Author/Photos: He Jian Sheng
Starting from "Why don't they brew tea for their guests?"
In early spring 2005, before the end of the Bi Luo Chun production period, I was able to take advantage of a rare opportunity: Along with the Ren Dan Ru Ju tea study group, I paid a visit to the Su Zhou home of famous painter Ye Fang.
His house was a modern imitation of the famous Su Zhou courtyard gardens. Looking out from the living room, one could experience nearly all of the elements of a traditional Su Zhou garden courtyard. Ye Fang masterfully created all of it himself, including the man-made mountains, the chiseled out pond, the pavilion, the stone bridge, and the wisteria vines. Inside was an elegant guqin (7-stringed zither) and every imaginable piece of antique furniture. Amidst this beautiful scene I thought of how wonderful it would be to have a pot of high quality Long Jing or Bi Luo Chun. Atop the long table our host used to enter-tain guests was a tea set that very much resembled a Taiwan style tea set: a wooden tea tray, Zisha teapot, small Long Quan cups, and an electric tea kettle.
The shelves were filled with familiar, famous Taiwan teas. Presumably, our host was a tea lover. The host and guests engaged in pleasant conversation, but when our visit came to an end, the host had still not brewed tea for his guests. Most troubling was that our host, known as a man of culture and learning, could not possibly fail to understand the principle of entertaining guests with tea, could he? I could not help but ask: "Why didn't he brew tea?"
In Taiwan, this would be inconceivable. In Taiwan, no matter how many or few guests arrive or how much trouble brewing tea would involve, the host will think of a way to provide his guests with a cup of tea.
After returning to Taiwan, I couldn't stop thinking about this question of "why didn't he brew tea." It seemed to have changed from a question of how to treat guests to tea sociology itself. In fact, once removed from that space, the answer was unexpectedly clear: removing other possibilities, he didn't brew tea because he did not have sufficient teaware to serve 10 to 20 people. In order to avoid an awkward situation, he simply did not brew tea. It is possible that a mainland Chinese scholar has never thought of entertaining 10 to 20 people at once. This seems to bring up another question: How is it that Taiwanese people are able to possess sufficient teaware to deal with any possible situation? The answer to this question is also interesting: Taiwanese tea lovers have come to view teaware as toys. It is a bit Like a woman's clothes closest, which always seems to be missing something. When teaware becomes a kind of toy, there will never be enough.
Tea lovers frequently experience a sort of apprehension, believing their teaware is like women's clothing, and that there is always something missing, needed to handle some special situation. In this way, they buy teaware, collect teaware, and enjoy their teaware. They don't put nearly as much thought into just "using" the teaware.
From a practical perspective, Taiwanese teaware production is excessive. If you open the cabinet of a slightly experienced tea drinker, you'll surely be shocked. Both in terms of quantity and variety, they possess far more teaware than daily life requires. Outsiders cannot help but ask, what is the point of having so much teaware? If people bought according to their needs, the Taiwanese teaware market would have been flooded long ago. How did this situation arise? This requires us to discuss a number of topics.
The National Palace contain* national treasures, the people have their Imitations:
A tea-drinking fad began early in Taiwan and has now lasted over 30 years. This has been more than enough time to develop a group of highly particular consumers. In addition to Yingge, which could produce basic low-priced teaware, Taipei also contains the National Palace museum. It is filled with precious porcelain and can be visited at any time. This convenience has helped to greatly raise the general level of teaware production, leading to a variety and. refinement of teaware. Evidence of this trend can be seen at the "Xiao Fang Kiln, which has set as its ultimate goal the quality of the traditional government porcelain kilns. It very much resembles a popular name brand and has become a treasured collectible for tea lovers.
Singular excellence of Yixing pottery:
The primary beneficiary of the tea drinking fad has been the clay pottery of Yixing. Early on, many ancient teapots found their way to the Taiwanese market. Even their imitations are often of excellent quality, During that period, many Taiwanese merchants traveled all the way to Yixing to order large quantities of pots, made in conformance with Taiwanese tastes,It is not at all unusual for experienced tea drinkers to have teapots.
