Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Thoughts on China and tea

Shanghai skyline by night
There are many things that can I could criticize about China, and my first criticism would be that it's not possible to write and publish a blog post like this one as long as you are behind the "big firewall"! But let me start with some positive words about what I saw. The development of the cities (Shanghai, Suzhou) I visited is more than impressive. In the matter of a generation, 30 years, the country has gone from third world to first world. The ride across Shanghai took an hour and there were only recent, big buildings along the way! It's one thing to read about the economic rise of China, it's another to actually see how modern and affluent the country and many of its people have become.
Old town of Luzhi, near Suzhou
A lot has been destroyed and rebuilt anew. However, I was pleasantly surprised that some ancient parts of town have been well preserved and restored. This was the case in the old streets of Luzhi and in the Humble Administrator Garden of Suzhou. Beautiful places!
Old street/canal in Luzhi
I haven't spent a lot of time in China (3 short stays in 3 different provinces in the last 3 years), so I give you these impressions without pretending to be an expert on China's rapid development.
Humble Admninistrator Garden
That's why I would like to also give you the perspective of my Taiwanese brother in law who has spent the last 15 years as an engineer in the booming construction industry. His major criticism is the lack of quality in all this development. Fake products abound: cheap USB sticks that only work for a couple of days (!), fake luggage, sold in an official shop (!), that rips after 2 months (it's when he wanted to use the warranty that Samsonite realized that the bag he bought in their shop was a fake), recent buildings that collapse a few weeks after inspectors declared them safe... Appearances are everything. Quality is always low compared to our standards. The house we stayed in is 15 years old only, but requires a lot of maintenance every year, because it's original quality is so poor. That's one reason why buyers systematically prefer to build a new house rather than renovating the old.
Humble Admninistrator Garden
This low quality in all their products makes sense for a country where the majority of people still have low incomes. The problem is that this low quality has become a way of doing business there. Even high prices don't mean better quality, only better packaging. It must look expensive is more important than quality and value.

2003 wild Yiwu puerh
All my Taiwanese tea friends strongly dislike going to China, but often their jobs don't give a choice. The teas they are bringing back and share are getting more and more expensive and their packaging is now much nicer that what we're used to in Taiwan. However, the teas are usually very disappointing.

In our most recent class, Teaparker let us taste a young raw puerh he received from a rich Chinese connection from a luxurious tea room filled with (real) antiques and overseeing a beautiful lake. The cake looked nice with lots of rather big tips and a strong flowery scent. Did I mention it's supposedly made from leaves from a single tree?
When we brewed this puerh, nobody in the class liked it. The taste wasn't smooth or pure at all. I felt a shrinking of my throat, the natural reaction of the body when it rejects something. The smell was still very strong and reminded me of scented jasmine tea. After everybody expressed his tasting opinion, Teaparker confirmed that this puerh was indeed a highly priced and deceptive puerh: the buds were not old arbor and the leaves had been artificially scented! It's a good example of how price and quality don't necessarily increase in parallel in China. 
Back at home, I'm brewing one of my favorite puerh: the wild raw spring 2003 Yiwu cake. Its taste is sweet, smooth and pure. The dry scents are faint, but they become alive in the brew. The aftertaste is very long and harmonious. It's naturally simple and delicious. It's getting more expensive with time, but here we have a rise that is justified by its improvement in taste. That's a solid foundation for real growth. Tea teaches you to disregard packaging, stories and price. What counts is the intrinsic quality of the taste and scents.
Always be cautious in China and when drinking tea!

4 comments:

Amy Harris said...

Thank you, Stéphane, for your very courageous and honest report on China and their teas. Although we are miles away, you have confirmed everything we believe to be true.

TeaMasters said...

Thanks for your comment. This subject is a little bit like a mine field and open to misinterpretation. So, let me also point out that there are excellent teas in China. Some of the best Oolongs I drink come from Wuyi and Lapsang Souchong from Tongmu village is excellent. But it's very hard to get the real stuff, which is produced in very limited quantity, especially now that China has become so affluent and prices for local products have risen so quickly.

keni said...

Whilst your thoughts are reasonably sound, I believe it's nothing new; as it evidently confirmed Amy Harris's prejudice. When I say not new, I mean all the way back in China's long history. What I believe many people, especially non-Chinese, don't appreciate is the how big, populous and complex China is. I believe bad Chinese teas have co-existed with exquisite Chinese teas for centuries, and the trick has always been knowing the right people, at the right time, to get the best tea, forming this strong relationship of trust, and keep it to themselves. I have bought superb oolongs from a very old Straight's Chinese tea merchant in Malaysia with no fantastic packaging or fancy shop fronts and no online presence. They tasted so divine that I had to ration my use back home in the UK. The joy of Chinese culture is the element of hard work you put in to find the pearl. Chinese people do not have "small islanders' syndrome, and they do not generally publicise themselves well when they know they are excellent. This may be a reflection of the literati mentality originating from China. In our over-exposed, over-PR, over-marketting, super-capitalist, digital life these days, I find this as refreshing as my Huang Jing Gui from China.

TeaMasters said...

Thanks for your comment, Keni

I pretty much agree with everything you've written. The best Chinese teas come in very simple packages is also my experience. Quality speaks for itself.