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Commercializing Tradition in Yunnan, China

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Commercializing Tradition in Yunnan, China

An interview with Thiago Braga on pu’er tea culture and industry

Commercializing Tradition in Yunnan, China
Credit: Flickr / millsbaker

Increasing domestic and international interest in China’s pu’er tea is leading to burgeoning tourism in the mountains of southeastern China. Traditionally a lower cost tea, pu’er among other teas previously were a staple at all levels in Chinese society. But pu’er is transforming into a high-end, luxury item, and its commercialization is bringing tourists from around the world who desire to experience the teas in new ways, inspired by old traditions. Thiago Braga, a graduate of Peking University in Chinese studies and current doctoral student of anthropology at UC Davis, is researching pu’er tea culture and industry in China’s Yunnan province. Thiago spoke with The Diplomat about these new trends in the Chinese tea industry, and his beliefs that mass commercialization does not imply China is losing sight of its traditional values.

Pu’er tea is perhaps China’s most famous tea worldwide. Is pu’er unique to China?

No other location in the world can produce pu’er tea, given that pu’er as a product itself is a combination of a unique tea species, specific processing techniques, and geographical location. All pu’er tea comes from the Yunnan province in southern China, more specifically a region comprised of 12 mountains, 11 of which are located in the Xishuanbanna (西双版纳) autonomous prefecture.

While pu’er tea production is based in Chinese traditional culture and practice, is the story around pu’er changing?

In the past 20 years, the market for pu’er, and Chinese tea in general, has been expanding both domestically and internationally. Given its unique processing techniques, pu’er appreciates in taste and value over time, comparable to wine in Western markets. It has become a common practice to collect decades-old pu’er cakes and display them in museums, with the most coveted pieces reaching nearly $450,000 (3 million RMB). Celebrities have also attempted to enter the tea market, with Jet Li and Jackie Ma teaming up to release their own brand of pu’er, for example.

Tourism is another new facet of the tea market, especially in the higher levels. Luxury resorts centered on tea-drinking experiences can be found throughout Yunnan, offering exclusive tea tastings, performances of ethnic tea rituals and dances, and tea-based purification spa sessions.

Yunnan’s tourism must be benefiting from this new high-end interest in pu’er. Why is tea becoming a tourist attraction?

There are different reasons. In terms of Chinese tourists, the luxury markets have been able to offer quality service experiences to the higher classes on a cultural platform that is relatable and highbrow, focusing on relaxation and the tasting of exclusive teas.

Internationally, the growing popularity of tea and oriental spiritual practices more generally are the catalyst for pilgrimage-style trips to tea producing centers in China. One example is the Jingmai mountain, home to the Bulan people, found a few hours north of Xishuanbanna. In recent years, the Chinese government has made strong efforts to turn Jingmai into a UNESCO World Heritage site.  

What about outside of tourism? Are there other ways that tea is generating interest in a wider audience?

Travelling and tourism are not the only activities related to tea. The tea markets of Kunming – sprawling open areas with dozens of small shops, with offers ranging from wholesale pu’er to handcrafted teawares – also double as destinations for “tea meetings.” In these meetings enthusiasts, experts, and businesspeople gather for tastings, and discussions regarding tea. In essence, these are places for sociability, with tea having a significant impact on these people’s guanxi, or networks.

China is constantly evolving, moving away from traditionalism in some regards and holding on tight in others. Do you think these changes in the tea industry serve as an example of the ways in which China is pushing away traditionalism, especially in increasing and promoting tourism around different aspects of Chinese culture?

This is a common misconception. As China modernizes and acts under neoliberal logic, it does not leave the notion of tradition behind. In fact, tradition and modernity seem to be intertwined. The language surrounding pu’er used in expert circles makes that clear. Tea coaches and sommeliers in Yunnan transit between different worlds of language and modes of knowledge-production, talking about pu’er both in terms of the nine constitutions of the body found in “Chinese” medicine, as well as the action of enzymes on the fermentation of tea-cakes, the domain of so-called “Western” science. China’s civilizatory process, in this sense, is made quintessentially Chinese, yet capable of being communicated in international terms. The way tea is signified and deployed in daily life also suggests a specific conceptualization of the person as a self-reliable neoliberal entrepreneurial subject, yet patriotic insofar as it identifies with a particularly Chinese conceptualization of “nature.” Ultimately, tea can problematize our understanding of concepts that are otherwise easily broken down, such as modernity and tradition, and nature and culture.