The information age

I used to write a lot of “tea reviews”, if you can call it that.  For maybe two years, this blog was mostly one review or another.  Sometimes it’s an oolong, others a puerh, but generally, this blog was a daily report of what I was drinking that day.

In the past year or two, that has changed.  I no longer talk about specific teas so much.  I find it meaningless, at least for myself, because most of the time, the teas I drink are not interesting enough for me to talk about them.  Other problems and issues, such as techniques, names, varietals, or teaware seem much more interesting.  That, I think, has been largely what I have discussed for the past year or two.

These days, since I’ve been teaching a course on tea history and been translating some of the older texts on tea that are still unavailable in English, I’ve been thinking more about problems of history and how tea, as we know it, evolved over time.  Reading some things from the Ming (1368-1644) today, it is remarkable to see that some of the places, such as Longjing, were already named as great tea producing areas.  However, the Longjing that the author talked about is distinctly small scale — only a handful of tea was produced every year, and mostly the wealthy and influential get to drink it.

In many ways, that’s not unlike how tea still is today in China.  The good stuff — the really good stuff, go to the top.  Ordinary people, even if you have the money, often can’t buy such things, for they are of such limited quantity that they simply do not provide for the whole market.  This is why, again and again, I say that places like Lao Banzhang do not produce teas to satisfy the general market, and that almost all Lao Banzhang old tree teas out there are fake.  They just don’t make enough every year, and there is always an eager line of customers waiting for such things.

The same can be said of the best of the best Longjing, or Tieguanyin, or any number of widely sought after teas.  This leads to the second thing that struck me — that fake teas already existed way back when.  Of course, this is only natural, for there is money to be made in such a business, and lots of it too, if you’re any good.  Fake tea and teaware are the bane of our existence today, but they have always been part of the problem for the tea fanatic.  There is simply no way around it.

What is new, I think, is the speedy spread of information in our digital age, and to go along with that, the ease with which to spread misinformation about certain teas or teaware, or to hype up products that simply do not match their description.  A friend remarked to me recently that in the online tea world, what passes as fact is usually snippets of information that most people seem to agree upon, even though “most people” includes many who are simply echoing what they have heard elsewhere.  This is not an indictment of the general population of tea drinkers who post online.  After all, when most of the sources available online about teas come from vendors, there is simply no way for the consumer to know what is marketing and what is good information.

There is good information out there.  I had my students do a project where they had to use only online sources to find information on the six classifications of tea.  The quality of their work was higher than I expected, and they mostly relied on vendor sites for the exact reason I stated — there just isn’t anything else out there, at least not in English.  In Chinese or Japanese, you can often find hobby sites that are devoted to good information on topics such as tea or teaware.  Even there you usually find plenty of disagreements, and are quickly overrun with vendors of various types who try to push their wares.  Ultimately, tea is still a commodity, and whenever you talk about it, you will attract those who want to sell it.

What troubles me is when somebody says “XXX is a trusted vendor”.  Trusted for what?  Few vendors “know it all”.  Some are more knowledgeable in certain areas, others only repeat what their supplier tell them.  Most, at least among the online vendors, have had probably less than 10 years of experience in the tea world, sometimes much less.  Their information is probably coming from whoever is supplying them with tea or wares.  Many don’t know Chinese or Japanese, or at best, know bits and pieces, not really enough to carry on a meaningful conversation about the nuances of various kinds of tea they are dealing with.  I get a lot of questions along the lines of “where should I buy my zhuni pot?”  I have met yixing collectors who have been at it for four decades, and still tells me they occasionally buy fakes because they are hard to tell.  If someone with that much experience can’t tell, then I must say I don’t really trust any sources online for such a thing, at least not among those who deal with such things in English that I’ve seen.

Of course, I am lucky in that I am native in Chinese and have access to people and places that allow me to bypass the online channels.  The other thing I often hear is “well, unlike you, I can’t find those on my own”.  I completely agree, and even in my case, many things are hard to find on my own, because I am not in Asia and don’t have the time to go very often.  I too buy from online sources, but I generally am very cautious, some might say too cautious, in my approach.  I don’t buy anything expensive, I don’t touch anything claiming to be old, and I don’t buy in bulk before trying the tea.  Even if it is tea from a person whom I’ve dealt with before and know I can trust, the tea can still be no good for reasons having nothing to do with the vendor.  It could simply be that I am not interested in that particular type of tea.  It could be the season, or the region, or a number of other things.  Buying things sight unseen in the tea world is really asking for trouble.

