The Quality of Tea Both Shapes and Reflects Social Standing

In this season of gift-giving, gift-giving itself can be filled with landmines. Will they like it? Will it demonstrate that I know what they like?

Will it demonstrate that I have good taste?

Because a gift can say as much or more about the giver than the recipient.

Indeed, most, if not all, of what we possess or ingest says plenty about our culture, priorities, wealth, status. We want to have the “right” stuff. Even in the tea world.

Arthur Tam states that “the value of aged Pu’er is often more about the status it gives the owner,” quoting MingCha’s founder: ‘“People believe the value of tea appreciates. . . . So it’s a bit of investment, much like real estate and art.”

tea, by tissot_sm

Thus, some of this highly valued Pu’er may never even make it into a teapot.

clay pot and lvs_sm

But what makes a tea that valuable?

Is the worth intrinsically held within actual leaves?

Or is it simply the perception of value, the acknowledgment of others that this tea is valuable, an agreed-upon status conferred upon one product and not another?

We all understand this idea immediately because few would argue that a teabag holds the same value in our eyes as loose leaf tea.


But how did that come about?

As you might expect, it’s a complex interconnected web of factors, including those that fall into the “science” realm vs those considered “art,” actual measurable quality vs that simply perceived. Tradition, culture, marketing, what’s held by society as being in “good taste.”

Researcher Kunbing Xiao of the Southwestern Research Institute of Ethnic Groups, Chengdu, China, studies such strands, especially as the Chinese government has spent the past two decades trying to establish a national quality standard for commercial tea—something that seems to be rather elusive.

Kunbing Xiao focused on Wuyi rock tea, an oolong produced in the eastern region of Mount Wuyi (black tea is produced in the western part), enumerating the many components that go into tea production, including environment, cultivar (there are some 280 kinds of plants just in the Huiyuan gully rock tea factory alone!), weather, and so on. Every single thing helps determine the final quality, down to the the “exact time and weather on the picking day, and whether the tea leaves are moistened by dew or raindrop” (2017:6).

When tea masters begin processing the harvested leaves, they must take all these factors into account, which is where art, mindfulness, skill, and knowledge play their role because the tea we ultimately drink is a fusion of “science” and “art.” Kunbing Xiao points to the tea master’s

timed bodily posture, hand position and movement, touching, highlighting an aroma appropriate to each stage of the process while marginalizing others, and thus securing a final fragrance considered suited to particular tea leaves,

going on to say that:

the technique of rock tea processing is therefore regarded as a distinctive kind of personal knowledge and as a skill stored in a tea worker’s own body that cannot be extracted by external forces. (2017:6)

The tea that results is then subjected to evaluation.

In the Wuyi region, there are many microclimates, each conferring unique characteristics to the tea, so the terroir, or shanchang, is one of the terms used in describing a tea and its quality.

Partnered with shanchang is yanyun, the taste of the tea, or “the lasting taste of the rock,” because Wuyi has been historically described as “having its own taste,” so that “personal perception is shaped by cultural history” (Kunbing Xiao 2017:7).

Although tasting tea involves all our senses, with evaluators examining the color of the leaves and brew, aroma, taste, and the shape and feel of the leaves after brewing, it’s also colored by cultural history—early manuscripts praising the tea’s characteristics, long-established vocabulary, legends handed down for generations, expectations (including those who want to see the tea make a profit or attain a certain status).

As Kunbing Xiao (2017:11) puts it, “quality brands are thus culturally and commercially constructed in order to satisfy the market requirements of the upper class.”

We also see how tea is perceived differently when it is associated with the arts (the “cultured”) vs when it’s referred to as a day-to-day beverage (the “commoners”).

It is venerated tea when set among . . . “chess, calligraphy, painting, poetry, wine” . . . but it is an everyday drink when set among . . . “rice, oil, salt, soy, vinegar.” (Kunbing Xiao 2017:11)

Even if the elite and the commoner are drinking the same tea, the perception differs, shored up by custom and ritual. Ceremonies and mindful sipping and fine tea ware contrast with cruder drinking vessels and speedy consumption. And we assume that the latter means a poorer grade of tea, even if that’s not the case.

But just as likely, the latter does indeed mean an inexpensive tea because few people would quickly down a costly tea without giving it proper attention. And those who can’t afford exquisite tea ware probably can’t afford exquisite tea.

Or are we assuming that someone who drinks from a low-quality cup wouldn’t be able to distinguish a fine tea?! That they are boors uneducated in the niceties of tea drinking, or haven’t been exposed to the same range of teas as a “cultured” person.

Conversely, if the tea itself is held to be valuable—to possess the finest of qualities, to have been grown in the best area and produced by the best in the industry, to be unique or rare, to be esteemed by those who know what they’re talking about—do we simply assume that what we taste matches what we expect?

Or is the tea truly that exquisite, making it rare and costly, making it accessible only to those with means? And if they can afford that tea and they recognize its excellence, they also rise in social standing.

The quality of the tea that we drink has the power to both shape and reflect our position and role in society.

teapot, tea_sm

–”Is old tea really like cryptocurrency – and what types of tea are the most sought after?” Arthur Tam, Style, 12/10/19.
–”The taste of tea: material embodied knowledge and environmental history in northern Fujian, China,” Kunbing Xiao, Journal of Material Culture 22(1):3–18. 2017.

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