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Puer Tea Introduction 1979 - Zhuang Wanfang Selection



The following is translated from Zhuang Wanfang's 1979 "Famous Teas of China."

We have uploaded the original text here. The Puer section can be found on pages 23-30.  We have omitted a few paragraphs related to potentially untrue health claims. This text, prepared by Zhuang Wanfang and other founding fathers of modern tea science in China was meant to be a definitive primer on China's major teas for experts and the public alike. What is most striking is how much basic perceptions about Puer tea have changed over the last 45 years. 


Puer is the name of a county in Southern Yunnan Province. Originally, it did not produce tea, but was instead the site of an important trading town and tea market in southern Yunnan. The tea from Xishuangbanna and other counties along the Mekong River that was brought to this Puer market for processing and export would come to be known as Puer tea. Ruan Fu’s On Puer Tea records:”that which is called Puer tea is not from within the borders of Puer, but from land area under the administration of Simao. Tea is drawn tea from six places: Yibang, Jiabu, Yikong, Manzhuan, Gedeng, and Yiwu.” These are the so-called six famous tea mountains, of which Yibang and Yiwu are the most famous. Additionally, tea from Menghai, Jinggu, and other places that also gets brought to Puer can be referred to as Puer tea.

According to recordings in the Yunnan Provincial Gazette, local people in the Tang Dynasty did not know how to pick and produce tea. Instead, they would drink tea in a soup prepared with ginger, osmanthus, and other spices. Tea picked there was processed elsewhere. So-called Puer tea is made through a process of steaming, kneading, drying, re-kneading, and sun-withering by which the loose Maocha is produced. This Maocha was then pressed into varioues shapes or sizes that all fall under the broad category of Yunnan pressed teas. Tea were pressed into heart shapes, bowl-like Tuocha, tea cakes as round as the Moon or bricks as square a block, balls no larger than those used to play ping-pong or giant Tuancha (also called man-head-tea) as big as your head. These pressing styles are all unique and have a long history. The tradition of steaming and pressing tea into round cakes or tuan has long been extant in China. Mention of them can be found in ancient poems and prose. Tang Dynasty Lu Tong’s famous tea poems mention Moon-Tuan tea, and describe the health benefits in great detail.       

It is known that in that under the rule of Tang Dynasty’s Zong Guangqi, Tea in Fujian’s Wuyishan area had been steamed and pressed into the shapes of dragons and phoenixes. Song Taizu once commissioned the production of “Dragon Tuan” tea, and “Dragon-Phoenix” tea also was produced again under his reign. Song Dynasty’s Cai Junmo also reproduced “little dragon” tuan tea. All of these were cakes with the images of dragon or phoenixes formed during the pressing process. Some modern Puer tea products, such as the seven-stacked tea cakes (Qi-zi-bing) or Tuocha (in ancient times also called tuancha), share some basic characteristics with the dragon tuan and phoenix cakes of ancient times. Tradition holds that Ming Dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the abolition of tea production by imperial edict, after which only came the development of wok-fried teas. Tea steaming however has remained alive and well in Japan, where it passed to long before Zhu Yuanzhang’s supposed edict.    

Bowl-shaped Tuocha is known to be of the highest quality. There are many legends as to the origin of its name. Some say the name comes from the Tuo River in Sichuan where the tea was shipped; others say the word evolved from Tuancha, and still others think the tea was first pressed in the shape of the Mutuo tree’s leaves. None of these various explanations are yet to be verified. What can be said with certainty is that tuocha is relatively the most ancient style of the Puer pressed tea shapes. Tuocha is tight and sleek, dark and shining in color, it has a strong but clean fragrance, and a clear soup that offers the drinker full flavor and sweetness. Yunnan’s Puer Tuocha is of the best quality. Sichuan and Chongqing’s Tuocha is of a somewhat lower quality, but can withstand more infusions and suits the tastes of Sichuan people. After work, a bowl of tuocha brews up mighty well. It can not only aide digestion and quench one’s thirst, but also improve one’s health and add some extra excitement to one’s life. Tuocha is mostly sold domestically to Chongqing, Shanghai, Beijing, Canton, and other big cities. Recently there has been a small amount of foreign export.

