Puer Tea

Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic

Jinghong Zhang

  • Published: December 2013
  • Subject Listing: Anthropology, Asian Studies, Food Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 272 pp., 47 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Series: Culture, Place, and Nature
  • Contents

Puer tea has been grown for centuries in the "Six Great Tea Mountains" of Yunnan Province, and in imperial China it was a prized commodity, traded to Tibet by horse or mule caravan via the so-called Tea Horse Road and presented as tribute to the emperor in Beijing. In the 1990s, as the tea's noble lineage and unique process of aging and fermentation were rediscovered, it achieved cult status both in China and internationally. The tea became a favorite among urban connoisseurs who analyzed it in language comparable to that used in wine appreciation and paid skyrocketing prices. In 2007, however, local events and the international economic crisis caused the Puer market to collapse.

Puer Tea traces the rise, climax, and crash of this phenomenon. With ethnographic attention to the spaces in which Puer tea is harvested, processed, traded, and consumed, anthropologist Jinghong Zhang constructs a vivid account of the transformation of a cottage handicraft into a major industry-with predictable risks and unexpected consequences.
Jinghong Zhang is a lecturer at Yunnan University.

"This is an engrossing study of the Puer tea industry and the many cultural spheres that surround it. It will be of keen interest to the Western tea trade as well as its historians, connoisseurs, and enthusiasts. Tea publications rarely, if ever, discuss the complex relationships that quite literally bring tea to the table and never is the anatomy of tea dissected in such a wide ranging, thorough, and engaging way."
-Steven D. Owyoung, cotranslator of Korean Tea Classics
Transliteration, Names, and Measures

1. "The Authentic Tea Mountain Yiwu"
2. Tensions under the Bloom

3. "Yunnan: The Home of Puer Tea" 81
4. Heating Up and Cooling Down 106

5. Puer Tea with Remorse
6. Transformed Qualities

7. Tea Tasting and Counter-Tea Tasting
8. Interactive Authenticities

Conclusion: An Alternative Authenticity

Appendix 1: Puer Tea Categories and Production Process
Appendix 2: Supplementary Videos


"An admirably coherent analysis of the complex social relationships that shaped the Pu'er market. . . . and a fine addition to the literature on the cultural biographies of commodities. . . . Recommended for the teaching of political economy, cultural economy, Chinese social transformation, and regional development studies."
-China Quarterly