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The Wistaria Tea House, A Space For Dialogue Between Humanity And All Living Things

Words: Zhou Yu Word ordering: Liu Xingyi Editorial and Photography: Chen Mingcong

An old house, three wistaria,
Looking out from the old latticed windowns,
We see ancient trees, the awakening of spring, and a mass of flowers.
Brew a pot of tea, take a sip ponder the world, chat,
In every corner and upon every wall
Bonsai,ceramics and paintings
Quietly reveal another world of life and asethetics.

Named after the three old wistaria that grow freely up the side of the building, tile Wistaria Tea House is not only the oldest extant teahouse in Taipei, but also the first teahouse to be set up as a space for arts and literature. The founder, Zhou Yu adheres to the principle that "By rediscovering the natural spirit, the human spirit will in turn be renewed." Indeed, this is a small haven in the midst of the city, where tea and tranquillity meet and the spirit may find room to refresh.

Tea art, for Zhou Yu stems from the traditional Chinese way of thinking about heaven, earth and humanity. Honesty, calm, quiet and circularity are the ideals that Zhou Yu wishes to promote through his work in tea culture. Over the years, Zhou Yu has been a peerless presence, developing his vision of tea culture through the mastery of tea, using tea as an intermediary to floriculture, music, dancing and folk arts, cultivating every aspect of Taiwanese tea art.

He says that traditional Chinese ideology, liberalism and leftism have always been at the core of the Wistaria Tea House. This is a place tolerant of every type of discussion and voice, positively promoting dialogue. This dialogue is not limited to human communication, but is a dialogue between humans and all living things. Through this dialogue, we can better observe ourselves and all things on earth.

Zhou Yu discusses the tea room

Zhou Yu says that although we are discussing a room for tea, if we look at the concept of rooms from a historical viewpoint, spaces in rooms have always attracted a certain hegemony, a wish to order things and a desire to control, not dissimilar to the ways animals occupy their territories. The designing process is the same, ordering the space essentially becomes control of the space, using objects as our tools, and arranging all. If we approach the organisation of space from a temporal standpoint, slowly interacting with every item in the room, a relationship of mutual respect will establish, life will relate to life and to aesthetics. With this type of patient progress, profound nature will emerge in abundance and diversity, without simple continuity or structure.

Tea rooms are the same, they should offer a modest and quiet core that slowly unfolds with time, attentively listening to every thing within their environment and quietly engaging all in dialogue, Zhou Yu often tells the staff at the Wistaria that when setting up for tea events, respecting the cups and other tea ephemera, as well as the tea, is tantamount to respecting oneself! People today have not been respected since they were small, indeed, neither do they know how to respect themselves. Perhaps, from starting by respecting tea utensils, gradual feelings of respect for the self may grow. Presenting cups to the guests with both hands also requires a certain respect. But, upon encountering impetuous customers, what can be done? Zhou Yu jokes, in that situation, just respect the Japanese tea cups, don't worry about them!

In his Book of Tea, Japanese aesthete Okakura Kakuzo mentions how in Japanese tea rooms, people communally drink from the same brew by Japanese tea set, levelling all present. This implies eastern democracy, but I believe that there are a great deal more cultural values behind democracy. If we say that to strive for equality, all we must do is develop our democracy, this presents an incomplete, dangerous idea. Recent dictatorships and popular movements have followed such paths of idealism with great success. Democratic culture should respect every individual, and recognise the differences between the plural and the particular.

In terms of Chinese culture, this tea house possesses the creative power of an innocent child; Buddhism sees the world like an old man, with life always teetering on the brink of death, treating the world as a mirage; Confucianism is like a middle aged person, being responsible for duties to oneself, to one's family and to society. Relating to this, Confucius said "A gentleman gets along with others, but does not necessarily agree with them."

