In the jianghu world of Puer tea, there are no fixed rules, and all standards are open to the influence of history. Determinants of Puer tea’s value have shifted in Yiwu over the past half century (Zhang 2014, 141).
China’s tremendous economic growth over the past 30 years, in both cities and the countryside, has had tremendous impact on Chinese society. This economic growth, starting in the 1980s, is the fastest economic growth that world has seen. While changing skylines attest to this truism, Zhang’s description of the changed situation for one tea farmer’s family illustrates how this has impacted individual Chinese families:
From the 1950s to the 1970s, his family had lived in a thatched shed; in 1987 he built a tile-roofed house; in 1992 he built a simple brick house for ¥50,000 ($7,257, using 2007 conversion rate), which was later used as a guesthouse; and in 2005 he built a new brick house for ¥180,000 ($26,125), which he sold later in order to build the present one in a new location. In the center of the courtyard was a car, which was said to have cost ¥130,000 ($18,868) (Zhang 2014, 124). (in 2007, 7.60 RMB=1USD; today, 6.89 RMB = 1USD)
The contemporary Puer tea business can only be understood by situating it in its wider historical context. From the mid-18th century to early 20th century, private tea companies prospered. With war in the late 1930s, the tea business suffered; but with peace and the establishment of the PRC, the tea business was nationalized. Revival of the private tea business in the late 1990s with gaige kaifang (‘reform and opening’ intiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, which started in agriculture and gradually spread to the entire country).
The nationalization of the tea industry had 3 main impacts on the tea industry in Yiwu:
- In the 1950s-1970s, focus was on food production (as directed by the center, Beijing); tea industry neglected.
- Technological development of the tea industry, with development of terrace tea (vs. forest tea).
- Loss of traditional pressed Puer tea, especially traditional techniques, led to dilution of category of Puer tea.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the tea industry modernized by incorporating new techniques. But the greater adoption of ‘scientific techniques’ by Han tea farmers in Yiwu, in contrast to the continued reliance on forest tea by other ethnic groups, became a competitive advantage with the growth of the Puer tea industry in the late 2000’s due to outsiders (Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Koreans, etc.).
[L]ocal people redefined the authenticity of Puer tea flexibly and pragmatically. Rather than directly resisting the government’s rules, they deployed strategies focused on exploring the margins of regulation and finding spaces where local voices could be legitimized once again (Zhang 2014, 158).
This is why some people sought to obtain the QS mark (after passing inspections that required extensive local investment) while others did not. Outside demand (Taiwan, Korea, etc.) shaped how different people chose different strategies. For some, attaining the QS mark opened up markets for them; for others, staying outside the QS market (like the person who adhered to the ‘higher’ standards pushed by the Korean buyer), made more sense.