Book Review: Puer Tea

Puer Tea
Zhang, Jinghong
University of Washington Press, 2013

I had heard about and occasionally tasted puer tea (also pu-erh), but I was interested in learning more about it, particularly after having had a very good one while recently in China. There are several books on the market relating to the tea, but I wasn’t interested in it’s health benefits or a coffee table book with pictures of tea leaves taking up 90 % of a page. When I came across this book, it jumped out at me as the one I was looking for. Published as part of the University of Washington’s Studies in Anthropology & Environment series, it seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the role that puer tea plays in the places where it is grown, processed, and consumed. In addition, there is a focus on the interpersonal and community impacts within and around the industry.

Taking the form of a collection of chapters consisting of several individual pieces, each of which could easily have been a journal article, the author discusses her experiences as she encountered the tea and began to take a closer interest in it, then moves on to it’s history, how it’s processed, and how it has impacted the local economy where it is produced, based on her observations of staying in one of the producing towns during several parts of the tea. There are discussions of various factors that impact the quality and production of the tea as well as the development of the modern market for it and how that led to a boom and bust in 2007. Finally, the author moves on to the topic of consumer desires for an authentic product, but that simple desire leads to a much larger discussion on what authenticity actually means for a product that is valued precisely because of it’s constantly changing and developing profile.

Although a bit dry at times, it is a very satisfying read for someone who is interested in going a bit beyond the surface of this facet of the Chinese tea industry.

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