The role of Japanese teaware:
Over the course of Taiwan's love affair with tea, many innovative way of enjoying tea have sprung up. Among these, tea brewing competitions and ubiquitous "tea conferences", large and small, have helped to create a general fashion of aesthetics. Emphasizing the layout of a tea banquet. The first requirement of aesthetics is that teaware not only be beautiful but also rare.
Taiwan produces many types of exquisite teaware, but it covers too small an area. Within a month of a new product's release, it is known everywhere and is quickly duplicated. If you wish to find "rare" tea utensils, the teaware of the Japanese Sencha ceremony, with a tea brewing culture very similar to Taiwan, is the only choice. Today the Sencha tea ceremony's iron and silver teapots, silver teacups, and clay tea containers have all become extremely popular collector's items.
The artistic contribution of ceramic crafts workers:
Taiwanese tea drinking culture is based on Chaoshan gongfu" tea. Among the four treasures of gongfu tea" the pot must be Mengchen, and the cups must be Ruoshen," illustrates gongfu tea's mix and match style. Tea drinkers in Taiwan are very open to mix pottery and ceramics, for instance using a clay teapot and ceramic tea cups. Familiarity with Japanese tea ceremony utensils diminished their rarity, and over the course of time, the Japanese teaware trend came to an end. At this timely moment, a fresh batch of ceramic artists entered the marker. They rook advantage of "small quantity, high variation." Each utensil had the advantage of being unique, and their creations quickly became the new favorite of the market. Especially at tea brewing competitions and large scale tea conferences, ceramic crafts workers frequently play an integral role, bringing an artistic atmosphere to entire tea conferences. Their creations have naturally become the object of frenzied purchasing by tea drinkers.
Peripheral tea implements and "salarymen":
In addition to the primary pottery and porcelain teapots, cups, and trays, numerous other implements play an important supporting role in brewing tea. Examples include bamboo tea utensils, spoons, and tea trays, woven tea towels, mats, and clothes.
This has led to the rise of a large group of people focused on producing high quality handmade peripheral tea tools, intentionally or unintentionally forming a Taiwanese social "micro-laboratory." The background social, economic, and aesthetic significance has possibly helped motivate Taiwan's lifestyle movement toward environmentalism, carbon reduction, simplicity, and slower paced living.
This work ethic, much like that of the Japanese "salaryman," is very much worth examining in order to understand the social implications. After all, these "salarymen" painstakingly emphasize quality and long term use. This runs contrary to the fast-paced, modern, disposable consumer culture and has a positive, sustainable message.
The contribution of tea education cannot be overlooked:
Early on when tea drinking was just coming into fashion, a group of tea educators working to popularize tea had already taken shape. Some thirty years later, the results of tea education have deeply penetrated the popular consciousness and taken root in daily life. The Lu Yu Tea Center holds classes on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and senior tea drinkers lead countless tea ceremony classrooms throughout Taiwan. They have trained housewives, students, and other young adults, who're returned home and subtly brought about undeniable changes. Specifically, this training ensured that they were capable of handling tea brewing tasks with ease.
The pleasure and game of small teapot brewing:
Tea lovers have no problem dealing with day to day tea brewing matters. Taiwanese tea drinkers enjoy all of the advantages described above, so it is not at all surprising that brewing and offering tea to guests has became an essential part of proper etiquette.
The Taiwanese fashion of brewing tea in small teapots can be used for nearly any type of tea. So-called "one pot/many cups" is able to accommodate diverse tea drinking situations, and makes serving tea to guests a pleasure and something of a game. Brewing tea is no longer an arduous task. Taiwan produces quality tea, and other tea types from around the world are easy to find. It also contains many varieties of exquisite teaware.
Taiwan combines good tea with good tools and people who can easily handle tea brewing activities. Tea is not only served to guests, it is often personally brewed by the host. This is the ultimate expression of Taiwanese people's "Southern Hospitality." In comparison, mainland Chinese have yet to grow accustomed to personally dealing with tea drinking matters.
Even servers are perhaps not yet up to the task of preparing tea. This requires long term training and learning through example. It will not happen overnight.
This brings up another rich philosophical question: is the Taiwanese custom of the host always preparing tea for guests actually excessive? Compared with the mainland Chinese situation in which the host maintains strict distance from guests, which is maybe more sincere. Perhaps this can form the topic for another essay.