Hello again! I’ve been spending quieter mornings with my tea looking at more articles I just feel like translating. This one speaks to the “Gushu,” or “Ancient Tree” label, and how it stands in the market. It also briefly touches on arbor and plantation teas, discussing how the author views the situation as a whole, along with a touch of background. The views of the author written this piece do not necessarily reflect my own – you can find the original text here
This season’s spring tea is appearing less than peaceful; Recently online there has been a popular article being shared around “You aren’t drinking tea, you’re drinking pesticides” Wantonly smearing tea farmers at an unreasonable level. It was discovered quite quickly following all the noise that the article was spreading old stories, and many errors within the article had already been cleaned up and corrected, causing the tea community a moment of false-alarm. Upon a more detailed look, the shake-up also revealed the lack in confidence or “peace of mind” that consumers have regarding shengtai(生態)* tea. This, of course, is one of the primary reasons that gushu tea has become the most favored choice in the pu’er tea market: No pesticides, an outstanding taste that has smoothly transitioned into a wonderful selling point…gushu’s fame has only continued since it ignited into wide-spread popularity some ten plus years ago. It is important to note – most regular things in life have pros and cons, and too going too far is just as bad as not going far enough. Today “gushu” tea has slowly become a “negative equity” in the pu’er market. What a messy word!
If you still have your reservations about these claims, one needs only head to Yunnan’s tea cities, the nation’s “pu’er shop” to take a look. A store that doesn’t have a few “Gushu” cakes is an obvious noob in the game. If you inquire “How old is your gushu tea?” The answer basically depends on what kind of guts the seller has: On the younger side you might be told 100 to 200 years, On the upper end you’ll hear 300 to 500 years, but honestly even 1,000 years isn’t out of the question. How can your average consumer even really know whether or not the tea they purchased -blinded by the mist created by this term- is actually gushu material? What percent of the product is gushu material? Is it single origin, or blended? The supposed gushu tea purchased could potentially be no more than a wrapper at the end of the day. How uncanny! It has become a common situation for many consumers to be “not content to drink anything other than gushu, yet still unsettled while drinking away at their gushu tea.”
Those with a bit of background knowledge on pu’er history know that the majority of pu’er traditionally was collected from propagated tea gardens, also commonly labeled “arbor tea(喬木茶)” or “large tree tea(大樹茶).” Eventually, after new cultivars had been created, and plantation tea became popularized, arbor tea became inconvenient to pick, and didn’t sell as well as it once had and thus spent a period of time out of favor. This was especially the case during the Planned Economy Era. It was a strange situation created by the perfect storm of circumstances. Around the year 2000, the “Old Tea (老茶)” flag had been raised, which helped the resurgence and growth of the pu’er market after the 2007 “Pu’er Bubble.”* Today, The market has also begun to develop gushu ripe pu’er, gushu red tea, and gushu single tree categories…Gushu continues to have an exuberant vitality. Gushu is Pu’er’s tea and Yunnan’s distinctive edge, and has already continued to spread contentment far and wide, deserving to be treated well and put to good use.
The unfortunate thing here is, ideals are held back by reality. To be quite frank, the concept of “gushu” has over-flooded the tea market, turned into a marketing strategy and is no longer reliable. As a target of scientific observation/study, and a cultural legacy, it is faced with an immediate crisis, and already carries a tarnished name. Because of the profit some gushu tea mountains have, they have been contracted out, have been “adopted”, and in some cases have been overpicked and forced into overproduction. This treasured resource is being damaged and disrupted. An unfortunate byproduct that the popularity and praise gushu brings is an increased trend of faking and embellishment. The “gushu” label becomes arbitrarily slapped on cakes. In the business this practice has already become a usual practice. It is seen as normal,and isn’t found shameful. These practices have become a wound on the trustworthiness of pu’er production. “gushu” labels have become the chief culprit for making the waters deep and murky.
When speaking about gushu becoming a negative equity – there is another affect of the praise it gets by the outside world. Gushu’s praise and popularity causes a mistaken perception that “plantation tea basically translates to unsafe tea, poor taste, and poor quality.” If you think about it, Yunnan has 6 million plus tea farms. How many of those have gushu? In my trips to Yunnan, I have seen with my own eyes the spring harvests of plantation tea one Jin (斤, or 0.5k) sold at even 10-15RMB (2-3USD) and still nobody will take it. It’s truly a devastating scene. Farmers sweat and labor over growing tea, and at the end of the day can only watch their hard work go to waste after harvest as they are unable to even make back farming costs. Some people may think “It serves them right, this is how plantation tea should be treated.” According to this logic, The well known established factories of China and their vast tea farms should also die out.
Regarding the nutritional value or health aspects of gushu tea and whether they are better than plantation tea, it seems like within the business people are unable or unwilling to speak clearly to this. What about taste? In reality, it seems that tea’s fragrance and flavors come from varietal, production area, and processing. If we look at the entire market, processing is the true “core competition.” The current praise of pu’er’s natural shengtai is overdone; as if Bingdao and Lao Banzhang all have great taste, Large tree must be better than small trees…if that’s the case, what do we even need the craft of processing for? No need for concentrated research, drive for constant improvement of production method – One flavor declared by mountain name and tree age – This deviates toward a profound poisoning of the world of tea.
So what is the answer here? If the direction of “gushu” consumption really is the market’s choice, are the government and business circles powerless? Not necessarily. Working as an individual shop, turning the other cheek and pursuing profit may be the answer. That said, responsible enterprises, experts, trustworthy businesses, and customers influence the direction, departments responsible, and correct the errors currently in “Gushu” tea. Driven by honest and resolution, to work sincerely to guide consumers: “Gushu” isn’t the myth you may know. If departments responsible really want to fix the rampant misunderstanding of gushu and overcome the daunting difficulties surrounding this issue. It may take the courage of the entire Yunnan tourist market, to keep vendors selling fakes scared and on edge. Those who don’t believe in the revolution shall be buried in the past. At the end of the day, a tea should speak for itself. The concept of “gushu” can be pulled back slightly, let shengtai tea gardens conquer consumers’ taste buds. This is the correct path in these circles. Gushu tea is an inheritance given to this generation of tea drinkers by our ancestors. With great power comes with great responsibility. In order to protect and continue to responsibly take advantage of gushu tea, we must dispel the blind worship surrounding it. The industry must be consciously rational and mustn’t impatiently promote the corruption of inexperienced consumers.
Shengtai (生態): lit. Ecological; Sustainable practice of tea growing (often used as a label on cakes).
Around the year 2,000, interest in old tea started taking off, increasing in value beyond what the market had seen previously, which is claimed by the author helped stabilize the market following the 2007 pu’er market bubble.
While I certainly can’t be bothered to translate more right now, for an article discussing modern “plantation” tea, I will add another piece here from the same forum. It discusses the modern practices of large-scale plantations in Yunnan, and how they have adjusted to meet consumer demands in more recent years, and whether or not the negative views of plantation tea of old must remain accurate. I’m not trying to advocate for Arbor tea or Plantation tea being better or worse, I drink both quite happily. It does seem that there are quite a few negative opinions surrounding plantation teas, so because the above article discusses both, I figured this piece might tie in well.