The Longjing story comes back as a good illustration of this problem — if the top grade Longjing is all locked up by the wealthy and powerful locals, why would anybody bother to sell it at a lesser price to foreigners?  The same can be said of a lot of things, be it tea or teaware.  I sometimes see pots on sale that do not look credibly old for the claim that is made, or for prices that are far too cheap, as a certain eBay vendor is well known to do.  Why would anybody do that?  There’s only one good explanation, and that is that the items in question are fakes.

I suppose what I want to say here is that a certain amount of skepticism is good, even if it is throwing cold water on a nice hobby.  I love tea as much as anyone, but I don’t think we have enough of skepticism around in this world of tea vendors.


Comments

The information age — 9 Comments

  1. I was actually contemplating this issue today, but definitely not in the depth that you go to…
    In many ways this relates to the previous post you did about the confusion in Dan Cong, in that there isn’t enough information out there, and most of the information we hear is usually second-hand (at best). To find the “truth” (whatever that may be), one often needs to go back to the original source, which is usually in Chinese, so going back to the original source is something that most Western tea drinkers can do. That’s why I think it’s important to have more primary source translations of Chinese tea texts…as you’ve mentioned before, the best we have is Lu Yu’s texts, which are pretty much irrelevant to modern tea drinking habits.

    The other problem, which you brielf mention, is the issue of access, and even though the internet has been good in allowing Western tea drinkers to enjoy tea, it’s a double-edged sword, because of all the misinformation out there. So even though more and more people can be able to buy/enjoy tea, they’ll still be at a disadvantage compared to someone who speaks Mandarin, knows someone who speaks Mandarin, or has guan xi of some sort. I too count myself to be pretty lucky to come from an Asian background, but I could be luckier and come from a background of say…a family with an incredible stash of hong yin and antique yixing pieces!

    Finally, I agree that there needs to be more skepticism about tea vendors, and the way I hear some vendors being praised scares me a bit, because a lot of times these people are the same people who are blind to whatever faults that said vendor might have.

    PS: I’m writing this at a fairly late hour…and I do hope this all makes sense

  2. Well, I’m not Asian but I’ve gotten quickly to where I don’t care much if stuff is fake. Mostly I’m concerned about the kind of tea I’m drinking and its price. I’ve seen real young, wild Puerh selling for less than a fake ripe Puerh claiming to be wild but not likely true at all. That’s where I’d draw the line and say I could trust a certain merchant–they have knowledge about Puerh tea. Because knowing Puerh is relatively rare in the online world in America. But even then, I want the experience of drinking the tea to please me. If it’s a fake that makes me happy, then it’s no problem, in my opinion. –Teaternity

  3. Interesting article. For a few years I worked in a historic archive, largely helping with family historians but also assisting academics who needed access to original materials. There was a wide gulf between those two groups – the academics demanded access to the original documents so they could verify anything they’d heard to check its accuracy whilst the family historians – which we tended to call hobbyist historians – would rely on any old typescript or internet site if it suited their purpose and made their life easier.

    Tea is much the same. For most of us, there is no local knowledge or easily accessible resource other than what’s available in a few published books and on a few select websites. Since January I’ve tried to build up a knowledge of tea but without having people to talk to about this I relied solely on one book and a few vendor websites. Over the course of the year I’ve naturally built relationships with individuals whom have expanded my understanding of the product and that’s been much more helpful. The problem is – how would I know that any of them are correct? The only way for me to verify anything that is said anywhere would be for me to visit the shops and plantations where tea originates from but that’s not practical (sadly). To a great extent I have to rely on websites like yours – because you actively question other material, you have a sense of authority. But how do I know you are who you say you are? If you offer translations of original Chinese texts, how do I know they’re faithful and accurate?

    I don’t think there’s any easy solution to this other than to use the collective intelligence of the tea community. If I thought a puerh looked questionable I would immediately go to Jason Witt and ask him. I’d be relying on his knowledge and advice – which might be erroneous – but he’s the best authority on puerhs that I’m aware of. I find Jane Pettigrew’s books immensely helpful and trust them because of her position and history – but am I always right to do so?

  4. @Maitre_Tea – 

    I think you make a lot of sense, and I think we generally agree on the state of things 🙂

    @jasonwitt – 

    The fact that anybody claims any cooked puerh is wild is itself a crazy thought.

    @ben – 

    I think I generally agree, Ben, except that when you say “collective intelligence” it can easily descend into “the myth that gets repeated the most becomes truth”. I think we can all name a handful of these things off the top of our heads. I am wary of using “collective intelligence” too much — as it is pretty much the only thing that the majority of online tea people have to rely on.

