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. (Zhang 2014, 198)
The global and the local, nostalgia and authenticity, and the creation of value and meaning by people who produce, exchange, and consume Puer tea shows how the ‘biography of a commodity’ helps us understand contemporary China. So at one level, the story of Puer tea is an account of the revival, meteoric rise and fall, and stabilization of an industry, where there are winners and losers in the market that Zhang describes as jianghu. But at another level, the story of Puer tea is a narrative of the global marketplace and neoliberalism, and how people find their place in the system.
Tea tasting parties, like many other social events for foodies, have an internal language and dynamics of their own. To contrast with what we read in this section of the book, coffee cupping has become an event for coffee lovers (as the BBQ festival in Lexington is for meat lovers). Like the Mecum Auto Show or Dragon*Con, intricate details (seen by outsiders as irrelevant) become topics of debate by insiders.
All commodities have some kind of internal grading that helps its market operate smoothly over time and space, but these definitions are strongly debated by people at different levels of expertise. Again, coffee has similar debates to the discussions over storage, humidity, and fermentation that we read in Zhang. Zhang’s main point is that judgments about taste result from “the mixed standards of internal preferences and external symbolic values” (Zhang 2014, 162). In other words, while people can recognize what pleases them (whether in taste, visual, or aural), they are also influenced by wider sources of information around them. From her observations of people’s differential taste judgments of Puer tea, she further concudes that these distinct ways of consuming food is a type of self-representation.
The value of a certain commodity, its path of circulation, the knowledge it contains, and the desire and demand for it are all determined by social definitions and redefinitions, and hence the authenticity of things cannot be static but shifts contextually. The tension around Puer tea, too, may be seen as the contest between multiple self-presentations across time and space (Zhang 2014, 180)
For Puer tea, the different locales along its path of circulation contrasts Yunnan with Hong Kong, Taiwan and other areas of the Chinese diaspora. This is why to understand local Yunnan Puer tea, Zhang wants us to understand yum cha in Hong Kong.
Yum cha, also called dim sum, literally means drink tea. As a visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for many years, I have fond memories of yum cha. While largely an eating experience, Puer tea is also an important component of this brunch-type meal. As Zhang points out, one person in Yunnan finally began to understand the desire for a certain taste of Puer tea after experiencing yum cha meals in Hong Kong – where what initially was seen as greasy and tasteless Cantonese cuisine became flavorful, and where the role of Puer tea as part of this meal made sense.
[N]eolocalization, in which the global and the local elements are mixed and become hard to differentiate, and one’s self-presentation is never self-determined, but actually involves the borrowed, adapted, and reauthenticated elements from others … situated in the transformation of China, when old concepts meet new desires, and located in a jianghu contest, Puer tea acquires multiple versions of authenticity (Zhang 2014, 180)
Nostalgia has become “a hot commodity” and “cultural discourse” in metropolitan China since the mid-1990s (Hsing You-Tien 2006: 478). In this context, the transformed teahouses and transformed tea became a pair, catering to the demands of the new generation of consumers for something both old and new. (Zhang 2014, 195)
The teahouses that now line the renovated streets of Kunming are not the same places as the historical teahouses that were a feature of many Chinese cities in the early 20th century. One way to understand this transformation is to understand Starbucks. About 30 years ago, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz fell in love with Italian cafes, and wanted to bring these experiences (and the coffee itself) to the United States. It’s a bit ironic, then, after 30 years, Starbucks is returning to Italy. It’s clear that Starbucks is not an Italian cafe, but an American interpretation of an Italian cafe, designed for a clientele with a different cultural background. But this is precisely the kind of process that globalization has engendered – where nostalgia and authenticity have become important drivers of social processes.