I have long been a student of Chinese history, with a particular interest in the now 62 years of The People’s Republic of China. Compared with China’s dynasties, which often lasted 300-400 years, this one is just getting going. Yet, during the relatively short time of its existence, the PRC has had more than it’s fair share of ‘turbulence.’
A particularly turbulent time was The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Often referred to as ‘the ten-year chaos,’ The Cultural Revolution was a mass political movement ostensibly designed to give a new generation the experience of revolution. In fact, it was an outcome of a power struggle between Chairman Mao and the leadership of the Communist Party. For ten years, the country’s economic, social, and intellectual life came to a halt as people engaged in mass political campaigns, the schools and colleges were closed, and intellectuals were persecuted. This, of course, is a very brief, and general, description of the era, but it will suffice for this blog post.
Today, when one thinks of The Cultural Revolution, images that come to mind are Red Guards, socialist operas, and propaganda posters. We don’t generally think of tea.
That changed for me a month ago when I was at a teahouse in Beijing run by a close friend of mine. It’s a great place to hang out on Sunday afternoons, chatting with Ms. M and her two nieces who help her in the shop. Since she is from Yunnan Province, her specialty is Pu’er Tea, so whenever I am there, that’s pretty much what we drink.
Pu’er tea is one of the only teas which, like wine, improves in taste and value with age. Whenever she makes a pot of tea she is careful to tell me what year it was harvested in. The older the better. And when she gives me a “cake” or “ball” of tea (dried, in patties or small balls), she tells me to throw it in a closet and forget about it for 5 years, something I rarely do.
Anyway, last month a colleague from the US was in town, so I decided to take him to the teahouse. He’s been in Beijing dozens of times and wanted to do something different. She was particularly excited to see me that day because she had a new tea (well, it was actually really old) she wanted me to try. “What’s it called?” I asked her. “Its’ Cultural Revolution Tea.”
What she was making for us was a pot of tea from a “Cultural Revolution Brick” (the shape/form of the dried tea). She told us that it was a brick of tea dating back to the late 1970’s, and was a collector’s item — very expensive. She was serving it this day to teach her teahouse assistants about it.
Graciously she shared it with us, and I will say that it was one of the best cups of tea I’ve ever had.
Oh, and yes, it is available in the US….from Amazon….where else?