The 11th Puer Tea Conference

Seven Cups Founder Wins Award In Puer City

I have been thinking about how I was going to write about this for a almost two weeks now. This award came as a complete surprise to me and I am still trying to get my mind around it. I found out about winning this award when I first returned to Yunnan for a short visit in early April. When I was told, I really could not believe it. The prize was reported to be the statue of a horse carrying bundles of puer tea made of gold valued at 50,000 rmb. That’s about 4.5 ounces of 18 karat gold, give or take the current price of gold. The prize was for the Global Puer Tea Ten Outstanding Persons of China, to be given at the 11th Puer Tea Conference to be held in Puer City, a few weeks later in Puer City (Samao).  No one had given me any information at all that I was somehow in the running for the award. I had not brought any clothes to China that would be fitting for such an occasion.

I only half believed I was receiving an award it when I arrived at the Puer City Airport, and I had no idea why I was being so honored. I really could not think of a reason why I should be. There was a couple of young guys at the airport that had my name written on a card, 奥斯汀, which I was a little bit slow to recognize, but they recognized me right off, being the only foreigner in the airport.

When I first started in the tea business, I was always a little bit surprised when I asked the local tea people and the local government about the other American tea people that had been to whatever place I was traveling to, because I had read about all of the tea that had been personally sourced  from this place or that. The answer has always been, and still is, what Americans. At least if they were they had by passed the people that pay attention to these things. At first I thought maybe I had missed something or that I didn’t understand something, or that people in China were not being hiding it  from me, but having done this for many years, well, there just aren’t any foreigners making it out into the Chinese tea growing areas that I go to. Of course China is a very big place, but you would think that I would run across a few, I am always running into Chinese people that I know. At least I can say that there was only one foreigner besides me at the Puer Conference.

At any rate being 6’4″ helps me to get recognized at the airport foreigners not. I got guided to a bus that was occupied with other award winners from across China including on Chinese woman that lived in Malasia. They are all famous tea scholars and puer businessmen that had contributed something significant to the puer industry, which still kept me wondering, what was I doing in this group.

I met my interpreter, I was the first foreigner that she had even spoken English with, my interpreter’s English is as bad as my Chinese but we managed to get introduced to each other. Of course everybody was extremely sweet and gracious to me, and I have a lot of experience not knowing what is going on, whether it is in China or America. The first evening though, I am a little bit nervous because I have been told that I have to give a speech. I found out pretty soon that all of the Ten Outstanding Persons of China, even being native Chinese speakers, didn’t  know what is going on either, about speeches, or what the schedule might be , or what might be expected of us, so my fears started to ease.

Through a significant amount of confusion, accented with many colorful native ethnic costumes, we all made it to our assigned hotel rooms. I was met by some of my old friends and teachers, and we all made it to the opening banquet. The Outstanding Persons were a bit late to the party, but not too late to have a great dinner. There was a big dance following that evening which, I opted out of having  traveled all day, but my interpreter went to, and I can hear the fireworks booming until midnight, wishing I had gone.

The next day we were bused to the opening ceremonies early. It seems the dignitaries have to be seated before the rest of the crowd, positioned at the first table, where we sit until the rest of the crowd is seated. The opening consists of many of the local ethnic minorities signing and dancing in brightly colored costumes, punctuated with a few speechs and all of the Outstanding Persons being introduced to the crowd. We all bow to the crowd and except for me understand why they are outstanding, but from the applause I receive with my bow, it must have been good.  After the opening is concluded we follow the crowd  on a hike up the city’s tea garden, where tea is being picked by more costumed girls, and everyone has a change to photograph them, as they sing songs about tea and love. We also get photographed with them. There are plenty of photos on websites with costumed girls picking tea, but all of those photos are as staged as these photos are.

Then we are bused over the the art exhibition where the English artist and I get introduced being the only foreigners there.  He was a print maker that had been studying a Yunnan type of print making that involved very intricate wood carving, and printing in multiple colors, and his work was being exhibited. He had no connection to tea. We have a good time trading stories about not knowing what’s going on, as we move along with the parade positioned where we are supposed to be in the process, at some point the flow shifts so that we have guided is different directions never to see one another again.

In the afternoon the Ten Outstanding Persons end up in the local TV station where we seated at tables on the stage. There is a short speech from  the leading tea master, and then one by one we are directed to a table center stage framed goo that will harden and be hung  somewhere in Puer City, our names signed in gold, that is painted on the goo. It is both a moving and solemn as our hands are pressed into the goo by a pretty costumed girl. It is a serious ceremony and I can feel the reverence of the moment from my fellow Outstanding Persons. We are all duly interviewed and released for free time and a rest.

