I first met Chen Peiren in the spring of 2010 and was immediately impressed by the clarity of his memory. He vividly described people and events of more than 60 years ago, which greatly aided me in reconstructing a portrait of Kunming's tea industry of that time.
I had long ago heard the name of Chen Peiren but did not contact him, because I had yet to learn of his connection with the rise and fall of Kunming's tea industry 60 years ago. After I found a large number of documents mentioning his name, however, I knew I needed to pay a visit.
Chen Peiren was born at the end of the 1920's at a time when the Puerh tea sales model was changing. Prior to founding of the Republic of China, Kunming tea businesses primarily sold their goods to Tibet. The main force behind this tea industry was composed of traders from the Shiping area. Foremost among the Shiping merchants was the Gan Li Zhen tea company of the Yuan family. They shipped tea from production areas including Simao, Yibang, and Yiwu to Kunming and delivered to Kunming tea companies. These tea companies then wholesaled the tea to local tea shops and to tea exporters in Sichuan and Yunnan. Kunming tea shops were restricted from participating in the wholesale tea sets and tea trade.
Following the Republic of China period, new tea production areas sprung up including those in Jinggu, Mengku, and Fengqing. This served to not only stimulate the sales of tea but also changed the styles, market structure, and productions methods of Puerh tea. Kunming tea shops became full-scale tea companies. They not only engaged in retail sales but also carried out their own tea processing, which reduced the influence of the southern Yunnan tea traders. Tea companies in western Yunnan, however, began to exert increasing influence on the market. These businesses included three companies from Dali s Xizhou area, Yong Chang Xiang, Fu Chun He, Cheng Ji, and Tengchong's Mao Heng, Hong Ji, He Qing, and Heng Sheng Gong.
In 1928 when Chen Peiren was four years old, his father Chen Lun resigned as an assistant with Quan Sheng Xiang. He then borrowed money from Qin Zifan, director of Kunhua Hospital, to start the Hua Sheng Tea Company. Based on the techniques and business skills he gained at the Quan Sheng Xiang tobacco and tea company and his own good character, Chen Lun began to make his mark.
The company purchased wholesale tea leaves and then carried out selection, blending, and packaging before selling the loose-leaf tea. In addition, Chen Lun used the techniques learned at Quan Sheng Xiang and the results of his own intensive research to create processed tea products including tuo teas, cake teas, brick teas, and various flower teas. The company designed its own brand labeling and purchased screen printing equipment to use in printing product labels. They designed "Meishou" boxes used for packaging their tea. The exterior of the boxes were decorated with images including those of the sika deer, young boy, the god of longevity, beautiful women, and Daoist nuns. An image of a magpie was printed inside the box was to symbolize happiness. These boxes were likely different from the "Meishou" packaging of the Yunji Tea Company but were lost in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Consequently, I have not actually seen them.
After graduating from high school in 1945, Chen Peiren returned to help his father operate the tea company. He quickly assumed a role of responsibility as manager of the company. Along with his father, he helped guide the company to ever-incrcasing success. They purchased manufacturing and warehouse facilities in an area of Kunming that is now the site of a mining equipment factory and began to engage in large-scale production, becoming one of Kunming s moderately large tea houses.
Chen Peiren never rejected new ideas and actively pondered and experimented with new techniques. For instance, during the Second World War the company observed that many people from other provinces who had come to Yunnan favored flower teas. He traveled to Yil-iang near Kunming to purchase zhulan and jasmine flowers, which he then sold in flower teas.
He also noticed that the Ruifeng Tea Company run by Ma Ziyu sold a type of tea with a strange flavor that was favored by Guangdong and Guangxi people in Kunming. This tea was most likely similar to today's Hong Kong stored Puerh. Chen Peiren purchased some of the tea and brought it home for consideration. He decided the tea had not been ruined by rain water but was intentionally flavored this way. He took some tea leaves and experimented with fermenting, steaming, and drying the tea, finally achieving similar flavor. Without a sales pipeline, however, this tea remained in the experimental stage and was never sold.
