Cold and Warm

juni 2, 2015

(excerpt from Zhang Jinhong’s «Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic», pages 181-84)

Cold and Warm

The first friend Zongming met in Kunming was Hongtu (webname), who Zongming understood through web communications to be a defender of Yunnanese culture. For instance, on the Sanzui website there was a post by a participant from Guangdong titled “Puer tea doesn’t need the Yunnanese.” This post said that Yunnan was simply the area producing the basic material of Puer tea but that the people of Yunnan didn’t contribute to Puer tea’s trade and consumption as much as the Cantonese. The post was fiercely attacked by Hongtu, who enumerated many facts about the Yunnanese contribution to tea. To him, these great contributions had long been masked because Yunnan was remote from the political and economic center of China. Hongtu’s strong identification as a Yunnanese could also be seen from his full web name, Hongtu Lantian, which means “red earth and blue sky,” a popular description of Yunnan’s natural landscape.

To entertain his honored guest, Hongtu brewed his favorite tea, a ten-year-old raw Puer tea originating in the tea mountain of Mengku. Mengku is located in Lincang, a southwestern subdistrict of Yunnan bordering Burma. In recent years it had emerged along with Yiwu, Menghai, and several other places as a famous production site for Puer tea. According to Hongtu, Yiwu tea tasted too weak and Menghai tea was barely acceptable; only Mengku tea was enjoyable, full-bodied and lingered long enough on the palate.

This particular tea had been aged in Kunming. In addition to Hongtu, Zongming and myself, there were three other guests, all frequent visitors to Hongtu’s tea shop and supporters of Mengku tea. Having gotten used to the taste of Yiwu tea during my fieldwork, I found the Mengku tea scarcely palatable, with a less subtle combination of sweetness and bitterness than Yiwu tea. I found that the Mengku fans at this tasting used the same language of praise as Yiwu supporters did: “The tea of Mengku/Yiwu is the remarkable flag of Puer tea,” or “If you want to learn about Puer tea, you must first practice drinking and understanding the authentic tea of Mengku/Yiwu.”

Zongming also declared his fondness for Mengku tea, but he didn’t give it the same praise as the others. To him, the more problematic issue at that moment lay in the difference in flavor of teas not between production areas, but between different storage places. The Mengku tea brewed by Hongtu was said to have been stored in Kunming for ten years, but in Zongming’s opinion it had not been sufficiently aged. He thought it was still too raw and far from smooth. To tea drinkers from the Pearl River Delta, smoothness was an important property, and they thought it resulted from storage in a relatively humid place, such as Hong Kong or Guangdong. For them, good Puer tea needed to be smooth in the throat when it was swallowed – as smooth as the slowly stewed soup (lou fo tong for Cantonese pronounciation; lao huo tang for standard Chinese Pinyin) commonly eaten as part of their daily meal. Drawing on ideas from traditional Chinese medicine, they argued that smooth Puer tea was warm for the body. By contrast, raw Puer tea was too irritating; it was intrinsically cold and hence harmful to one’s health (see Anderson 1980).

Zongming’s response to this Mengku tea reminded me of a scene I had witnessed in Yiwu. In April 2007, I met a group of travelers from Guangdong who were visiting a Yiwu family who produced Puer tea. The family master brewed some recently made raw tea, a superior type according to him, to entertain his guests. The guests, however, felt nervous about this fresh tea. They sipped only a tiny bit from each run. At the third run they asked the master to stop and suggested that he brew the aged tea they had brought from Guangdong. One guest told me that he felt his heart pounding when he tasted the raw tea. Nevertheless, in the end, all the travelers bought a large quantity of raw Puer tea from the local family. Perhaps the “adventurous” raw tasting had made them foresee a good prospect for the fresh tea, hopefully via storage back in Guangdong.