After the TV station I leave with Hu Haoming one of my teachers and Professor Chen Keke, a botany researcher that had agreed to work on a book with me. They start filling in the blanks for me. Keke did research at the University of Oregon and his English is great. He is also the leading expert in Yunnan for studying wild tea trees.I was starting to find out a little bit more about why I am there to begin with.

They told me that my winning had to do with a paper that I wrote that was published in the journal of the Chinese International Tea Culture Research Institute in 2008, accompanied by a speech at a national seminar on tea. The paper was about China and the International Market, where in I made some suggestions about how China could be more competitive in the market. With out going into a long explanation about what I had to say, the long and short of it is, it was well received in the tea community.  Unbeknownst to me, my paper had been republished in Chinese tea trade magazines across China. Plus I had been coming and spending a lot of time in Yunnan’s tea growing areas for many years, had brought groups of other Western tea enthusiasts with me, and was pretty well known locally.

Hu Haoming has been my traveling companion, teacher, and guide in exploring Yunnan. He is one of the owners of Cha Ma Si, helped to write the Yunnan standards for puer, and is a member of the group of Chinese scholars that have been researching the Tea Horse Road. I buy almost all of my puer from Cha Ma Si because I have visited all of the places where they buy maocha, high up in the mountains, and know the growers from Mengku to Yiwu. He is also one of my best friends and a great person to hang out with. As is Professor Cheng, both are always happy and are great tea students and teachers. We did another interview with Puer Magazine, who promised to send me a copy to Tucson.

The next day we were on the bus early heading off to Ximeng, where the closing ceremonies were to be held coinciding with the New Year’s celebrations of the Wu and Di minorities that share Ximeng. We stopped in Lancang with another ceremonial welcome for lunch. The serenading which accompanied our lunch, which included a dish of grashoppers, was beautiful in five part harmony. There was plenty of eating and toasting.  As you might have guessed by now, we were all having a lot of fun, but getting to Ximeng kicked the fun level into high gear.

We arrived in the afternoon and it was suggested that we take a rest. Up in my hotel room the drums out my window were already pounding. It was impossible to consider taking a nap. Ximeng is located on a pristine lake surrounded by lush green mountains. Between the lake and my hotel the New Year’s celebration was in full motion with groups dancing around cases of beer, inviting everyone to drink and dance. There was also plenty of the local brew being passed around in bamboo cups, as well as some very strong tea, large tea leaves that have been dried, that were put on to boil in a pot that water and more leaves are added to often. Wow.

Restless I set off with Xiao Yang, my interpreter,  to explore the party. Pretty soon we meet up with Hu Haoming and Cheng Keke already having fun and we make our way down to the lake and enjoy some of the various drinks being passed around and talk with a local tea maker. Everyone and I mean everyone is having a very good time, and with out going into the details, dinner followed with endless toasting, then a local opera with a reception line that stretched way down the block, followed by more partying, dancing, singing, toasting, and just pure fun. I made it to bed about midnight and have no idea when things settled down for the night.

The same festive atmosphere was in the air the next morning for the closing ceremonies. Of course the 9 Outstanding Persons of China had to be in our seats early, the tenth not able to make it to Ximeng. We were given some Wu vests to wear and my anxieties about dress and speeches were no longer an issue for me. We all received our horses with great pride. They came encased in a hand carved wooden boxes, also encased in custom made leather roller bags. In the midst of great fanfare the morning ended and we boarded the buses back to Puer City and our flights out the next day.

I can’t imagine that there has been a tea conference as much fun as this one was, with more warmth shared amongst the participants. It has always been a little bit ironic that our company is better known in the tea community in China than we are in the tea community in the US. It is so necessary for my spirit to come to China. As it turns out there were 19 judges, none of which I know that voted unanimously to award me the gold carrying horse. It is not because Seven Cups has sold a lot of tea, or that we have introduced any industry inovations that have changed the market, other than there has been a lot of love and respect that passes between us and the tea community here. It is such an honor for me to be considered a person of China, outstanding or not. It gives me enough energy to come back to America and keep slogging along trying to represent Chinese tea outside of China with the same respect that is given to us here. It’s a tough job.

Please look through the photos. I have also put together another marginally produced video of the Wa Peoples’ Hair Dancing