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A Brief Discussion on A Few Concepts Behind Taiwan's Tea Presentation Setting by He Jian Sheng

The best way to understand the essence of tea culture in a region is to look at how local people establish tea as a hobby, and not just a beverage for quenching thirst. Tea for play, as many would have put it, is to develop tea into a pastime with colours and fervour. You will learn a lot more abour the people and their tea culture by look ac the way they "play" with tea. In the 70s, Taiwanese explored "tea literature" as a hobby; in the 80s, they turned to Yixing teapots and pursued "tea-making on the mountain"; in the 90s, they were into tea clubs and associations; and now in the early 21st century, they are bowled over by tea presentation setting.

Tea presentation setting is a term originating from Japanese tea presentation ceremonies. Given the directness and vivid new of the term, no wonder it is widely in use and accepted today. In Taiwan, tea presentation setting generally refers to a unique tea appreciation ambience, structured on tea sets chosen according to practicality, convenience and aesthetic values. The setting match with that of the occasion, be it a tea reception for guests at home, tea art performance or a tea making competition. The ultimate aim is to present the best tea to the guests, as a statement of the host's hospitality and sincerity, artistic attainment and humanistic cultivation. But just why was there a lapse of 20 to. 30 years before we took up tea presentation setting as a form of tea appreciation?

Many years ago at a tea symposium, a scholar stressed that the essence of "tea" is in the tea liquor itself. In the tea competition organized by famous Lu Yu Tea House, tea liquor alone attributed to 60% (20% per brew) of the total score; this shows that the primary task of tea appreciation class is to learn "how to make a good pot of tea." Similar to the tradition of "Chaoshan Kungfu tea" which stresses the tea liquor itself, tea and tea alone is equivalent to the mastering of the art of tea, back in that era. However, various manifestations on tea arose over time. First emerged two expositions, namely "the theory of tea re-creation" and "the theory of tea decomposition"; the latter was a borrowed idea from other forms of arts. In short, the product created by the tea producer will need another creator, namely the tea-maker, to re-create the tea. Apart from the tea maker, there won't be a so-called arbiter of tea; or to be more precise, there will not be one single interpretation. These two arguments thoroughly subverted the tradition of tea producing experts, as the ultimate graders of tea based on the structure and tone of tea liquor. Standards of tea liquor become 'relative'.

Tea appreciation is a very personal and intimate experience; the only way to share it is through verbal communication and exchanges of ideas. What modern man lacks is training with 'adjectives' or 'ways of expression' when they deal with feelings. They are more adept to express feelings and tell stories with graphic images. With stories, we could generate unlimited development. Tea presentation setting is one such three-dimensional graphic which provides room for development-something tea liquor alone could not achieve.

Tea presentation setting begins with Tea Competitions

When Taiwan's Lu Yu Tea House organized its first tea-making competition back in 1980, tea set arrangement was not listed as part of the grading scheme. Participants were required to use tea sets provided by Lu Yu to ensure standardization of the tea liquor. It wasn't until the third tea-making competition in 1984, when tea set arrangement was taken into the consideration (attributed to 20% of the total score). This introduction was not without drawbacks; as tea set designs and production matured over the following 20 years, participants were mostly using gongfu tea set of fine quality; some would also have been advised by experts; grading or distinction becoming even harder. This eventually led to the emergence of "decorative arts" in the competition in an attempt to earn extra marks.

Is this decorative arts or installation art?

Initially, "decorative arts" was not well received; many considered such approach extreme and accused it of being just another form of "installation arts". In fact, the two are completely different in manifestation—the biggest difference being the former's stress on "beauty"; there is nothing more concrete other than the concept of beauty. However, this is not important anymore, since "tea innovators" in Taiwan have already begun building tea presentation setting into the space where tea is served. This 'scene' created is part of the art of expression. Literature about this may Still be wanting, though a unique style is already in place.

"Virtud scene" vs. "Reality"

In accordance with the current trend, tea presentation setting can no longer subsist solely for performance reasons, except for tea appreciation at home. It has become a part of a virtual scene. However, we could not help but question, why should we forgo physical reality for virtual reality? Is it fortunate or unfortunate that we have to with-draw from reality and turn to the virtual space to appease our desires? Is this a display of dissatisfaction towards the "reality" or are we lured by the vanity of a "virtual scene"? In the "virtual scene", we indulge by bringing in the best, perfecting it to a "virtual reality"; this is a somewhat additive approach.

But in real life, most tea masters and experts adopt a "simplistic" and "minimalist" approach towards tea presentation arrangement, this is a somewhat "subtractive" approach. What's interesting is that, tea enthusiasts of both approaches coexist peacefully in Taiwan.

Japanese Sencha Tea Art vs. Taiwanese Oolong Tea Art

The wave of Taiwanese tea art began in 1970s, against the backdrop of zero exchanges between the Peoples Republic of China and Taiwan; the latter can only acquire inspiration from classical Chinese tea writings, as well as from Macha art, the symbol of Japanese tea culture.

In the beginning, the impact of Japanese tea art mainly came from relevant aesthetic expositions. Lid saucer, bamboo tea scraper and bamboo tea scoop played an important role in the setting of the tea wares. These have since been standard features of tea wares in use in Taiwan.

In the 1980s, Taiwan began adopting the "approach" with the use of tea caddy, and the tea cup transfer, collection, as well as tea extraction from tea caddy, after stepping up exchanges on Japanese Sencha Tea Art. Only in the 90s, Taiwanese tea art groups and individuals started attending the annual Japanese Sencha Tea Art Union's General Assembly held at Wanfu Temple in Kyoto. In 2005, The Chinese Art of Tea Craft Union officially came in contact with the Japanese Sencha Tea Art Union, and was invited to partake in the latter's operation. Qiu Shan Tang Tea House and The Chrysanthemum Chaism Studies also organized tea presentation setting groups, which have inflicted Japanese's affection for Taiwanese Oolong tea.

The setting of tea presentation showcases the impact of both Sencha Art and Japanese teapot brewing culture on Taiwanese Tea Art, after a long period of exchanges and for the reason that both employ the pot brewing method.

Apart from the extensive use of Japanese silver pots, metal pots, silver cup saucers, silver tea caddies, and other tea utensils, Japanese influence is also seen in the use of flower and plant arrangement at the foreground, middle ground and background of the venue of tea competition or performance.

According to research of the Mainland scholar Teng Jun, the trend of reproducing a rustic and carefree lifestyle with flora bonsai and fruit trees among other auspicious charm, as depicted in "Nan Hua (Southern Painting)" from China, can be commonly found in tea ceremony of Sencha Art. Guests will be treated to a visual feast, shuttling between the physical and virtual reality.

What appears in paintings, such as objects with auspicious meanings, are duplicated in the physical world for the tea presentation setting.

We cannot help but wonder, what is this 'reincarnation' of a tea culture: firstly, the spirit of Sencha Art in Japan was inspired by the refined yet pleasant lifestyle of literati in the Qing-Ming Dynasties; and today, three hundred years later, various "elements" of Sencha Art have affected the presentation styles of Taiwanese tea art. Will such a 'reincarnation' in turn impact the Mainland's tea culture in places and ways we least expect?