Chapter 7: Tea Tasting and Counter-Tea Tasting

From: Puer Tea

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161 Chapter 7 Tea Tasting and Counter–Tea Tasting The other world isn’t so pure; the other law isn’t so perfect, either. A real Chinese knight-errant needs to retreat not only from the court but also from the jianghu, like the characters in [Jin Yong’s novel] Beyond the Rivers and Lakes: The Smiling, Proud Wanderer. —Chen Pingyuan 1997: 176 More than fifty people attended a tea-tasting event at a Kunming teahouse in November 2007. The purpose of the event was to discuss whether older tea is better and what kind of storage produces good taste. Sanzui, one of the most influential tea websites in China,1 organized this meeting. At the time, the Puer tea market was in recession. Disputes about whether the quality of Puer tea depends on aging had emerged frequently on the Sanzui website, turning the virtual space into a battlefield. Mr. Yan, the moderator of the Sanzui web column on Puer tea, had announced, “Rather than disputing nonsense all day long, we should talk face to face by sharing and discerning real aged Puer tea.” So, gathering in a public tea-tasting space, people began to explore issues relevant to the time and space of tea storage. Six kinds of Puer tea, aged from six to nineteen years, were served at the event. Three were aged raw and three were artificially fermented. They were selected from many samples contributed by friends of the website from places including Yunnan, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Any member of Sanzui could attend the tea tasting, providing that they promised to write a comment of at least a hundred words on the website afterward. Being restricted by distance, most participants were from Yunnan, especially Kunming. Other members of Sanzui in places such as Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Taiwan could share in the event only via the web posts, which provided live coverage of the tea gathering. Among the participants, experience or knowledge regarding Puer tea drinking was uneven. Some 162  x  Tea Tasting and Counter–Tea Tasting were experts, while others were just beginners. Their social backgrounds were mostly unknown. From their taste preferences, exemplified by the tea comments they gave later, it was obvious that many sought to improve their economic and cultural status by investing in and appreciating Puer tea. I had begun participating in this online forum after getting to know several key organizers of Sanzui, such as Mr. Yan, in Yiwu during the spring of 2007. At that time they were collecting information on Puer tea and searching for “authentic” tea from the tea mountains. In the Sanzui circle, those who had been to the tea mountains were acknowledged as having a greater right to speak. A tea-tasting meeting, to some ordinary enthusiasts of Puer tea, was a good chance to meet tea experts and taste the tea recommended by them. The organizers of this tea meeting, like Chinese knights-errant wandering in jianghu, had attempted to solve all disputes on Puer tea through organizing a singular event, counting on personal tasting skills and trying to isolate tea tasting from other influences. This attempt failed, because one distinct interest met, contested, and interacted with another, and counterforces circulated between the different actors. Tasting judgment was inevitably affected by the atmosphere and social interaction with other actors. Anthropologists and sociologists of food have argued that taste is influenced by many exterior factors beyond innate palate preference (see Messer 1984; Mintz 1985; Sutton 2001; Strasser 2003; Lien and Nerlich 2004). Case studies also show that taste judgment often results from the mixed standards of internal preferences and external symbolic values; when the taster’s prior value standard conforms with the symbolic meanings attached to the food, it tastes good, and vice versa (Allen, Gupta, and Monnier 2008). Food becomes something not only to eat but also to think about. Generally, a person’s distinct way of consuming food actually reflects his or her distinct self-representation (Ohnuki-Tierney 1990; Lupton 1996; Mintz 1996; Caplan 1997; Miller 1997; Gabaccia 1998; Counihan 1999; Counihan and Van Esterik 2008). These different self-representations are often strongly influenced by different educational backgrounds and social origins; each group has its unique social space and “cultural capital” (Bourdieu 1984). This was strikingly true for the Puer tea event, in which tea taste appreciations differentiated one person from another and acted as signs of cultural status. For social distinction , previous studies have emphasized the gap and distance between differ...


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