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2021-11-04 12:04:47 Voices

How much would you pay for a cup of tea? For most people, the answer is probably not much, but for a few ultra-wealthy Chinese, a handful of the country’s most exclusive tea leaves can be worth more than its weight in gold — 38 times more, to be exact.

In 2018, a list showing the prices of 19 varieties of “rock tea” — a type of oolong tea from the Wuyi Mountains in China’s southeastern Fujian province — went viral on the Chinese internet. Known as the “black chart,” the cheapest tea on the list cost 30,000 yuan ($4,600) per jin, a measure of weight equivalent to half a kilogram, while the most expensive would run buyers 5.2 million yuan, or almost 40 times the price of a half-kilogram of gold.

While most social media users expressed shock at the eye-popping prices, for some in China’s high-end tea industry, the chart was a sign that they weren’t charging enough. In the years since, the black chart has become a sort of “honor roll” for China’s rock tea industry, as growers and sellers raise the prices of their most exclusive tea products in a bid to make it onto the list and confirm their teas’ status as a luxury good.

The names on the initial blacklist weren’t pulled out of thin air. China has long had ways of distinguishing top teas from their blander counterparts. The industry places particular emphasis on terroir: the environment, soil, and climate where a tea is produced. Some of these distinctions are highly specific, with rock teas produced in a roughly 160-acre section of the Wuyi Mountains known as the “three pits and two gullies” costing anywhere between 10,000 yuan and 100,000 yuan per jin, while teas harvested just outside that area go for less than 1,000 yuan per jin.

Terroir on its own isn’t enough to explain such a radical difference in price, however. Sellers may claim that the aroma and taste of rock tea from mountain farms in the “three pits and two gullies” region cannot be compared with that of rock teas from elsewhere, but it’s hard to see how these minimal flavor differences can justify paying prices hundreds or even thousands of times higher for similar teas produced just miles away. To get consumers to buy in, producers and sellers need more than just a strong flavor profile; they need a marketing strategy.

Finding and cultivating a ‘master’ has become an important task for investors looking to build a tea brand.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given tea’s importance to traditional Chinese culture, these marketing campaigns tend to play up themes like culture, history, and craftsmanship. The process for refining rock tea from raw tea leaves is complex, and this complexity has allowed sellers to market their teas not according to their nearly imperceptible flavor differences but based on the “mastery” of the individuals responsible for overseeing the production process. The high-end tea brand Xiaoguan Cha touts its products as “made by masters,” while many smaller sellers likewise prominently display their production overseer’s qualifications on their packaging.

This has created a market for anyone who can plausibly lay claim to the status of rock tea “master.” Some of these individuals have formally been awarded the title of “national-level practitioner of intangible cultural heritage” by an official organ, others were discovered in one of the numerous tea tasting and production contests that have popped up in the region over the past 15 years. Finding and cultivating a “master” has become an important task for investors looking to build a tea brand. One outside investor told me that he spent days going through local records and the family tree of a producer he’d invested in until he’d constructed a lineage of tea production stretching back five generations.

A view of the Jiulongke Mother Tree in the Wuyi Mountains, Fujian province, 2007. People Visual

A view of the Jiulongke Mother Tree in the Wuyi Mountains, Fujian province, 2007. People Visual

These branding strategies dovetail nicely with China’s rising “cottagecore” aesthetic, as influential social media accounts post glossy articles about mountain farm owners in beautifully renovated old houses practicing traditional tea-making processes to emphasize their links to the past. As for the masters themselves, they generally either run their own companies or are given shares that tie them — and their reputation — to a particular brand.

Given the money at stake, it makes sense that high-end tea producers would look for any edge they can find. But there’s a catch: the most expensive teas listed on the blacklist aren’t actually for sale. This February, officials in Fujian issued an order meant to cap the “sky-high” price of rock teas. The order also specifically called for inspectors to pay attention to the practice of assigning arbitrarily high prices to teas not actually for sale.

The price tags are tied to the tea’s symbolic value as gifts among China’s elite.

Indeed, the mind-boggling prices of China’s most expensive teas are rarely meant to be taken literally. Instead, the price tags are tied to the tea’s symbolic value as gifts among China’s elite. Most people willing to lay out tens of thousands of yuan or more for tea aren’t doing so for their own personal consumption; rather, they want to give it as a gift. That means getting a good deal is less important than acquiring something expensive — and which the person they are giving it to will immediately recognize as such. Buyers cultivate relationships with people in the tea industry, use those relationships to get access to exclusive tea products, and then gift those products to build connections elsewhere. The more exorbitantly priced the tea, the higher the corresponding social status of its recipient.

As with the recent price hikes, Wuyi rock tea producers have shifted their marketing strategies to try to maintain and capitalize on this demand for exclusivity. On my first visit to a local tea farm in 2008, it was still a family-run workshop with a handful of employees. But after more than ten years of continuous investment from outside capital, the farm has developed into a joint-stock enterprise that owns the only museum in the Wuyi Mountain Scenic Resort. This museum is closed to the general public; it only opens its doors for important guests.

The meteoric rise of Wuyi’s tea industry is displayed on the museum’s walls, which are covered with photographs of visiting political leaders, celebrities, and other famous faces. Stepping through its doors for a live demonstration of rock tea production followed by a tea tasting and photo opportunity has become a rite of passage of sorts for a subset of wealthy and influential Chinese. Yet, as I browsed its collection, I couldn’t help but think that they were really selling wasn’t tea, but a sense of superiority. In that sense, the high prices listed in the farm’s catalogue were merely a pretext — to distinguish those who deserved a drink from those who did not.

Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: Da Hong Pao rock tea before and after steeping. 500px/People Visual)