hekai area from Fall of 2014

Puer Tea and the Wild West

What is jianghu you ask? Great, glad you did. Jianghu is a complex concept which can briefly be described as a place “located between utopia and reality” where one can “achieve romantic dreams, but chaos and risks still remain.” Popular in early Chinese martial arts fiction, jianghu referred to a world where Chinese knight-errants would go beyond the reach of their government and compete in kungfu competitions with others in the jianghu. The matching of kungfu skills was “a simple and perfect resolution for all kinds of problems: good or evil, right or wrong.” For my Western readers, the closest concept that relates to jianghu in Western culture is the American Wild West. Just replace the kungfu with gunslinging at sundown and it fits well enough. A lawless place, where dreams and happiness can be realized, but where there are risks and danger in a loosely bound world which is chaotic and evolving. It is a field of actors, the good, the bad, and the ugly, vying for dominance. As Zhang puts it, “The route to discovering authentic Puer tea is often full of risk and competition.” And that, is where we enter the Puer tea jianghu.

Aged Puer tea and the Wild West
Aged raw Puer tea being poured into a glass

Now, keep in mind, the above quotes are laid out around Page 26. Usually by this point in reading a Puer book I am grabbing the nearest trash bin so I can vomit. Not with Zhang. She begins at the outset by setting up the scene in the theater; describing the players but not giving a monologue herself. One key component in the jianghu is that, “the essence of society is based on the presence of various groups or clans whose disciplines are in debate and cannot be tolerated by one another,” and each group has its “own code of conduct … [and] own language and wisdom.” Then she lists the clans, with which we Puer drinkers are all familiar. The ripe Puer clan. The raw Puer clan. The dry storage clan. The humid/traditional storage clan. The Yiwu flavor clan. The Menghai flavor clan. The aged tea clan. The gushu [old arbor] clan. The young tea clan. We can surmise the entirety of the Puer jianghu by noting of the clans, “Each declares itself the most authentic and does not tolerate the other.” With this sentence, I knew Zhang’s tome would set itself apart from the pack. She wasn’t carrying a clan banner, just reporting on the skirmish like a journalist above the battlefield.

Puer tea
Pouring young raw Puer tea into a teacup

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic is a wealth of valuable information, both historical and anecdotal. Details of Zhang’s own visits in various areas of Yunnan. Varied perspectives from the different clans in Yunnan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere. And a tale about a large “in real life” tea tasting with members of a Chinese online tea forum that had me laughing out loud as I compared it to my own comical interactions on Western tea forums (hint: same shit, different pile). Zhang bravely decides not to take stances, but rather offers a myriad of vantage points for the reader to come to their own conclusions about a range of topics, whether it be old arbor Puer tea or the identity of Puer tea on the whole.

 

Jinghong Zhang has restored some of my faith in the possibilities of Puer literature. That it need not be fierce kungfu battles and egotistical posturing. That there is indeed hope for the negotiation of authenticity beyond the “all of my tea is from organic fair trade 1,000 year old trees in the most remote villages, all hand processed by elderly folks missing teeth” style of marketing. That the misinformation and lack of accurate representation is not hopeless. That there is a discussion to be had and gray area to be traversed. And even at the end of that discussion, perhaps the actors in the Puer Wild West can end with a handshake and a shot of Four Roses, instead of a gunfight at sundown.

Author Jinghong Zhang is a lecturer at Yunnan University and a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University. Her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic can be purchased from the University of Washington Press.

For additional information, check these links on identifying fake Puer tea and defining Puer tea. And as always, if you are interested in purchasing curated Puer tea.

  • Cwyn

    This is very interesting, and I have heard of the book. However, I think it can only help advance the myth of a presser of tea cakes such as yourself to just get the requisite teeth removed anyway.

    • TwoDog2

      I have strongly considered wearing Dai minority ceremonial wedding garb at all times to prove my tea is real, but ultimately opted for tooth removal. Now, if I was only a bit older…then I’d really be authentic. I’ll just have to wait 🙂

  • Peter

    Great article, as always TwoDog! I like the idea of puer clans – helps to explain the egos and exclusivity of folks in the puer-drinking world.

