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 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.
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: 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.