Puer tea’s burgeoning popularity relied heavily on the role of connoisseurship. The connoisseurs created a series of standards for authenticating Yiwu’s raw tea, which were further developed by traders, tourists, writers, media reporters, and locals, who together packaged an “authentic” image of Yiwu. (Zhang 2014, 36)
Nationalities in China
Han – about 90% of people in China are of the Han ethnicity; the remaining people, like most of the people in Yunnan, are ethnic minority groups (shaoshu minzu). There are 55 different nationally-recognized minority groups, which include Tibetans, Mongolians, Koreans, Hui, and many other smaller groups. Southwestern China, a mountainous area that borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, is home to many different minority groups.
The history of modern China is reflected in the history of aged Puer tea production. As Zhang describes, Yiwu was known for its aged Puer tea production during the Qing dynasty (the “last dynasty,” 1644-1912) and was distributed north to Beijing, west to Tibet, and east to the Chinese coast by Han caravans that brought the tea out. With World War II, followed by the Maoist period, there was little production of Puer tea (although tea production in general in the area was still strong), until the return of Chinese outside of the mainland (in this case, Taiwanese) who sought to revitalize aged Puer tea production.
This process of revitalization, re-invention of tradition, is common to many traditional practices and industries in China, where external experts (combined with local governments, local entrepreneurs) reinvented traditional Chinese practices such as the production of Puer tea. In the case of Puer tea, this process involved both a harkening back to the past as well as a grounded, local association with minority groups who live in the region.
“The authentic image of Yiwu and its Puer tea is constructed by reference to “the other,” not just by reference to the past. That is, its identity is constructed not only by looking at Yiwu itself, but by juxtaposing, competing with, and representing the other” (Zhang 2014, 43).
This is where the development of ‘artificially femented Puer tea’ as an industrial process, used by a nearby industrialized national factory can be contrasted with the ‘natural fermentation’ process of Puer tea in Yiwu, a difference that was recognized by both Taiwanese connoisseurs and local Yiwu producers. This distinction can also be understood as comparing craft objects with mass-produced ones, where craft objects (like Yiwu Puer tea) are embedded with more symbolic meaning. This symbolic meaning, however, is not ‘produced’ solely by the people making the object, but also by the people consuming it.
As a result, the value (and ultimately, the meaning) of Puer tea is grounded in the locality of Yiwu, an employment of nostalgia for a different place and time that in the end didn’t really exist except in the imaginaries of both producers and consumers.
“On the one hand, in the age of mechanical reproduction, the concept of authenticity is closely tied to “originality,” as products regarded as authentic must contain an original “aura” (Benjamin  1999: 72– 79) … On the other hand, Puer tea goes beyond singularity, uniqueness, and irreplaceability. When copies of products proliferated as a result of mechanical reproduction— such as print, photography, and film—in the nineteenth century, people began to worry about originality (Zhang 2014, 53-54).
Zhang paraphrases this Chinese idiom as “Since he is in jianghu, he could do nothing but follow the law of jianghu.” A more common understanding of this idiom would be “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”
What Zhang is hinting at with her translation of the idiom is the drive for producing and consuming authentic Yiwu Puer tea creates anxieties in the search for authenticity caused by the increasing value and demand for naturally-fermented tea from Yiwu. She shows how the difficulties in distinguishing forest tea leaves from terrace tea leaves; while it makes a difference in terms of taste, while making commodity purchases, how does one know whether the higher-priced forest tea leaves are really forest tea leaves? This concern about authenticity, Zhang notes, is not necessarily an inevitable result of modernity, since it is a result of increased commercialization that has been traced back over centuries. Tea producers (and purchasers, consumers) display an individualism in China that is linked to jianghu actors – heroes who find their own solutions with their own special skills, people in China (like people everywhere) have long been tempted by the wealth that could be gained by cutting corners (e.g., mixing different grades of tea together (Zhang 2014, 75-77).