    • TwoDog2

      Thank you for the note Peter. When I first read her description, “Each declares itself the most authentic and does not tolerate the other,” I thought it sounded quite familiar and clan-like. It sums up the Puer world succinctly

  • Great book. I did have problems with the first part of the book reading a bit too much like and academic paper but after that it was smooth sailing. curious if Chan Kam Pong’s books are in your trash can covered in vomit…

    • TwoDog2

      Always better to focus on the books that make me smile! I think most Puer books end up having to do a brief introductory portion in order to corral the people who might not be fully aware of some general context, but like you said, after that it was smooth sailing.

  • I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to everyone who asks me questions about puerh. There is so much bad information out there. When I worked at tea house in NYC, we would often get visits from the misguided followers of someone who calls himself a tea master. They thought that both myself and this book were the work of the devil 🙂

    • TwoDog2

      Indeed, this same circumstance has arisen many times in my life. I find it best to smile, nod, and move on with your day when encountering fervent followers of tea dogma.

  • Since you mention the kung fu parallels..as a devotee of both tea and aikido (far more serious about the latter) funny how much this perspective mirrors the world of martial arts. This might sound harsh to some, but I can tell you for a fact that most of the people debating in the latter camp about their clan vs others kind of all suck to varying degrees. Most dojos aren’t even worth practicing at. As always, in all fields, real masters are far and few between. Find a good one and study hard.

    That being said..Yiwu clan will destroy all.

    • TwoDog2

      It seems that happens with most disciplines, that the people who yell the loudest are often lacking in skill. They are too busy practicing their yelling skills to do much else.

      I’m still not going to pledge allegiance solely to the Yiwu clan. I love them, but there are so many good clans out there. I want to keep my options open when the real clan wars begin.

  • Speaking of books, not exactly tea (although it’s mentioned), but I think you might enjoy this book, it’s one of my very favorites: http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Baggage-Pilgrimage-Red-Pine-ebook/dp/B006VFSEKG/

  • Hobbes

    My friend, we are of one mind when it comes to books on tea, and on pu’ercha in particular. No other genre has made me want, not so much to “gag”, but rather to forcibly eject my own digestive system (inc. bowels, colon, &c.) through my own oesophagus.

    Words fail me on the peculiar qualities of “tea books”. If you have written a book on tea, yes – I am probably talking about you here. Never has so much been written by so many with so little regard for the norms or conventions of “good writing”, or even “tolerable writing”. Crimes (CRIMES!) against literature and against humanity, in that order, have been so often committed in this genre that even your generous article reproduced here is insufficient to get me to pick up a book on tea.

    Sweet mother of pastry, tea books are bad.

    Toodlepip,

    Hobbes

    • Squirrel

      I’ve recently taken this book and one written by a certain countryman of twodog’s living in Asia. Parallel reading lead to finding Zhang’s book much more digestible than the other. It fills a gap that many of the others just widen: the need for information about tea. The western hemisphere lacks this reliable information, and most of the published “works” about tea are marketing tools, some in a better, some in a very transparent disguise.

      I can’t relate to the difficulty of reading an “academic paper”, since it’s written in a style accessible to the wide public, but even if I haven’t managed to eviscerate myself at the other, I have caught myself falling asleep during reading…

      In the end, which is the more plausible scenario: Drinking tea with a tea producer in Yunnan who is trying to cope with the volatile prices or on some rocky mountaintop, brewed by a bearded hermit with spring water heated on a fire 2 day’s flight from the next source of timber?

      • Hobbes

        I simply mean that most people who write tea-books are almost comically devoid of anything resembling an ability to produce readable prose. 🙂

        Would you buy a table from a carpenter who couldn’t carpent? Or some hosiary from a hosierist who couldn’t hose? Me neither!

        Toodlepip,

        Hobbes

    • TwoDog2

      Tea books in general are anger inducing

  • Bram

    This book just went up a many few places on my to read list.

    I do recognize the feeling from books about other subjects. There are a lot of books out there that sell the believe of the author. However I also encountered a complaint of an author. He had to modify his book so that the book sold as and gave the impression to be the only book about the subject that you will ever have to read. Bullocks of course and so the authors thought too. But he choose to go along so at least his story was out. If you looked beyond the things he had to beautify his gold was still there hidden behind a smokescreen of things that sell.

    So this seems to suggest that it is the market (and publishers etc) that request such books. Have you any idea whether this marketing-destruction is also going on in the puer-teabook-world?

    Under these circumstances I usually try to push through the “importantifying” and “belief” to find that what’s behind that. Usually hard work and not always successful and I don’t always stick to the end either.