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The rise of plum blossom tea appreciation ceremony in Taiwan by He Jian Sheng

"I am the spring that the northern region couldn't wait for." The blossoms in full bloom from this beautiful poem by Zheng Chou Yu make their punctual appearance at plum gardens across Hsinyi district in central Taiwan, every year from December to January. In the eyes of farmers, plum these are full of worldly goods. Plum blossom appreciation is a tourism event with a great potential reward. Furthermore, plum tea, purple perilla plum, or candied crisp plum, plum wine, plum vinegar aetc, are daily delicacies of Taiwanese throughout the year, and are also valuable economic products. Plums not only satisfy our taste buds, but also enrich our spiritual life. For the new generation of "Tea appreciators" and "Floral artists" in Taiwan, the yearly " Plum Blossom Tea Appreciation Gathering" - in the shade of the plum trees in a plum garden - is a beautiful yet passionate calling.

A decade ago, a group of floral teachers from the "Chinese Floral Arts Foundation" discovered Hsinyi's unique plum blossom landscape; since then, flower appreciation in the mountain has become a compulsory part of their life as floral artists. Although flower appreciation is enjoyable, they felt there was something missing, and uncovered the missing chord, in this plum blossom symphony of tea. The annual outing has over time developed into a grand "Plum Blossom Tea Appreciation Gathering", from the initial flower appreciation-and-pic-nic among close friends. And it is the "Taichung Tea Arts Joint Promotion Association" that has single-handedly made this event a success.

Liu Han Jie, a key figure in the Taichung tea industry, first invited some 30 friends for a flower appreciation gathering at Wu Song Lun plum garden in 1999. Since then, the gathering has turned into an annual event and tradition. The like-minded from other parts of Taiwan came and joined, contributing to the tea culture. This has realized details in the tea appreciation ceremony, and at the same time, shaped the cultural landscape of Taiwan.

Feng Gui Dou, Wu Song Lun and Niu Chou Keng in Hsinyi are the three main mountainous areas for plum blossom appreciation in central Taiwan. This year (2008) around noon on January 4th, more than 300 tea lovers gathered together at the Liu's plum blossom garden in Niu Chou Keng. Among them, more than 50 people prepared, field seats and tea settings, an average of six people per setting. This was the highlight of the event. The Taiwanese tea appreciation practices in the open-air emphasize boiling water with a clay teapot for tea drinking on site. The tea wares, from boiler, stove, teapots, tea caddies, cups, towel to tray, among others, were so sophisticated that they could fill the whole car boot. Hosts were busy choosing trees with the best shade, laying out their tea settings carefully and properly on the lawn, and putting up tea and fruits for me free consumption of everyone. Each participant was seen holding his/her own tea appreciation cup, walking from one setting to another, appreciating each distinctively prepared tea while exchanging pleasantries with each other. What a beautifu scene it was!

After all, flower and tea appreciation is nothing more than a casual leisurely activity. The most interesting part lies in the cultural phenomena and humanistic cultivation of the region, as demonstrated in the various details behind the tea receptions. This also inadvertently reveals the "true colors " of the participants and the occasion.

Dress code for the tea appreciation gatherings

From the north to the south of Taiwan, someone could be planning meticulous tea appreciation gatherings, at all imaginable times and venues, which have become occasions of social interaction within the community, as well as an opportunity for demonstrating personal style. Clothing, especially for the ladies, is of utmost importance. A common sight at all tea appreciation gatherings is hand-dyed or designer couture with unique accessories to achieve a mix-and-match, personal statement. The idea is to be at one with Nature under the principles of "ordinary yet unconventional", "luxurious but down to earth" and "without brand". It is safe to say that tea appreciation gatherings provided a stage for one to exercise his/her personal style, which in turn enriches the occasion itself. Though nothing mainstream, such "spontaneous" fashion sense is impressive.

The tea appreciation cup, a must-have at tea gatherings

In a fresco free-flowing tea gathering, the most thoughtful is often the most modest of ideas. One such example is a personal gongfu tea cup. As long as guests are equipped with their own cups, the hosts of the tea settings will pour a cuppa for them. They are then free to walk around and chat. In this way, it will save the hosts the trouble of washing up, and is both environmental friendly and hygienic. Inside most ladies' bags are two essential items - a tea appreciation cup and a pair of environmental friendly chopsticks. However, this does not apply to a invitation to sit down for tea, where bringing out your own tea appreciation cup is a taboo.

The choice of tea and tea wares are equally important

The ability to produce different types of tea under different temporal and spatial environments best demonstrates the maturity of a tea aficionado. It is generally agreed that body-warming brew is the choice at plum blossom tea appreciation gatherings in the winter. Judging from the scene at the gatherings, the tea served is predominantly of this category: Taiwan old tea (Oolong tea), highly-fermented Tie Guan Yin or Chen Tie, Bai-Hao Oolong with its distinct sweet aroma, and of course, there is matured Puerh tea, aged Puerh, and Wu Yi Yan Cha. There is an absence of highly-scented green tea of the season; could this be another aesthetic preference?

Romantic and the not-so-romantic

Beautiful plum blossoms, heart-and-body warming brew and intimate friends are all romantic. What is not would be the logistics and arrangement involved when there are 300 people roaming around the mountain. However, thanks to the efficient handling of the unromantic knotty and thorny details, tea lovers get to enjoy an idyllic and pleasant tea appreciation gathering. And this includes preparation of refreshment for 300 - where to serve and what to serve? Where there is such a crowd moving back and forth even the mountain, signage, guidelines as well as flow of communication are extremely important. Besides, there is the water issue. Water needs to be boiled for the 50 tea settings on site. Boiling water at 1,000 meters above sea level with the need of good heat insulation to ensure the quality of tea is a major r problem. Clearly, indoor alcohol stoves don't work, while fast stoves I do not really go with the occasion, and charcoal might be troublesome for safety reasonss. Romance aside, these arc real issues to be tacked with satisfaction.

Music at a tea appreciation gathering

In recent years, "dialogue between tea and music" is a popular approach at Taiwan's tea appreciation gatherings, where tea and music are put on the same pedestal. Having experimented over a period of time, the music is now taken care of by mostly professional musicians playing Er'hu, Gu'qin, Xiao'di to Yang'di, Gu'zhcng to even human voices. This intense aural experience in a short stretch of time is intended to add value to the gatherings, whereby participants will hopefully be drawn to such gatherings because of the rich and colourful content. So far no one seems to have enough confidence to offer tea lovers "tea appreciation gatherings sans music". The absence of manmade music does not mean silence - there will still be "the sounds of nature" such as wind water, birds and human voice. Just imagine how pleasant it is when you are peacefully lying underneath a shady plum tree, with flower petals gently falling down like snowflakes as the wind blows, and the body scented with pleasant plum blossom fragrance. And then comes the barely audible melody. With closed eyes, let's one thoughts run wild. With such multi-layered and rich sounds of nature, who would want to spend money for anything extra?

As the day draws to a close, people begin to make a move and start to pack. Some plan to visit another plum blossom garden before dark to experience a different landscape, while others decide to take another route home to capture a different scenery or another surprise, or to get some souvenirs for family members. Everyone seems to have obtained what they want and certain life experience. "Parting is the start of another meeting", the next plum blossom tea appreciation gathering is calling out from 364 days away.