Monday, June 25, 2007

TREASURE ISLAND: A Voyage to Taiwan [i]

Who knows how Taiwan first got the nickname of 寶島 (bao dao, 'Treasure Island')? The point is that the name fits, at least as well as the Latin moniker that Portuguese explorers gave it in the sixteenth century: Ilha Formosa, 'the beautiful island.' The visitor to Taiwan quickly comes to see what a treasure it is, and how beautiful. I had heard of its scenic coasts and mountains, and drunk many a cup of its famous teas, long before my university put out a call-for-papers for an international symposium to be held in Taiwan.

With nothing to lose, I made a somewhat audacious proposal -- or at least one radically unlike the others that eventually made it onto the program. My proposal was this: Why not look at tea as an emblem (or synecdoche) of Asian life and culture? ('Synecdoche' is an ancient Greek term meaning 'the part for the whole,' as when you way 'I've got wheels' to mean that you have access to a car. An example of a synecdoche in Chinese is the traditional phrase -- now obsolescent, and almost quaint to young Taiwanese -- 吃過飯了嗎 chi guo fan le ma?, i.e. 'Have you eaten rice?' -- meaning, of course, not rice only, but a meal. Or, again, 飲茶 yin cha 'drink tea,' where this really means 'have tea and a light meal,' i.e. 'eat dim sum' -- in Cantonese it would be pronounced yam cha.) Against all odds -- or so it seemed to me -- my proposal was accepted, and I was sent (as part of the American delegation to the symposium) to deliver not one but two papers, before mixed audiences of Asians and westerners.

The thesis I propounded in the first of these presentations was that tea is such an important part of Asian culture (Korean and Japanese as well as Taiwanese and Chinese) that it may be considered from a whole variety of angles, each illuminating a different aspect of life. Taken together, these glimpses begin to offer us a nuanced and rounded impression of the overall culture. The part standing for the whole. Some of the aspects I mentioned were:

1. the anthropology of food and drink
2. societal and socializing institutions, public and private (in the home, in the teahouse)
3. botany and agronomy: new methods of soil and crop science for an ancient agriculture
4. finance and commerce [i]: marketing matters, from the skyrocketing prices of rare oolong and pu'er teas to the question of marketing tea to non-Asians (a 'Starbucks of Tea'?)
5. finance and commerce [ii]: business ethics; matters of Fair Trade practices and work conditions on tea farms
6. finance and commerce [iii]: tea processing factories and warehouses in Asia
7. health applications (tea as a vital component of Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM])
8. religious applications (tea as an aspect of Zen meditation and Daoist thought since the Middle Ages at least)
9. aesthetic applications [i]: the actual preparation and taste of tea
10. aesthetic applications [ii]: teaware, from Tang Dynasty to the 21st century (including the importance of the porcelain trade in 17th-century Europe, and its impact on the tea trade)
11. aesthetic applications [iii]: tea and the other arts, including myth and folklore, writing (fiction and non-fiction), and music

As I have said, each of these 'parts' of cha dao offers an angle on the whole. I feel strongly that if westerners had a better grasp on the richness of tea culture in Asia -- how profoundly connected to aspects (logical and even pre-logical) of Asian life -- we would better understand Asian life as a whole. The rest of this first presentation outlined a plan, in several phases, for making such a study.

My second presentation was what is known as a 'literature review' -- an overview of the bibliographic resources available for undertaking whatever study one wants to make. In my own academic field, which is Classical Philology, a literature review is not typically the central topic of an entire presentation; but its purpose at this symposium was presumably to provide a demonstration that each of the participants had indeed 'done h/er homework' in the course of preparing h/er project. I broke mine down into categories of specialist and non-specialist material, and also into print and non-print resources.

It was fascinating to watch the response of my audiences at these two presentations. The Taiwanese conferees mostly nodded and smiled at my assertions: for the most part, I was just 'preaching to the choir' in their case. The American participants, on the other hand, were in equal parts intrigued and surprised. Most of them were of course coffee-drinkers, so 'tea' was a foreign language to them. But over the several days we spent together, they began asking questions about my ideas and actually started looking around them. In Taipei, there is (it seems) a tea shop every half-block or so. Some of my colleagues began stopping in and looking around in these shops. Eventually, I noted, tea and gongfu sets were purchased to take home. One colleague said, not entirely joking, 'You changed my life.'

None of this tea material, of course, had any relevance to my own scholarly discipline. Or did it? Isn't the study of Homer or Plato or Vergil really an attempt to distil what is best and most beautiful about the Western heritage? And don't we today find the ancient Greeks and Romans foreign, 'other,' even exotic in some fundamental ways? The pursuit of such study is, at a very basic level, a way of thinking about globalization: about how we differ from and are like other cultures, which also have important lessons to teach us about ourselves too, if we will but listen.

