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123 Chapter 5 Puer Tea with Remorse One always fears the coming of the Moon Festival, For flowers and leaves are withering. Rivers flow east to the sea. When can they flow back again? If one does not work hard in his youth, He might mourn vainly in his old age. —Long Song (Chang ge xing), anonymous, Han dynasty (202 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) Translation by Ch’en Chao-ying, in Ho Chi-p’eng (1995: 354) Ireturned to Yiwu in September 2007. It was mid-autumn, the other important season for tea harvest. Taking the bus from Jinghong, I arrived in Yiwu in the late afternoon, just as I had in the spring. But something had changed. The main street was obviously quieter. The grocery stores and restaurants were open as usual, but with few customers the owners looked idle. Learning a lesson from my experience in the spring, I had booked a room with the guesthouse. But when I arrived, I found that there were no other guests. Since the beginning of autumn, some locals who had business alliances with outside traders had been to Jinghong, Kunming, or Guangdong to find out what was happening in the urban market. They had brought back the important information that a recession was evident in the Puer tea market everywhere. During the spring, the price of maocha in Yiwu had been high, around ¥400 per kilogram for forest tea, and many traders were coming to compete in the trade. But by autumn, the price had fallen to around ¥100 for the same kind of tea, and few traders came to buy. Having enjoyed the rising price in spring, people in Yiwu were frustrated by the big contrast in autumn. Suspicions arose about the change in the tea 124 x Puer Tea with Remorse price and its future development. Mr. Guan, a seventy-year-old man, asked me to tell him more about the situation of Puer tea in different urban areas, as he could not visit them personally. He asked me a serious question: “Do you think the price of our tea will go back to the low level it was before?” He was referring to the period from the 1950s to the 1980s, when tea material in Yiwu was worth less than ¥5 per kilogram. The question initially sounded absurd because there was such a big gap between the ¥5 of old and the more than ¥100 or even ¥400 that just one kilogram of tea had recently commanded. When the price was only ¥5, tea was insubstantial and even despised as “negative capitalism,” especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966–​1976) (see also Zeng Zhixian 2001: 93). If the tea price went back to ¥5 per kilogram, it would imply that Puer tea was again valueless and negative. How could this happen? When Mr. Guan asked me this question, we were sitting in the courtyard of his house. The house had been built recently and had cost almost¥250,000. It was a two-story modern brick and concrete house with an antique-style finish on the railings. From the 1950s to the 1970s, his family had lived in a thatched shed; in 1987 he built a tile-roofed house; in 1992 he built a simple brick house for ¥50,000, which was later used as a guesthouse; and in 2005 he built a new brick house for ¥180,000, which he sold later in order to build the present one in a new location. In the center of the courtyard was a car, which was said to have cost ¥130,000. That Yiwu families were able to afford to build such houses and to buy such cars was mostly attributable to the soaring tea business of recent years. The development of Puer tea had catalyzed change in almost every corner of Yiwu. During my fieldwork I often heard tea drinkers say that tea couldn’t be equated with rice, implying that eating basic foodstuffs is more important than drinking tea, no matter how valuable the tea. But for people in Yiwu, tea had become equal in value to rice, and they were eating fully and living better because of it. Observing the anxious expression in Mr. Guan’s eyes, I began to think about the reasons for his concerns. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius famously said, “Appetite for food and sex is nature” (Shi se xing ye). After the Reform era, when Chinese people became wealthier, this...


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