Chapter 1: "The Authentic Tea Mountain Yiwu"

From: Puer Tea

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33 Chapter 1 “The Authentic Tea Mountain Yiwu” Our Puer tea is made from tender fragrant tea leaves, topped with the refined tea buds of the authentic tea mountain Yiwu. . . . Recently, fake Puer tea has emerged, counterfeits are increasing, and fake tea is being mixed with authentic tea, which is hard to identify. Some shameless people have counterfeited our brand for their own profit. To forestall such bad effects, we changed our brand icon to two lions in August 1920. Please make note of our special description and avoid being cheated. —Tongqing Hao Puer tea label, Yiwu, 1920s or 1930s Our tea boasts original flavor, original taste, and is from an original environment. It is processed by hand and is a healthy green drink. After natural fermentation, it will become mellower: the longer the storage, the better the taste. —Zheng family Puer tea label, Yiwu, 2007 In January 2007 I passed through Hong Kong on my way from Australia to Yunnan. I decided to stay in Hong Kong for a few days, as I had been told that Puer tea is “produced in Yunnan, stockpiled in Hong Kong, and collected in Taiwan.” While I was in Hong Kong, many people recommended that I go to a famous restaurant, Lianxiang Lou, for yum cha, a traditional type of Cantonese cuisine consisting of dim sum and tea and usually eaten for breakfast. Most of the customers there chose to drink Puer tea. Over shaomai, or steamed pork dumplings, Zongming, a local Cantonese fellow, said to me, “Now you can understand why Hong Kong people must drink Puer tea. If they didn’t, these foods would be too greasy to digest. With Puer tea, people can eat more and stay here longer.” Some days later, Eddie, a local friend, showed me his personal stash of Puer tea produced in different periods. I was surprised to find that he had 34  x  “The Authentic Tea Mountain Yiwu” two round cakes of well-known, high-quality aged Puer tea: the first, labeled Tongqing Hao (hao means “brand”), had two lions as its icon; the second, Songpin Hao, had its own good luck picture (figs. 1.1–​ 2). I had seen these types only in collectors’ books about aged Puer tea (see Deng Shihai 2004: 325–​ 326). Eddie brought samples of both kinds and accompanied me to a famous teahouse in Hong Kong. There we tasted the teas with Mr. Ye, the master of the teahouse, who had a rich knowledge of tea. These teas were highly appreciated at the teahouse. The waitresses paused in their work and gathered around. Mr. Ye, who had tasted many kinds of aged Puer tea before, infused the tea himself very carefully. He commented that there was a sort of sweetness bubbling up from the depth of his throat soon after tasting the Tongqing tea—​ like sugar, though more natural. He described the tea’s flavor as “like a blossom in the mouth.” But he noted that it was still a little acerbic and would benefit from additional aging. He gave higher praise to the Songpin tea, which, he said, fit the model of excellent tea described by an ancient food commentator: it eliminates your arrogance, removes your impatience, elevates your mood, and softens your temper (ping jin shi zao; yi qing yue xing) (Yuan Mei 1792). We talked about the teas’ history. Eddie told us that he had gotten both kinds from an old Cantonese man who had bought the cakes early in his life (Eddie was not sure exactly when) in Guangdong, before his family migrated fig. 1.1 (left)  Tongqing Puer tea label. fig. 1.2 (above)  Songpin Puer tea label. Photos by the author. “The Authentic Tea Mountain Yiwu”  x  35 from Hong Kong to Australia. Eddie met the old man in Sydney in 1997, and the man gave him several cakes of the tea, calling them “useless relics.” Although it was unclear in exactly which year the tea was produced, Eddie and Mr. Ye dated it to no later than the mid-1930s. That is, both pieces of tea were at least seventy years old. Considering their mature flavor and trademark, they probably came from Yiwu, one of the “Six Great Tea Mountains” in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. Such aged Puer tea, however, never appeared in my later fieldwork in Yiwu. The tea producers of seventy years ago had good brand awareness, and they used special icons, such as the lions and the good luck motif, to...


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