The notion of “translocality” has been used to explain the ongoing mobility and interaction among different places in contemporary China, in which the role of each locality is not weakened and there is “a revitalization of place making and place differentiation,” with construction of place identity crossing various geographical levels and “multiple scales” (Oakes and Schein 2006: 2). (Zhang 2014, 104)
Local politicians, as promoters of the businesses in local communities, are active creators of ‘invented tradition.’ The concept of ‘invented tradition’ comes from historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, who deconstruct a number of historical associations (e.g., the kilt as a marker of Scottish identity) to show how cultural concepts that are widely understood as coming from time immemorial are actually fairly recent inventions. In the United States, the idea of Thanksgiving resulted from the efforts of Sara Josepha Hale, the Martha Stewart of the nineteenth century and Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to establish a tradition that would bring the United States together as a country. It wasn’t until 1939, however, when Thanksgiving became a national holiday on the fourth Thursday of November, to help a country emerging from the Great Depression.
This is what has happened in Yunnan in the early 2000’s. One example in Yunnan discussed by Zhang was the invention of Shangri-La, a fictional place described by British author James Hilton in a 1933 novel titled Lost Horizon (our China historian Dasa Mortensen does her research on Shangri-La). The main one, however, is the renaming of a Yunnan city called Simao to Puer, as part of the municipality’s claim to being the central location for Puer tea.
There are two processes in the invention of tradition that are crucial to its widespread acceptance. First, there is the involvement of intellectual authority in supporting such claims, as evidenced by the academic discourse on historical aspects of the ancient Puer production and trade. Second, there is the holding of a ‘spectacle’ According to French intellectual Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle:
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.
The tea caravan, which re-enacted the ancient trade route of traders from Yunnan to Beijing, was essential to creating the craze for Puer tea. Historically, Puer tea was part of not only the south-north trade of tea, but also what is known as the Southern Silk Road (or the Ancient Tea Horse Road).
With intellectual authority and the demonstration from the spectacle, the craze for Puer tea and its meteoric rise in value due to high demand changed the landscape of these parts of Yunnan province. This process is why Zhang concludes that Puer tea is really a historical construction:
Puer tea is not only a certain kind of tea with a specific production technique, nor is it a biological category, but it is a ‘historical geographical substance.” (Zhang 2014, 92).
So while there are reasons for consumption of Puer tea (taste, digestion, health, hospitality), there are social and cultural drivers behind the rise of Puer tea, as there are for its decline and return to steady equilibrium today. Zhang writes:
The interplay between multiple human actors, their divergence and interaction in authenticating Puer tea, and their concerns with moderating, criticizing, clarifying, and obscuring the facts about the tea predetermined the fate of Puer tea, from its rise to its fall. And in this regard, the downfall of Puer tea cannot simply be understood from an economic perspective— which mainly attributed the recession to speculation, greediness, and failure to obey basic economic rules— but has to be understood in terms of the public debate about cultural values. (Zhang 2014, 110)