A stack of valuable aged Pu'er Bing Cha
Review

Puer Tea, Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

By Jinghong Zhang


“Puer tea’s improvement with age is said to be its distinguishing feature. From this, several key values were drawn out by traders, connoisseurs, consumers, researchers, mass media and the government.”

And that’s a quote from “Puer Tea, Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic” by Jinghong Zhang. (pg. 97)

Caption: A stack of valuable aged Pu’er [beeng] bing cha

Kyle Whittington reviews Puer Tea, Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

A Captivating Cultural Biography of Puer Tea

By Kyle Whittington | TeaBookClub

Jinghong Zhang

Sitting on the academic end of the tea bookshelf, this is a fascinating and thoroughly well-researched foray into the complex and multi-faceted world of Puer tea. An anthropological study that explores the “cultural biography” of Puer tea, the ethnographic and anthropological research that has gone into this is book is exceptional and really opens up the intricacies of Puer. And yet, despite being such an academic text it is entirely readable and utterly fascinating.

The first third (introduction and “spring”) sets up the rest of the book, introducing and outlining the research, including terms and definitions used throughout. With such a complex subject matter, this is invaluable and helps to deal with complexities around such things as fermentation (pg. 13) and geographic locations. In this, we get to grips with Puer, the tea, the people involved and begin to grapple with the issues surrounding authenticity.

Indeed, the issues surrounding authenticity are central to the book as a whole and open up numerous questions and considerations we should probably all be aware of when it comes to exploring and particularly to purchasing Puer tea.

Building on this grounding, the book jumps up and becomes massively absorbing in the latter two-thirds (“summer”, “autumn” and “winter”). Exploring the changing historical and current cultural context of Puer, the importance of location and differences and difficulties surrounding the production, and of course, aging is both revealing and fascinating. Accessing multiple areas and sources within the realm of Puer we get real insight and understanding without the veneer of the “sales pitch” that pervades much of the public Puer world.

As a native of Kunming and with the rigor and perspective of an academic, Jinghong Zhang really gets at the heart of the matter and presents us with clear and thorough insights. The famed boom and bust of the Puer market are revealed in startling detail. How and why it happened and importantly how its effects were felt and dealt with in different circles. The impact and conversations that arose as part of and as a result of this around authenticity and what is valued in a Puer are explored from producers to connoisseurs and consumers. The importance and meaning of place and how this is varyingly defined in Puer circles and indeed how place affects taste and experience is revealed and explored.

I could go on, there is so much content in this book! But suffice to say a thoroughly excellent read! Whether an aficionado or with an inkling of an interest in Puer, this book is an excellent and essential development of that interest. We thoroughly recommend it!

Here’s what some TeaBookClub members thought:

I’ve recommended this book to a couple of people since I started reading it because I think it’s possibly the best read on tea I’ve had this year.  – Aimee

I really enjoyed the view from inside, from someone who got to get close. Especially the films, they’re very complimentary. – Aimee

Her insight into the market crash. The how’s and the why’s were really helpful. – Nicole

Strong research – Brigette

The films are perfect little snippets that illustrate what she’s talking about. – Nicole

It’s very rich. One of the bits I really enjoyed was the translating and contextualizing of some of the idioms. – Anesce

I think she has access to very interesting materials about the producers and the traders’ lives that maybe wouldn’t have found their way in was she someone else. – Aimee

I really appreciated that she defines what she’s talking about and the definitions she uses for words within the tea. The table in the introduction (page13). She explains her use of “fermentation” so I was like, that’s ok, I know what you mean so I get it. – Aimee

She offers a very nuanced version of everything, always giving you more context on everything.  You understand more. – Aimee

It’s made me think about how I would buy Puer tea, a lot more thought, a lot more questions. – Ernest

It deepened my understanding and appreciation for Puerh. – Nicole

Although based in the UK, The Tea Book Club is an international group of tea lovers and readers who meet up virtually every month to discuss tea books. If you’d like to join us for the next read, visit teabookclub.org or @joinTeaBookClub on Instagram. 

Puer Tea, Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

Goodreads: 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.

See video

Amazon | Kindle Edition, 272 pages

Published December 1, 2013
University of Washington Press


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