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October 10, 2020

Yiwu Part II: Cultivar of the Psychic

written by Augustus Rushing

I finished Part I of this series signaling to folks that in part II there might be some inspired speculation... You've been warned.

In Yiwu, most of the actors hold such a staunch belief in the superiority of Yiwu teas that it could be likened to the intensity of a football team rivalry. During our last visit to eastern Xishuangbanna, folks were busy getting ready for a tea competition between tea producers of the Six Great Tea Mountains, the annual 勐腊国际贡茶文化节 Mengla International Tribute Tea Culture Festival. Who had the best Yiwu tea of the year? The winner’s tea would command higher prices for the year and their company would carry inviolable prestige into the foreseeable future.

The competition doesn’t include teas from other mountains outside of the greater Yiwu area — these teas seem to hardly exist for Yiwu tea enthusiasts and it would be a laughable thing to even consider. It is as though teas produced in the greater Yiwu area are bound not only by geological markers and government territory lines, but these tea mountains also give rise to a distinctive turf of ideology: one propelled by collective myth, belief, ideals, goals, and internal competition. This annual competition serves as a physical battleground in which collective beliefs and the vows to the ideal Yiwu tea are ritualistically hammered out — previous beliefs and ideals affirmed or renegotiated, completely new ones scrutinized or triumphed. The mythos updated ever so slightly.

Recently I’ve been imagining that the mythic yet still-very-much-alive tea subcultures such as Yiwu exist as an opera in which all its actors bolster — consciously & unconsciously — their own and other players’ experience in a matrix of mutual objectivity and subjectivity. That the Yiwu tea drinker user experience can be so informed by a meta-narrative that at first glance it can appear to be objectively true to all… yet, simultaneously displays a power over the individual’s biases that can elicit subtle threshold perceptions into lived subjective experiences. Going a step further -- given the density of the narrative -- perhaps it could even conjure up fragments of non-existent experiences and piggy-back them onto currents of actual perceptions, much like a placebo. Yes, the tea is soft, sweet, yet expansive and powerful… and so is the power of suggestion.

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Mr. He of Yiwu town pouring us his aged zhengshan

One of the skills within the tea jianghu is when a 'tea master' harnesses the powers of words and belief in realtime to shepherd the perceptions of an unassuming individual on the other side of the tea table. This master has become instinctively familiar with the nature of top-down processing and utilizes it to ensure desired outcomes that fit into primed meta-narratives or novel narratives of their own (often to sell the tea). If we are honest, we must admit that this kind of perceptive sleight of hand is entirely possible -- even easy -- given the relatively subtle nature of an infusion of tea. Because more often than not, tea isn’t a bold and effusive brush stroke on the palate that leaves a nearly unnegotiable mark like say, peppermint. No, the beauty and poetry of tea lies in its evasive and mysterious nature; one that just begs for human imagination and desire to fill in the gaps with psychic material of myriad origin and intent.

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pale yellow liquid

What if the signature Yiwu soft sweetness that we have all come to extol isn't only an objective and even measurable metric, but is also so believed in by a quorum of people that the individual’s subtler experiences inevitably organize towards this end as well? Even during sessions when perceptions could have arguably concluded otherwise had they existed within a vacuum, stripped of its mythological super structure. Whether the objective or the subjective experience is more influential doesn’t matter — they would be inextricably bound and exist in dynamic mutuality.

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Now this is where it might get a little tricky for some. Could it be possible that meta-narratives about particular teas become so emboldened in a group's consciousness that the actors of the opera's every act collude to recreate and perform it over and over again? When the mythos is dense enough to influence and reward every step: from the farming practices, to the cultivation (more applicable outside the world of Pu’er), the processing techniques, the storage parameters, the tenacious marketing, the brewing acumen, and of course the jianghu of perception-influencing happening at the tea table to solidify the myth’s performance. Over time, these variables are groomed to deliver and more acutely execute the manifest mythos, and it becomes more unlikely to escape the self-affirming meta-narrative about the tea. It has become Truth, whether it was always by natural, pre-existant means or more recently augmented by artificial means, consequentially reverse-engineered by the opera’s enactment of it over and over and over. Likely, it's both.

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When we sip Camellia sinensis tea we get to appreciate not just a connection to nature, but also a precious and enticing conversation between the humans and the plants that they tended. Sometimes we experience marvelous feats of human intervention and ingenuity, like with Chaozhou dancong cultivars. Cultivars, along with farming practices and processing techniques is where conscious human influence shines. And with the understanding that dense myths about a tea's user experience can become so fortified that it reverberates back into the dimension of objectivity, we can now recognize largely subconscious or meta-conscious influences. The way we think we truly understand pu’er tea from a particular mountain is through the memetic cultivation of myths about it: unwittingly propagating a different kind of cultivar... one of the psychic realm.

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the view from Luo Shui Dong

More words to come, stay tuned for Part III.

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