In the 1950's the tea company continued to operate for some time. In 1956, however, the economic transformation was complete and Chen Peiren's tea company merged into the Kunming tea factory. He and his father became employees of the Kunming Tea Factory.
Due to their technical abilities and education, Chen Peiren and his father were elevated to the role of technicians and were responsible for tasks including production, packaging, and review. They helped to greatly increase the productivity of the tea factory. In 1960, Chen Peiren led the factory workers in fermentation and steam pressing of coarse raw tea materials to produce a new type of product: Migeng. This product was likely the source of later 7581 and 7582 brick teas.
In 1973, the Yunnan Province Tea Company learned that Guangdong province was producing a type of water-splashed tea that was selling well in Hong Kong. The company decided to send technicians from the four tea factories under its jurisdiction to Guangdong to study the technique. Kunming tea factory elected to send a team led by Chen Peiren. When the list of team members reached the provincial tea company, however, it was determined that Chen Peiren was a capitalist with an unacceptable family background. His name was consequently removed from the list. Although unable to study the new production techniques, Chen Peiren was undeterred. He applied the tea factory for permission to use a ton of overstocked and moisture-damaged coarse tea material. Using the methods he had developed before the Communist revolution, he fermented the tea and produced the first batch of Kunming Tea Factory ripe tea.
The team sent to Guangdong for study included Wu Qiying, An Zengrong, and Li Guiying. Upon their return, they attempted to carry out fermentation based on the Guangdong techniques. After several failed attempts, they finally succeeded by changing the water used in fermentation from warm to cold water. At the end of the year, Chen Peiren's ripe tea was mixed with the ripe tea they produced and successfully exported to Hong Kong.
After retiring from the Kunming Tea Factory, Chen Peiren was recruited by the Chun Cheng Tea Factory and assumed the position of engineer. He designed a number of machines for the factory and produced large quantities of ripe Puerh tea.
Upon mention of these bygone days in the history of Yunnan tea, Chen Peiren and his wife Wang Guifang become extremely animated. In the past, he interacted closely with Tong Qing tea company's Chen Qiming and Chen Yunxi-ang. Likewise, he was very familiar with Yan Xiangcheng of Dali's Yong Chang Xiang. He told many stories of Wang Chi's Tongqing tea company. He said that in 1945 he came across the renowned Lei Yong Feng round tea cakes, which at the time were very expensive. He also found Ke Yi Xing tea bricks at a consignment shop in 1952. When frontier trade was stopped, the tea was brought to Kunming for sale. He also explained details of the tea companies, commission structure, and operating models of the past. With his help, I was able to resolve a number of questions that had plagued me.
Chen Peiren explained the words of his trademark: Specializing in Puerh's Jinggu Mcngku Fcngshan famous tea, with dedicated sales to Sichuan, Guangdong, Guizhou, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and Shaanxi provinces. He said that he was simply being boastful. At the time, the farthest he traveled was to Dali. Simao and Xishuangbanna were uncivilized territories and he did not dare to visit. He purchased all of his tea from tea companies and never visited tea growing areas. The first time he traveled to Simao was in 1958. With respect to "Sichuan, Guangdong, Guizhou, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, arid Shaanxi," he recalls that people from Shanghai and Xi'an purchased his tea, which he sent through the post office. He did not actively set up tea shops for sales to these places, though.
After he retired the second time from Chun Cheng Tea Factory, he continued to purchase several hundred pounds of tea each year and carried out small pile fermentation at home. After fermentation, the tea had light fermented flavor and a faint jasmine fragrance. The second time I visited, he presented me with an attractive brown box containing ripe tea he made in 2001. The box slightly resembled that of "little black box" Y526 tea factory tea. To this day, I have not been able to bring myself to brew it.