Conclusion: An Alternative Authenticity

From: Puer Tea

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197 Conclusion An Alternative Authenticity Puer tea has been packaged into a popular beverage that has attracted the fascination of many people in twenty-first century China. Its packaged values, in turn, have been debated, counterpackaged, and reinterpreted by multiple actors. The packaging process contains several parallel narratives of transformation. The first is the transformation of Puer tea’s profile from something common and unnoticed to something extraordinary, valuable, and representative of high culture. The second is the new discourse about the value of aging: in production, older tea trees are regarded as much better than younger tea bushes; in consumption, the tea needs to be “cooked” to transform it from raw to aged, and the longer tea is stored, the higher its value. As a result, forest tea is preferred for cultivation and production, and the flavor of aged tea is preferred by consumers. Along with this change in tea production and consumption, a third transformation occurred in the representation of Yunnan, from a remote, undeveloped, and earthy area into an enchanting land with natural beauty and rich ethnic culture. These transformations have all taken place against an important backdrop—​ the transformation of China’s economy and society, which is exemplified by the reemergence of a national fever for tea culture and other forms of consumption revolution. Within these general transformations, there have been many partial and back-and-forth changes during certain periods and in certain places. The authenticity of Puer tea has developed unevenly and unstably, subject to redefinition by history and context. The unresolved authenticity of Puer tea is part of the changeable social landscape; it embodies the transformation of people’s understandings about national, regional, and individual identities. The counterpackaging process has reinforced the unstable status of Puer tea’s authenticity. The unresolved authenticity of Puer tea lies in the multiple counterforces that are present in the unpackaging narratives. Endless debates, controversies, suspicions, and revisions relate to Puer tea’s mean- 198  x  An Alternative Authenticity ings, values, regulations, and representations. One force resists accepting the aged value of Puer tea and endeavors to reexplore and reinterpret its raw value, while another force deconstructs Puer tea’s propagandized value and wants to draw it back to its “original” meaning in order to obtain a properly balanced value. Yet another force resists persuasion, guidance, cheating, and authoritative instruction, asking tea drinkers and traders to remain loyal to their own judgment and to solve problems using their own skills. And still another force subtly resists tough regulation, exploring the margin beyond any regulation and relying on itself to transform indigestible standards into acceptable practices. The above narratives and debates embody what I call the jianghu of Puer tea. These jianghu forces are particularly evident in the unpackaging narratives that grow out of the popular realm and stand for nonmainstream voices. The chaotic situation of Puer tea illustrates the intrinsic feature of jianghu culture. Jianghu is filled with risk, suspicion, vagueness, and contention. The debate and unpacking of Puer tea’s packaged values also fully embodies the jianghu actors’ ability to cope with risks, debates, and nonstandardization. These features of jianghu culture embody important enduring as well as transformed characteristics of Chinese cultural consumption . This Chinese jianghu culture is crucial in helping us understand the chaotic situation of Puer tea today, as well as the responses to this chaos adopted by multiple Puer tea actors. After experiencing a violent rise and fall in 2007, Puer tea production and consumption continues, but not to the same extent as when “the entire nation was engaged in tea.” As many tea friends comment, “Only those who are truly interested in Puer tea remain in this circle.” The general tea price has developed stably year by year, more due to the increasing standard of living and price levels in China. The price of forest tea, nevertheless, has increased more noticeably, and the price gap between forest and terrace tea has expanded. In the autumn of 2012, the price of forest tea in Yiwu generally reached ¥600 per kilogram, sometimes as high as ¥1,300, whereas the price of terrace tea remained around ¥85. The value of forest tea has increased steadily, along with middle- and upper-class Chinese consumers’ pursuit of luxury goods. But the amount of forest tea is limited, and the competition grows fiercer. Several friends who continue to trade tea in Yiwu report that the jianghu in Yiwu has become even riskier. The jianghu concept sheds light on how...


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