It were endless tedium for you, gentle reader, to slog through a complete narrative of my experiences in Asia; each day there seemed to compress a year's worth of living. So I will leave out most of the details, focusing here on a few of the most closely tea-related experiences. Even so, it will take me several instalments to do so.

In this symposium, scholars from the two American universities involved were partnered, whenever possible, with scholars from the Taiwanese universities. I had the great good fortune to be paired with Will, a man of Taiwanese birth who has a background in the sciences and a long personal history of drinking teas. On our first day, Will took me to lunch at Shin Yeh, an excellent restaurant around the corner from my hotel. The average American would walk right past the entrances to such restaurants, which look like commercial lobbies of some sort (they give no clear indication that the dining area is actually upstairs). At Shin Yeh, we chose morsels from a small, elegant buffet that included 魯肉飯 lu rou fan, a traditional Taiwanese stew eaten over rice; a Hakka soup (which Will himself had never encountered before this), flavored with goose and pork; fresh fruits and vegetables; and dumplings of various kinds. (The other traditional Taiwanese dish I very much wanted to taste, 擔仔麵 dan zai mian ['do-your-duty noodles'], was not being served there that day, though I did later have a bowl of it, and it is delicious. Highly recommended. When, on another day, we did finally succeed in finding a bowl of dan zai mian, I did my best to extrapolate a recipe of it as I ate; Will even made a quick phone call to his wife to consult about likely seasonings.) But on this day, the restaurant was packed, which did not surprise me, given the quality of the food on offer.

As Will and I lunched, we began our conversation about tea, ranging from generalizations to very specific topics. After the meal, we went back to his laboratory at the university -- a small hive of graduate students, all hard at work. We took refuge in his private office, where he opened his cabinets and brought out a gongfu tea set, with a bamboo cha pan and three different zisha teapots. There we proceeded to drink tea for the next two hours. Eventually, Will actually canceled a meeting in order to stay on and brew tea. Through his office windows we could see the magnificent mountains of Taiwan spread out in the distance. From his cabinet emerged tea after tea, each more rare than the one before it.

Will has connections that enable him to obtain the private-stock teas that the Taiwanese farmers grow and process primarily for themselves and their families. He stressed the importance of organic farming and the avoidance of agro-chemicals in the soil used to support the tea plants. I asked whether the tea farmers (and other farmers, for that matter) of Taiwan were convinced of this importance, and after some thought, he said he thought some were -- but that others were just more interested in volume and speed of production than in maintaining high quality in health and nutrition. 

We took a break and went upstairs to meet Huang Chi-Fang, a professor in another department. Chi-Fang is a warm and jovial sort, and is rumored to drink coffee occasionally, but when we met he presented me with a canister of tea -- this one a hong cha made from bushes grown near Sun Moon Lake. (Little did I realize, at the time, the magnitude of this gift. Since 1969, the Field of Tea Improvement and Research Institute has been listing its new unique cultivars numerically; this one was #18 of 18 -- so new, in fact, that most tea-heads in Taiwan don't even know yet of its existence.) Chi-Fang volunteered to drive me to the Pinglin Tea Museum the following week.

At the end of our session that afternoon, Will also presented me with a canister of oolong from He Huan Shan (a mountain near Li Shan; the 'Taiwan Fog Forest Cold Mountain Tea-Growing Region,' as the canister says).
He specifically pointed out the label announcing that the tea farmer certified and took responsibility for the quality of the tea -- one of the highest guarantors, for Will, of quality in a Taiwan tea. This was the last canister he had of that particular tea, so it was a momentous gift -- and a tea of extraordinarily high quality.

After this long tea session I went to the elaborately decorated Daoist temple nearby, paid my respects, and took some pictures; then went back to the hotel where I could think and read quietly before an early bedtime.

-- corax

[to be continued]


shen said...

Xie! Xie! So much more fun than Fodor's................can't wait to read more!

corax said...

shen, thank you for your kind words. glad you are enjoying it. stay tuned!
-- corax

Grasshopper said...

Thanks, kind and scholarly crow, for the report. Your words took me there. :-) I cannot wait to read more. When do you plan to return? As ever, hoka-hey, Grasshopper.

corax said...

grasshopper, it is my pleasure. i still remember your own vivid and wonderful accounts of your trip to asia ... i don't know when i'll get to go back, but i hope it's soon!
-- corax

CLK said...

Hi, just came back Taipei from the vacation in eastern Taiwan (the very mountainous area). It’s interesting to learn how an outside observer describes the island, the tea, food and life etc. Wait to read the following articles. CLK

samarkand said...

Very interesting! Love the detailed accounts...when will the next installment be published?

corax said...

CLK, i bet you could tell us a thing or two about tea in taiwan!

samarkand, glad you enjoyed. the next instalment should be published ... any minute now!