Tea cakes, also called round tea (yuancha), are a by-product made from the scraps left over from high-end square tea or tuocha. They are varied in size, and loosely categorized as large and small cakes. The large cakes are also called Seven-stacked cakes, as seven cakes are packed into one Tong. Outwardly, these cakes are aesthetically pleasing. They brew up a yellowish-red soup with a long-lasting aroma and thick flavor. These cakes are mostly exported to Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and other countries. The smaller tea cakes are mostly consumed by the Tibetan minority groups, but there is a degree of consumption in some cities.

"Square Tea" refers to the square-shaped Puer tea produced in Menghai. Following this style, smaller and more tender sun-dried maocha (Dianqing) is pressed into a cube shape. Every cube is inscribed with “Puer Square Tea.” The soup that is brews up is green and full of fuzz (down), the aroma is strong and sharp, yet still quite smooth on the tongue. Aside from sales within Yunnan, there is also a degree of consumption in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Canton. Recently, there has also been a modicum of foreign sales as well.

Tight Tea (Jincha), usually is supplied to our Tibetan compatriots, yet some of it also goes to Southeast Asia. It is made from dark late-season picks and usually is compressed into a heart shape. Jet black in leaf color, these unevenly matured leaves brew up some rough and astringent aromas, a red-yellow soup, and a flavor that is smooth but empty.  

Historically, there used to be teas called Tuancha that were quite varied in size. The small ones would weigh no more than a few liang, as if a ping-pong ball in size, while larger ones could be over five Jin in weight. These larger ones resembled a human-head in size and were called “man-head tea.” Such teas were made using only the finest Spring picks and were produced only as a tribute product for the aristocracy. It is quite ironic that tea in the shape of severed heads was given as tribute to the feudal ruling class (whose heads would later roll). The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences has several samples of man-head sized tea left behind from the Qing Court that are still impeccably preserved to this date. It is clear that they were ingeniously pressed.

Puer tea is usually consumed in the following fashion: Take 10 grams of Puer Tea (roughly the amount needed to fill a small tea bag), dump it into a tea kettle, and add 500 ml of boiling water. After five minutes of infusion, the tea is ready to drink.

The source material that goes into Puer tea is mostly from Southern Yunnan’s Mekong River region, especially the land that now falls under the administration of the Xishuangbanna Autonomous Prefecture. Legend tells that Xishuangbanna is the home of peacocks. The Peacock Nation’s princess could transformed herself into the bird we all know today. When she changed back to her human form and her magnificent feathers touched the earth, golden rice paddies sprung up, as did sweet fruit and fragrant tea. The local Dai minority group have a folk song with the following verse: “the peacocks spread their golden wings in joy, spreading their feathers over the wide earth in hope that people may have fortune and happiness.”

Xishuangbanna tea production has been recorded since the Tang Dynasty. All the tea produced there was brought to Puer for processing, where it was pressed and shipped off to the Kangzang region. The Tibetan people drink oily milk tea on a daily basis, “not a day under the sun without tea” as the saying goes. Thus, past generations of reactionary classes have taken advantage of this and steeply taxed the tea that went to this region, going so far as to collude with opportunistic merchants to keep their monopoly intact. Through “tea and horse exchanges,” both tea farmers and their Tibetan customers were ruthlessly exploited. In those days, the Tea-Horse Market established in nortern Yunnan’s Lijiang City was extremely active. From Lijiang down through Jingdong and Simao, an endless line of caravan after caravan brought tea from the hinterlands, contributing to the more than 50,000 Dan (5 million+ pounds) that came to market there per annum. The prices for tea were suppressed so low that ten donkey-loads of tea could not be exchanged for a single load of salt, ten of which could afford one a bag of needles. Tea farmers who were unable to make ends meet and burdened with children had no choice but to flee the area, leaving the tea mountains to become depopulated and overgrown.

