We welcome you to Munchkin land” 

Everybody is claiming it: “My teas are authentic…,” “authenticity is our watchword…,” “we are 100% authentic….” These claims just go on and on[1]. But what on earth does “authentic” mean? If everyone claims it, does it really serve to distinguish among teas at all? How is “authentication” undertaken? How do we unpack this puzzle? Well I am afraid it is tricky, really tricky, so tricky, in fact, that I feel obliged to use the dreaded endnote.


“But where do I begin?” asked Dorothy.

I propose that “authenticity” operates on two (mostly) distinct planes. One is at the level of the physical product itself; the other – and I cringe here – is a social construction[2]. The first level is relatively straightforward[3]. The second is fraught with difficulties. And, to complicate things further, the two planes regularly intersect.

Let’s look at some examples. Take the case of an oolong tea from Vietnam or Indonesia, produced from the Qing Xin cultivar and finished in a rolled ball manner that is then blended with and sold as Taiwanese tea. The question we ask is, is the tea what it claims to be? In other words, are we dealing with counterfeits? This, most of us would agree, is a clear cut case of counterfeiting: the tea is not what it claims to be, namely, a Taiwanese tea. This tea, we conclude, is not authentic.

Unfortunately, counterfeiting tea takes place on a vast scale and monitoring it is extremely difficult. Tony Gebely, who has written on this issue and on the difficulty of enforcing authentic geographic indications, concludes that, in the end, it “is up to our trust in the merchant where the validity of labeling is concerned.”[4] We trust the tea vendor to assure that they are indeed supplying what they claim it to be. In this sense, the tea vendor who claims to provide authentic tea is self-certifying the truthfulness of their claims. This, I’m afraid, really isn’t very helpful to the average consumer for I do not know of any merchant who claims to sell inauthentic tea. Absent open and transparent sourcing, this path just doesn’t get us very far.

Now, take the case of a tea that is entirely grown and produced in Taiwan, but from the Japanese Yabukita cultivar, and then sold as Taiwan tea. Is this an authentic Taiwanese tea? We stumble a bit with our answer. It’s not so clear-cut, is it? Some will say yes, of course and others will hold that such a tea would be absolutely inauthentic. Yet it is not a counterfeit; in that sense, it is what it claims to be.

 “Now that’s a horse of a different color”

What about another, even trickier, situation with a package of tea saying: “Longjing”. But perhaps it is not a legal Longjing for that term is a registered word mark and may only be applied to Longjing tea from Zhejiang province. Longjing (the cultivar) grown and processed in Guangdong or Szechuan cannot legally be called Longjing. So what is it? What, apart from a legal proscription, disqualifies some Longjing from being “authentic” Longjing?[5] Here the planes truly begin to intersect as we dip one toe into the murky waters of the social construction of authenticity.

Zhejiang Longjing, and more specifically West Lake Longjing, is the authentic Longjing because of the cultural narrative that has grown up in the region and that is generally accepted within the wider Chinese and Western society.[6] This socially constructed narrative includes not only the territorial provenance of the tea but also the history, the techniques and the pageantry that accompany the producing of West Lake Longjing tea; a narrative that Longjing teas from other provinces do not possess.

Now let’s look at puer. Jinghong Zhang reports that the question of authenticity there is blurred even further as there are competing narratives that bear on the issue of authenticity.[7] The narrative changes depending upon whether one is in Yunnan or Hong Kong. According to the Hong Kong narrative, puer is not authentic unless it has been aged, preferably in Hong Kong. And, in addition, they contend that shu puer is authentic puer tea.

But in Yunnan, the narrative has developed and changed as time has gone by. Originally, authentic puer was thought to be older tea (which was not what was drunk in the producing area.) Now, however, young, fresh puer, the tea that is consumed by the local population is recognized as the authentic article and older puer is questioned. Shu puer also is deemed to be inauthentic by many. Authenticity, it appears, varies depending on the cultural context and can change over time.

Another example of the changing nature of authenticity is that of the Taiwanese tea Bao Zhong[8]. In the late 19th century the skill of scenting tea was introduced to Taiwan from China.[9] It was used on Bao Zhong tea which, through most of the early 20th century, was a scented product.[10] It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the method of obtaining Bao Zhong’s prized floral scent through oxidation rather than scenting became widespread. And as this happened, a change occurred in the notion of what constituted authentic Bao Zhong tea. Anything “scented,” once authentic Bao Zhong, is now considered inauthentic.[11]

The Great and Powerful Oz

If authenticity changes according to time and place, is it nothing more than smoke and mirrors? Can it have any possible relevance in our contemporary tea discussions? Yes, it can, and does, for it is an integral part of current discussions on tea.

For example, there are those who claim that the only authentic tea is the wild, seed grown variety.[12] Others do not accept this restriction. It is in the development of the dialogue between these two positions that change can occur; change that in turn alters our notions of what constitutes the authentic in tea.

However, the fact that “authenticity” is mutable does not mean that anyone can insert any notion of the authentic into our discussions. It is not a case that each viewpoint is as valid as any other. “Authenticity” is constrained by the social context in which it develops and must be anchored in a cultural narrative that gives it credence..

So what can you do to ensure you are purchasing authentic tea? First and foremost, insist upon open and transparent supply chains from your vendors. Be sure that you can trace the source of your tea back to the grower responsible for it. Second, question your merchant thoroughly; ask them why their tea is authentic and ensure they have a good narrative to support their position.

That’s my take. What do you think?

[1] I make this same claim myself, with respect to Tillerman Tea and the teas that Tillerman carries.

[2] A host of academics have followed this perspective. See Peterson, Richard A. “In Search of Authenticity” Journal of Management Studies, 45 July, 2005 pp. 1083 – 1098. For the use of this approach with respect to tea see Yu Shuenn-Der, “Authenticity, Terroir, and Invention of Tradition: French Wine versus Taiwanese Tea” Proceedings of the 2015 International Conference on Chinese Food and Culture, pp 85-102 and Jinghong Zhang Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic (Seattle and London, University of Washington Press, 2014).

[3] My friends who practice international intellectual property law will strongly disagree, no doubt.

[4] Gebely, Tony “Tea Authenticity and Geographical Indications” https://worldoftea.org/tea-appellations/. For a discussion of counterfeiting with respect to puer tea see Zhang, Puer Tea.

[5] Chan, Selina Ching “Terroir and Green Tea in China: The Case of Meijiawu Dragon Well (Longjing) Tea” in Augustin-Jean, Louis, Hélène Ibert and Neantro Saavedra-Ravino (eds.) Geographical Indications and International Agricultural Trade: The Challenge for Asia (Houndmills and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

[6] Chan, 2012.

[7] Zhang Puer Tea.

[8] Yu, 2015

[9] Davidson, James W. The Island of Formosa: Past and Present (London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1903) downloaded from the UCLA library (https://archive.org/details/islandofformosap00davi) February 2017.

[10] Chen, Kai-Hsien “A Cultural and Scientific Quest of Taiwanese Tea, Aroma and Taste” presented at the 2nd Annual Colloquium, The Sensory Aspects of Tea, U. C. Davis, January 29, 2017.

[11] Yu reports that as late as the 1990’s there were continuing disagreements as to what should be the “correct” aroma of Bao Zhong. He also notes that, until quite recently, Bao Zhong was oxidized at significantly higher levels than is the practice now. Yu, 2015.

[12] See, Zhang, Shana, The Wild Truth of Tea, (Wild Tea Qi and International Tea Academy Publishing, Kunming, 2015.) See also Global Tea Hut at www.globalteahut.org a project of Earthways Foundation www.earthways.org.

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