It seems that I live near a renowned tea growing area. Within the political boundaries of Hangzhou city lies Longjingcun, or Dragon well village. On its terraced slopes grows the Longjing tea variety. And as with anything in China, most of what is sold as Longjing tea is phony. It would be redundant to describe and categorize all the sundry and arcane terms and grades of tea produced under the Longjing tea label. Other sources are already more competent on the subject than I am and most of what is written is irrelevant since one can seldom be certain what one is buying when one purchases a box of tea leaves labeled, Longjingcha (龙井茶). Apparently some merchants distinguish themselves by proclaiming that they are selling real counterfeit Longjing tea. This amounts to truth in advertising.
I know a little bit about the area only because I was kindly invited by two students to visit a teahouse in Longjingcun. One student owns an automobile which made the jaunt from Xiaoshan up into the mountains rather easy. Chinese mountains hold a quasimystical aura about them. I live near a slight geological mound call Beiganshan, or Beigan mountain as my students like to announce. It’s certainly higher than the surroundings, but it could also be a kind of fake mountain. It gives the area some clout, it seems. Tea plantations grown on a mountain might in fact benefit from the microclimates, but in the marketing of it, the mountain source is the key. Mountains are where wisemen live and powerful herbs grow for use in TCM. Mountains are where people go to escape the heat and the chaos of the cities.
The walk through the village was pleasant and relaxing. It reminded me of some propserous Italian villages where the prosperity is due to a collective effort of all members to focus on a particular resource, be it specialized foodways, shoemaking skills, or ancient architecture for the tourist market. All the houses in Longjingcun are well maintained and show a unified style. I saw tidy, little gardens, fruit trees and closely cropped tea bushes next to small tea finishing rooms and welcoming restaurants. My two hostesses settled upon a restaurant at the end of the village’s mainstreet after inquiring about the menu with the doorgirl. We all sat down in an arbor covered courtyard in the back of the restaurant on a lower terrace. The place had a rustic charm and felt timeless with its cut stone masonry and lanscaping.
It seemed obvious that we would drink tea here, yet they asked me anyway whether I wanted to drink some with them. With the first sip, I thought I was doing something wrong. Had I not let it brew long enough? The tea seemed especially insipid and weak. I looked at the pot, which was crafted of attractively shaped and decorated porcelain, only to see a single teabag string hanging over its rim. Perhaps by clearly showing that they used teabags, this restaurant was trying to set itself apart from those that intentionally deceive their customers as to thereal contents. I asked my accompanying tea drinkers why a restaurant located in the middle one of the most famous tea growing regions in the world would serve such low quality tea when I could see all around us tea plants and tea leaves drying in the midday sun. They answered in the same way that they have answered their own similarly posed questions and probably those of others: “Because it is cheaper.” And that was the end of the comparison between Longjingcun and an Italian mountain village.
I could have and should have known the answer to my own question. I have asked and answered it myself often enough about matters in China. It is a theme in this developed and developing country. It explains why so much of manufacturing in China is contracted or counterfeit. It’s cheaper to copy than to foster talent and innovation. Why did the Xinjiang restaurant’s baba ghanoush taste so bland? It is because it saves the owners money to substitute neutral soybean oil instead of olive oil and to leave out the tahini. It is cheaper to build upon somebody else’s ideas than to create one’s own, at least, in the short run. Why does melamine end up in so many foodstuffs? It’s because it’s a cheap way to make foods appear to have more digestible protein in them than they do.
The driving economic impetus to ending the misery and chaos under the Maoist management of the PRC has been to make things cheaply and to repeatedly make lots and lots of them. There is even a grading system for rating knockoffs whether pirated DVDs or Louis Vuitton handbags. Not surprisingly, not much stock is put into this system since every seller claims to sell the most highly rated fakes. When I ask about the enormous percentage of counterfeit goods made and sold in China, most Chinese see it as a problem but they limit the negative consequences in their answers. They reason that it’s ok to buy fake bags and clothes since they know that they are not the real ones. And they know that they are not real because they can, and willingly, buy them so cheaply. It’s harder for them to explain about the prevalence of melamine in so many foodstuffs. They, therefore, have much less to say about it.
The most recent scandal involving the adulteration with melamine makes my disappointment with the tea served in Longjingcun somewhat selfish and petty. Just as with the counterfeit grading scale, is there a continuum with legitimate copying and cheaper substitutions on one end and universally recognizably illegitimate counterfeits on the other? Adulteration with melamine that causes the deaths and hospitalization of nursing infants would seem like a clear cut case of bad counterfeiting. I fear, however, that in the mind of some industry players, chemical or dairy, the bad counterfeiting was simply that a bit too much melamine was added to the watered down milk.
What if the bad element is that people aren’t allowed to know that they are buying fakes? Is it acceptable to sell tainted milk products as long as it is labeled properly? Possibly, but there is a reason why we weren’t given that information freely. It severely reduces the profit margin when consumers are told upfront that they are buying poisoned food. Some Chinese seem to feel that they, in fact, benefit from the counterfeiting. How else, they reckon, would they be able to carry a LV handbag if they had to pay for a real one? Even if there is no apparent acknowledgment of a product being a copy, the cheap price is regarded by the Chinese as proof that they are getting what they pay for. It’s a kind of unspoken caveat that saves face for both parties.
A few months ago, there was raid on an upscale Hangzhou retailer of LV handbags. Authorities discovered and confiscated counterfeit, admittedly high grade, samples in the storeroom of a boutique on Wulin square. The storeowner featured originals to put on display but sold unlicensed copies to unwitting customers as originals and with original grade prices. The purpose driven officials had to walk past a lot of other retailers of counterfeit goods along the streets of Hangzhou to get to the one store that was worthy of being shut down, but they persevered. I wanted to think that this signaled a kind of shifting tide, and that WTO standards regarding IPR were beginning to wend their way through the Chinese bureaucracies. That thinking is premature as yet. It’s much more likely that the merchant sold a counterfeit LV item to the wife or mistress of a high ranking party member or, to a party member herself. Either that, or he failed to come down in price for somebody important and the subsequent backlash led to an investigation. Ladies of high station cheated of their lucre into carrying bogus handbags might be the mechanism that starts a trend. Up until now, it has mostly been the parents who cannot afford imported infant formula and particular foreigners who assumed that they are getting local tea who have really seemed to be bothered enough to complain.