Ye Tang, A Leisurely World Of Tea

Ye Tang, A Leisurely World Of Tea

Article: Jiang Xiaolln Photos: Chen Mingcong

Tea and jade are sympathetic entities, both mild in virtue. Mr He Jian practices a mild mode of tea in the city, coming to Ye Tang, tea aficionado and novice alike will be moved by the tranquillity.

Walking into Ye Tang tea culture studio in a quiet alley nearby Yong Kang Park, Taipei, the hubbub of the street stops at the door, gentle lights shine inside, and sounds of a guqin drift in the distance; the tranquillity is like a dream song. In summer, wisterias bloom in the courtyard; in winter, the withered vines twist like a scene in an old ink painting.

Snow white wild cherry flowers and jade green bamboo combine in chorus with the owner's sense and style. In front, the traffic grinds, behind, the night market awakens to its restless procession; Ye Tang is a refreshing place of tranquiility among the world of men. He Jian emphasises a "Spiritual encounter" between humans and tea, taking the pursuit and analysis of the flavours and fragrances of teas to a level further than others.

An exquisite space tells endless tales of tea

In contrast to the cold indifference of the iron doors at the entrances to most houses in the alley, Ye Tang’s gray blue wooden door is decorated with a calligraphic couplet on red: "Fine flowers do not fall to entertain, guests may come without paying." The steps are decorated with another piece of art, a chicken cage. He Jian was born and raised in the port city of Jilong, (homophonic with jilong, the Chinese for chicken cage,) as a child he'd often see such chicken cages, so he has kept the cage for old time's sake.

He Jian is content in Ye Tang, a living space to share with others. The tea table is a Qing original passed down within his family, flanked by several benches it creates a welcoming atmosphere that makes guests feel like they are returning home. Under gentle lights, various tea pots and other tea ephemera line the walls, drawing the attention of guests as they slowly peruse the shelves. This tea room is not the product of a famous designer, nor is it magnificently decorated; it is the creation of the open-minded owner, who has sincerely invested his heart into the space, forming a tea room that leaves guests loathed to leave!

Inside the glass door cabinets lining the walls of Ye Tang, tea ephemera from as early as the Japanese colonial period can be seen: colourful cups and gaiwan brought from mainland China to Taiwan long ago, lidded cups from the Guangfu period that the northern Chinese drank jasmine tea from, glasses used in southern China for brewing green tea, old paper Wulong tea packets, wooden and metal tea tins, as well as tea pots and cups from every era of Taiwanese tea can be seen. In different corners of the studio, different displays can be found. Once I chanced upon an exhibit of paired cups, the materials, designs and decorations from every era of Taiwanese tea were represented, it was like a trip through Taiwanese tea history. In October of that year, the exhibition was changed to "Teaware made by Taiwanese Ceramists." Looking back to the golden era of tea in the 1970s, the flourishing prosperity of the tea market inspired developments in the art of teaware, famous ceramists Cai Rongyou and Chen Jingliang created unique works during this time. Other creators of ingenious teapots and teaware featured included an old master from Yingge, Zeng Caiwan who used hand throwing techniques to create perfect tea jugs. In later years Du Furen and Wu Zhengxian further developed the field of ceramic teapot makings working in directions distinct from the traditional Yixing style, moving in new aesthetic and creative directions.

Before long, He Jian and Ye Tang became legendary, a pride of Taiwanese tea culture and history.

Tea brewing champion exchanges house for six teapots.

In 1985, He Jian won top prize in the Chinese Tea Art tea brewing championship. Even with this glowing recognition, he still felt lacking, and consequently has devoted himself to the research of tea for the past twenty years.

How much enthusiasm and sincerity are required to really get into something?

Enough to exchange a house for six teapots!

After reading Yang Xian Purple Clay Teapot Pictorial, He Jian paid a visit to the editor Zhan Xunhua. Originally, he went seeking advice on teapot art, yet Master Zhan, proved to be a font of knowledge on tea, and it was from here that he started to study the roasting of tea. From Master Zhan, he learned of the author of Yang Xian Purple Sand Teapot Pictorial, Li Jingkang's teapot collection from the early years of the Republic of China, all of these pots were now with Mr. Li's old friend Song Zhiqin, in Singapore. Consequently, He Jian collected all of his savings and sold his house for NT$800,000 which he then changed into U.S dollars, and flew to Singapore. Unexpectedly, Mr Song did not welcome the visit, and said that he did not have any teapots.