Looking at portrayals of assembled scholars from Chinese antiquity, there will be several attendees playing the qin, others sit, listening to the qin, while others sit chatting, on one side of the painting someone will be painting calligraphy, another reading, with children on the side preparing tea. A gathering of this ilk is described in Wang Xizhi's Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion Lantingji Xu, composed in 353. He describes a group of gentlemen drinking wine in the countryside at the Orchid Pavilion, beside a creek. In several of the original paintings, we can observe people brewing tea under a pine beside the creek, as others drink tea nearby. Tea has become the protagonist here, but its role is not limited to Moreover, it has become a symbol, representing nature.

Tea absorbs the intrinsic aesthetics and, spirit of nature. The plant has gained renown amongst the plants of our planet; tea represents the natural world, and humans exist in nature. Chinese thinking has never pitted man against nature, but has located him within nature. Human hearts look both to the heavens and to the earth, and we have the power to create. In light of this, tea can easily permeate into our souls, making us feel relaxed and open, joining us to nature's infinite and never ending creative powers, offering infinite inspiration for reciting poetry and composing verse.

If you carefully come to know tea, you may realise that she connects heaven and earth, and is both very open and very gentle. Although there is competition in the plant world, compared to the competitiveness that exists among animal species, plants coexist harmoniously. Such coexistence reveals a silent understanding and acceptance of the universe, an inspiration for humans.

We can come then, to realise that tea is open, like a gentleman, getting along with others, but not necessarily agreeing with them, individual and continuously created. Tea can inspire us to utter anecdotes and meaningful witticisms without restraint such as those in A New Account of the Tales of the World. This is a unique characteristic of the world of Chinese tea, and I believe that such points of discussion and anecdotes are the strongest base for democracy in this world! If we can use this type of mature, established culture to further develop democracy, we will be able to develop to higher realms than present day Western
democracies.

Western individualism emphasises the importance of the individual, but this presents a problem: there is no close relationship with nature. Manners of mutual respect such as those of the English gentleman may be fostered, but each individual goes their own way, people are essentially isolated, and isolated hearts are often troubled and anxious to the extent that they change for the worse. This is a great problem for civilisation today.

Our tea world culture should exist in a state of close bond between t he natural world and humans, "Harmonious while diversified," as Confucius said, aiming for affinity but not uniformity, and certainly not resembling the imposed equality of Japanese tea practices. How did Japan arrive at such a view? Japan is an island nation, in the past, transport and communications were not as developed as they are today. After Japan came into contact with Confucian philosophy, the Japanese developed the conformity present in Confucian etiquette to another level, possibly due to the high degree of conformity that was sought at the time in the isolated country. With regard to the Chinese, of us here today, this one is from Dongbei, those two are from Guangdong, and the other is probably from Gansu; our languages and customs are very different, our heights, faces and builds are different, too. How can all be expected to abide to one custom?

The core of Chinese culture is self cultivation and The Rites of Zhou state that the root of courtesy is respect, respect for the heavens, respect for oneself and respect for others. Confucius stressed that we should not overemphasise etiquette, using our hearts to show our respect as a foundation. In serving tea, the host can establish respect by maintaining his inner calm and stability, leading the overall atmosphere of the occasion. As we start to respectfully drink, the tea slowly flows its way around our bodies, causing all to feel naturally relaxed and able to open and join our individual spirits to the world and to our friends, hence inspired thoughts and subtleties appear. In this way, we are able to enjoy a truly creative living art!

In comparison with Western individualist democracy, we don't only stress the importance of the individual, we also possess empathy to the next man, to the things that we use, to all living things. The biggest problem is that China now looks toward an uncertain future, in the past, everyone scrambled to make money, but now some sense that this is meaningless. Who can say what the future will hold? At a time when a society has very good ideas and philosophy, genuinely good government can nurture these seeds so that they grow into a realisable future. From the origins of Chinese culture, and from the essence of Chinese tea culture, I believe that we can establish a healthy relationship between heaven and earth. The West emphasises a creator, namely God, implying that the creator and the created are opposed; the creator that we refer to in the East is omnipresent, everyone is a creator, the creator is inside you. We come to learn that the creator is nature and nature is the creator.