Xishuangbanna’s tea trees are all of a large-leaf woody varietal. Tea and camphor trees grow together into forests, with the shorter tea trees living under a natural canopy of shade granted by their taller camphor neighbors. The tea leaves and buds that grow in this shade tend to be soft and delicate, as the shade seems to promote the production of desired chemical compounds and in turn make excellent quality tea. The cultivar(s) of tea grown there (once) called “Puer Variety” is now collectively groped under the term “large leaf Yunnan Cultivar.” The trees grown from this cultivar are relatively tall, have large leaves and produce tea with a high content of polyphenols, caffeine, and other water soluble compounds. The polyphenol content, commonly called “tea tannin” content, is remarkably higher when compared to other varietals. The epigallocatechin content is also higher than other domestic, Indian, or even Soviet varietals of tea.

Menghai County is the most important area of tea production in Xisuangbanna. It has been called “tea leaf city.” Tea can be smelt every where in the County during the production season. The extreme moisture at the end of a given year envelops the area in fog. Here, it rains 140 to 180 days of the year, more than Chongqing, the notoriously damp “fog city.” There are more than 300 days of ground-level dew per annum, and unrelenting air moisture. All of this makes for deep soils full of loosely compacted decomposing carbon that is extremely fertile. With these uniquely excellent natural conditions, tea trees can produce new buds every season of the year, all of which are tender and substantial enough to make tea with a strong aroma and full flavor.

The best quality Puer tea comes from Nannuo Mountain, where “ten thousand gullies of trees tower up to the sky, and a thousand hills ring out with the cry of the cuckoo.” The mountain is about twenty Li east of the Menghai county seat according to the pre-metric system reckoning. The Aini people are indigenous to the area and it is also called “Aini Mountain.” It is among the most famous of the ancient tea mountains in Xishuangbanna. Today there remains one tea tree so large that two people cannot span its trunk. It is called the “king” of the large tea trees. This impressive specimen resembles a locust tree in size, is about six meters tall, and 1.4 meters in diameter, with leaves as large as a person’s palm. Based on the traditions of the local people and Dai historical records, this tree already is more than 800 years old. Perhaps more than 200 pounds of finished tea could be produced by this single tree in a given year. People more than twenty countries are said to have visited this tree already for research and pleasure alike.

The loose source material that goes into puer tea is categorized as Chunjian, Ershui, or Guhua according to its pick time. The various varieties of Puer Tea call for different source materials and mixed ratios, all of which are quite well developed. Chunjian tea is that which is picked between the Qingming and Guyu solar terms. It is this tea that makes Tuocha. It is further divided into first pick (heavy in white down), second pick (plumper leaves with more water content), and third pick (with large stems and resilience to multiple infusions). The Ershui tea leaves picked between the Mangzhong and Dashu Solar Terms is sub-divided into Heitiao, Erjiecha, and Cucha, all which can be made into Tight Tea. The tea picked between the Bailu and Jiangshuang Solar terms, covered in white down, is what goes into tea cakes.

Aside from being processed like a normal baked green tea initially, Puer tea also goes through a special pressing process that is rather complex. The tea has to go through the stages of Liancha, Chaocha, weighing, steaming, kneading, and compressing, perspiring, and wrapping. Before, when all of this was done by hand, the labor required to make Puer tea was enormous. That, on top of the exploitative arrangements set up by tea merchants, meant that tea growers and pressers in Yunnan lived very hard lives. After Liberation(1949), the government has sent out a lot of tea specialists to Xishuangbanna to promote modernization, setting up a tea research center in Menghai to improve scientific cultivation and mechnization for Puer tea production. The backward situation of slash-and-burn agriculture has completely changed for the better, and the Puer tea pressing process has now become mechanized. As the quality of traditional Puer tea continues to improve, Dianhong has also been developed into a rising star on the international red tea market.