    Of course you wouldn’t know if what I’m saying is true or not, or if I’m just making all this stuff up in an elaborate attempt to pass myself off as someone who knows a few things about tea. Then again, if I were doing that, I’m probably likely to be 1) using my real name, because there’s no point in pretending to know something when you’re using a pseudonym, and 2) using that to profit, because, well, why would I waste all this time to do what I do and then get nothing out of it, if I were not interested in the subject matter in the first place?

  5. @MarshalN – 

    I absolutely agree (and please don’t think that my comments were any kind of attack on you!). The weight of someone’s authority largely comes down to how reputable you think they are – because you’re writing with a first-hand knowledge and actively mention more obscure and unusual points of reference, I find your site much more authoritative than one just filled with opinion or with a product to sell.

    I’ve been co-running a blog partly about tea with a friend over the past ten months and we’ve been approached a few times by companies who want to pay us to promote them. Normally they ask just for advertising space but sometimes they ask us for a good review. We politely decline every time. We don’t really know what we’re talking about (and we say that quite explicitly) and we don’t want our ill-informed opinions to be considered of any gravitas by being extensively used by a tea company.

    There are half a dozen sites which I occasionally visit where this is obviously the case – affiliate links everywhere, glowing reviews for certain companies, lots of referring back to the site by the company. Those sites tend to be the places where I notice any lapses; because they are so popular both amongst readers and companies, they don’t get questioned. That’s the worry for me – the circle where bloggers with little knowledge become popular because companies link to them and their misinformation leaks over into the collective intelligence.

  6. collective intelligence makes sense in fields where every participant has real skills -such as open source ware for instance (linux was and is being being built by people who know something ; you don’t write a plug in for wordpress unless you are on the first hand side of things).

    otherwise “collective intelligence” is but wishful thinking. “collective” with ignorance of agendas (personal or business), no way.

    nice post MarshallN ! a touch of “epistemology” can only do good 🙂

  7. Wow. Great posting.

    What you are really discussing is what people believe vs what is real.
    The two are by the nature of belief combined, yet are not.
    We can not really compare what we have today with what existed in the past.
    It is the nature of time to make things change.

    Take for instance corn. People eat SweetCorn on the cob, and think, oh this is what the pilgrims ate. But it’s not. What we have is completely different. At this point, some people will say, oh right, what they had was the indian corn that they have a halloween. But that too is false. What they had was a lot smaller, and had a much higher protein content. When you look at a modern kernel of corn, there’s that one small lighter yellow triangle shaped bit where it connects to the cob. It’s tiny, but that is where most of the nutrition is. The rest is pretty much sugar/starch. The “corn” that the pilgrims/indians ate, that bit took up most of the kernel instead of the “high fructose” bit we now have.

    Even in your own translations, and your experiments with the class in following the old instructions, we see that what they had and what there is today is very different. What would those writers say about what was best for making tea if they could compare what they had with the teas and wares available today?

    There is a bit of romanticism with the past. Why are antiques, and old things better? Sometimes that’s because they were created with higher integrity than modern bulkware. But often they are not, and it is simply the notion of the grass was greener in another time.

    With your example of “best” teas. Are they really the best? Take the original big red robe bush, or that one bush at the japanese monastery. What is the probablility that the prince somehow fell across the one bush in all of china that produced the best oolong tea ever? Or that the best green tea bush in the world somehow came to be at the monastery? Or that the processing that is used today is just like it was when they became famous?

    Or people writing that mountain stream water is best for tea, when in their time there was no filtration/purification. Snow melt, or high mountain rain probably would taste better than pond, or muddy river.

    So what does that mean? Someone at some time said that it was the best, people believed it, and it became accepted as truth. That truth becomes elevated beyond the ability to be proven and so becomes legend.

    Say you buy a zhuni teapot from the right period. Will you assume that you are now on a level playing field with those that wrote about the legendary teapot? or will you think, at any given time and place there will be items made with higher and lower integrity, and maybe modern teapots are not necessarily any worse than those made in another time?

    Who do you trust? To say that modern vendors are not necessarily unbiased or deeply educated in their wares is completely realistic. Is it still realistic then to say that the ancient vendors and patrons then by virtue of their legend must have been more educated and unbiased?

  8. Fair point. It is a very natural conception for the consumer to see something as historically, or by expert advice, as the “better tea”. There are a few people out there who use that to push tea – by writing the work and the textbook on how to read it – through schemes of one sort or another, odd what people get away with, often surprising in retrospect. But surely every market is in its own way prone to these things?

    -vl.

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