Zongming, who had tasted various kinds of Puert ea, was not nervous in the face of the Mengku raw Puer tea. But like the Guangdong travelers in Yiwu, after tasting the Mengku brew, Zongming asked if he could infuse a Puer tea he had brought from Hong Kong, in order to show his preference. It was a twenty-five-year old tea packed in a bamboo pipe that had been stored in Hong Kong. Its brew was darker than that of the Mengku tea. According to Zongming, it had reached a good degree of smoothness, had the medicinal smell that results from good Hong Kong storage, and was warm and beneficial to one’s health. Now Hongtu found it hard to comment. After a long silence he said that the Hong Kong tea’s smell was indeed special, but it faded once the tea was swallowed and couldn’t be recalled until the next sip. He also remarked that the tea didn’t have a long aftertaste, a property of that [sic] was very important to him. The other guests also commented on this tea’s strange taste. They were trying to appreciate this twenty-five-year-old tea, and although they did not dislike it, they obviously didn’t think it rivaled the Mengku tea.

In my experience, most Yunnanese, especially frequent tea drinkers, prefer raw and naturally fermented Puer tea, and they often have a preference for tea produced on a particular mountain – for instance, Yiwu or Mengku. Furthermore, they prefer tea that has been aged in Yunnan rather than elsewhere. Like Hongtu, they appreciate the lingering aftertaste of raw Puer tea. People from the Pearl River Delta, however, prefer Puer tea that has been stored in Guangdong or Hong Kong for at least five years. The aging, they think, creates warmth in the stomach as well as smoothness in the mouth. Such “standard taste” or “collective taste preferences” are shared by groups of people living in the same natural and cultural environment (Ozeki 2008: 144-145) and become the standard against which people judge other tastes.

Popular writers have increasingly argued that Puer tea could not be properly fermented until it was exposed to sufficient humidity and heat (Bu Jing An 2007). Hong Kong and Guangdong are close to the sea and are more humid than Kunming, which is located on a plateau. Accordingly, some people, mainly Cantonese, argued that Puer tea should be stored in the Pearl River Delta after production in Yunnan. Some even said that five years of storage in Guangdong or Hong Kong was equivalent to more than ten years of storage in Kunming. They believed that Yunnan had excellent tea resources but was unsuitable for tea storage or that the Yunnanese also hadn’t known enough about storage, even though Yunnan also had humid areas, such as Jinghong in Xishuangbanna.

After staying in Kunming for only one week, Zongming became sick, despite the warm and sunny weather. He began to cough and even vomited one day after eating spicy Dai food with Hongtu and several other friends. At that meal, he witnessed the Yunnanese capacity for eating spicy food. It seemed that the more pungent the food was, the more Hongtu enjoyed it, although he was sweating and his face was turning red. Another Yunnanese participant, Puzi, ate chilies quietly without his face changing color at all. At the start of the meal, Zongming tasted everything out of politeness, but soon he selected only the less spicy dishes. He didn’t eat much, but he still suffered from the pungent food and had to use a lot of tissues.

A few days later, in Hongtu’s teashop, Zongming attributed his sickness to “water and earth not fitting” (shuitu bu fu). The dry climate of Kunming compared with the humidity of Hong Kong was one factor. Zongming also confessed that he persisted in the Hong Kong habit of taking a cold shower every evening. This was contrary to local custom and strongly criticized by his Kunming friends.

Puzi made this point in another way. He had recently stayed in Guangdong for several months and said he could not bear the Cantonese food at first. It was too oily, and it had no flavor. He could not get used to the Puer tea stored in Guangdong, either. He described it as “like having Chinese medicine rather than tea.” However, he soon found that he wanted more of this kind of Puer tea after a meal, as its medicinal flavor did, in fact, help him digest the oily food. In turn, after his digestion improved, he ate more, which then caused him to drink even more Puer tea. In the end, Puzi realized that he had grown to like Cantonese food and also the Puer tea stored in Guangdong, which he found complimentary.

Zongming nodded his head as he listened, hearing in Puzi’s story the counterpart to his own. Both of them agreed that the only way to get used to the local environment was to eat the local food and drink the local drink. Considering each other’s position, they found that neither Puer tea was uniquely authentic, and they realized that one’s preference between raw/cold Puer tea and aged/warm Puer tea was a matter of local culture. As Zongming moved from Hong Kong to Yunnan, he discovered that the authenticity of Puer tea was mobile, too. But he later found out that the authenticity of Puer tea not only diverged from place to place but also varied in the same place over different periods. Once it was tested on the historical timeline, the authenticity of Puer tea would become even more mobile.