Disappointed, He Jian flew back to Taiwan. After a few months, he returned to Singapore and this time the old gentleman was a little more courteous, opening the drawers of his cabinet to reveal fifty or sixty precious, matchless teapots covered in a shroud of dust. Watching He Jian brush off the dust and carefully scrutinize each pot, Mr Song reiterated that he loved these pots too much to part with them, and was not ready to sell a single one.

On the third visit, he took Zhan Xunhua along and exchanged a table full of U.S dollars for six teapots. In the quiet of the night, sipping tea, the old teapots revealed themselves to be not only ripe in age, but also aesthetically perfect. This gave He Jian an insight into the poetic charm of the teapots, further cultivating his vision.

Taking tea as our teacher, we may study humility and learn tolerance

Surely if we sail the seven seas, we'll make life difficult for the water? No, from tea he has studied humility and learned tolerance. He Jian says that tea is a rare gift from nature, mindful of the toil of the tea grower, if we drink an average cup of tea, we should be grateful to them, if we drink a good cup of tea we should praise them. Whatever the form or decoration of the teapot, water and clay combine into something special: a finely crafted, wilful creation.

Master of the Japanese tea ceremony Sen no Rikyu also said: "Those who love the way of tea are every able to make use of a broken bowl. Good tea ware is not important; the true way of tea does not require such things." Rikyu instigated the production of Raku tea bowls, taking the aesthetic and rusticity of the Japanese tea ceremony to a new level, emphasising a return to basic, unadorned tranquillity.

Two men of tea share the same direction, a return to simplicity that profoundly moves people's hearts.

With sharp insight, a simple approach to Puerh

In 1993, a group from Taiwan attended the International Puerh Symposium in Yunnan, China. The author Zeng Zhixian discusses this trip in "Outside of the Circle, An Inquiry into the World of compressed Teas." The book describes how He Jian discovered an ingot shaped Puerh cake weighing over twenty kilograms in the corner of a Dai minority house, wild with joy, he carried it on his shoulder and brought it back to Taiwan, even receiving raised eyebrows from customs officials. Originally, Puerh tea was called ingot tea Yuanbao because the stone mortar used to form the tea cake was similar in shape to an ingot. Today, this living fossil has become a treasure of Ye Tang.

He Jian has a close relationship with Puerh tea, and is probably the only Taiwanese person to have come face to face with the aforementioned Qing Dynasty tribute tea. Concerning good and bad, genuine and counterfeit Puerh, he is able to differentiate at a glance. Asking him how to differentiate between such teas, he calmly answered, "It is actually very simple: acquaintance with temperature, humidity and time." That said, following this minimalist way, I am unsure how much knowledge and how many years are necessary to reap such pearls of wisdom.

The water is deep and calm, the master unperturbed

Buying tea in Ye Tang is an interesting experience because of the sincerity of the owner. Sometimes when customers wish to buy Yixing tea sets or teapots, He Jian may advise them to think over their prospective purchases and go look at other similar examples; it is as if he can judge character at a glance, knowing the customer's needs, understanding that "Objects find owners of their own accord" A true tea lover, the artist Mr L has been known to turn to tea shop owners and openly spit the tea that they have served him out; upon arriving at Ye Tang, he not only dispensed with his spitting, but was moved enough to seek out a painting that He Jian liked and give it to him as a present. He says: "To find good tea, you must find one who understands tea and who can brew tea. As for tasting and discussing tea, He Jian is the man."

Through interactions with our senses, tea inhabits abstract layers of the soul. Tea is integrated with meditation, philosophy and aesthetics; after experiencing the richness of this side of life and returning to reality, we will be happy with tea and with our sincerity, treasuring all. Leaving Ye Tang, walking along the alley, we step back into reality. The tea still lingers, as the cup offered by He Jian warms the bottom of the heart. Ancient poems eulogised drinking wine as a means of releasing the literati's inhibitions, in today's world of bright lights and fast paced life, maybe we need a little more of tea's sentiment and tranquillity...