Monday, June 25, 2007

TREASURE ISLAND: A Voyage to Taiwan [iv]

As I have said, there would be no end of the telling if I attempted anything like a comprehensive travelogue for my trip to Asia. I shall spare you that, gentle reader, recounting instead in this post several individual experiences that occurred on different days.

Lu Yu Tea Culture Institute

Before heading to Taiwan, I had contacted Steven R. Jones (瓊斯史迪芬), who writes online as Sherdwen. Steven is a Tea Master at the Lu Yu Tea Culture Institute (tel 02.2331.6636, ext 9). Steven, an affable American expat, has embraced Asian tea culture with an enthusiasm that I surmise he invests in all his projects. When I let him know that I would be in Taiwan, and was interested in learning more about the work of the Institute, he issued me a very warm welcome and arranged to show me about the place. I took a taxi one afternoon, when I had a three-hour chink in my long daily schedule, to the address Steven had given me (3F, no. 64, Heng-Yang Road), and -- to my surprise -- found myself at the doors of TEN REN. Imagine a department store five stories high, all devoted to tea, tea-ware, and tea culture in general: this is the Taipei Ten Ren. The first floor is Ten Ren proper; the second floor houses 'Cha for Tea,' intended to provide a livelier, hipper 'tea bar' atmosphere (targeting a younger market?). The third floor is for the Lu Yu Institute. The fourth floor houses the Ten Ren Teaism Foundation and some offices (on which see below). On the fifth floor is a large meeting-hall for conferences, performances, and stockholder meetings.

Of course I didn't know any of that when I first arrived. The personnel on the ground floor sent me to the third floor, via elevator. Here I found the capacious quarters of the Lu Yu Tea Culture Institute (陸羽茶藝中心).

The Institute was founded in 1980 in Taipei, with an emphasis on education in various aspects of cha dao, not excluding innovation in the design and production of tea-ware. As well as in Taiwan, it has established branches on the mainland of China -- in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu -- and plans are also being laid to open a branch in or near Los Angeles, California.

The day on which I arrived was a special one for the Institute, in that examinations were being administered -- the 陸羽泡茶師檢定辦法 (Lu Yu Tea Master examination). The examination is quite rigorous; it includes both a skills test and a written test. In the written portion, for which a grade of 70% or better is considered passing, one must demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of teas, tea-ware, and tea lore. In the skills test, which has a nerve-wracking twelve parts, one must demonstrate to the examination board one's ability to brew a variety of teas, in small and large quantity; to identify 'made' teas by color, aroma, and flavor; and to use various kinds of tea-ware as supplied by the examiners. Upon successful completion of the entire examination, the candidate is certified by the Institute as a Tea Master.

As I toured the Institute, students were being put through their paces in the skills test. When I passed through the examination area, one of the candidates stopped what she was doing to exclaim, 'I saw you on television last night!' This came as something of a surprise to me, although it is not entirely impossible that our delegation had been filmed for the nightly news.

Steven is a very busy man at Lu Yu. And in addition to his work as a Tea Master, he is (among other things) Leader of the Ten Ren Teaism Foundation's Herin Tea Troupe; a Tea Instructor for the International Wu-Wo Tea Ceremony Association; and a writer/translator for the Lu Yu Institute's Tea Culture Monthly. I was grateful that he was able to carve out some time for me amid what was clearly a taxing schedule. While he was doing so, I had some time to browse the shelves of books and tea-ware that were for sale. I found some wonderful things, including a Chinese-language edition of Lu Yu's Cha Jing that was bound together with the (Qing-era) Continuation of the Cha Jing.

Eventually Steven was able to to sit down, take a deep breath, and brew some tea. We had a good long chat, covering many topics. Steven told me about his 2005 visit to Wu Yi Shan, on the mainland, and how at that time he came to devise the proverb 茶是我们的桥梁 -- 'Tea Is Our Bridge.' This is a topic that matters a great deal to me: the healing and communicative powers of sharing tea. Certainly tea and cha dao cover some of the profoundest areas of common interest between Taiwan and the mainland of China.

Steven showed me around the building, explaining a bit about the Ten Ren empire and its history. I was able to shake hands with Professor Tsai Rong-Tsang, the founder and General Manager of the Lu Yu Institute. Tsai is Professor and Chairman of the Tea Arts Department at Ten Fu Tea College, and Secretary-General of Ten Ren Teaism Foundation. A prolific publisher, Tsai has been editing Tea Culture Monthly since the 1980s, and has authored several books. When we reached the fourth floor, I saw a hive of workers, busy at the work of the company. This floor also includes the offices of Lee Rie-Ho, the man who founded the company in 1953 and has chaired it since its inception. (Lee went on to establish the Ten Fu Group in 1993, as a way of bringing Taiwanese tea expertise back to the Chinese mainland. Ten Fu now has over 650 retails stores across China.)

Steven sent me on my way with good cheer and warm wishes. Equally warmly, I commend his blog, TEA ARTS, to you, and the good educational work he is doing in the world of cha dao in Taiwan.

Sun Moon Lake

Toward the end of our stay in Taiwan, our American contingent was chaperoned across the northern half of the island to visit various scenic destinations. Most of these had nothing to do with tea, but I do want to mention our trip to Puli, in Nantou county, where we made a brief visit to Sun Moon Lake (日月潭), the largest lake in Taiwan. Here, on one of the high slopes overlooking the lake, we were able to see the tomb/shrine of Xuanzang (referred-to by some speakers of Chinese as Tang Sanzang), the man credited with bringing Buddhism from India to China. I was told -- I do not know with what accuracy -- that Xuanzang's remains were brought to Puli by Chiang Kai-Shek from the mainland of China; and that the shrine also houses a relic of the body of Gautama Buddha himself. If the latter is so, this site ought to rank as one of the most sacred spots in the buddhist world. In any case, it's probably no coincidence that the gigantic Chung Tai Chan monastery (中台禪寺), whose impossibly vast postmodern buildings were completed (at a reported cost of $110 million) in 2001, is just a short drive away. By the happiest of coincidences, I was able to visit the monastery on Buddha's birthday, so I found the denizens in an especially festive mood. There were flowers everywhere. Before the giant stone statue of the Buddha they had also set out for the occasion, in the middle of a huge basin of water, a golden statue of the baby Buddha; the faithful would approach, leave their offerings of flowers, and reverently pour water over the statue's head, using one of the huge golden ladles on the table.

The lake town of Puli is charming and tidy, clearly focused on tourism. As in Taipei, its streets were well-furnished with tea shops. Puli, being in Nantou county, is thus geographically nearer to the gao shan (high-mountain) growing areas, as well as quite close to the mid-height growing areas such as Lugu; it would be interesting to see whether the merchandise on offer reflected that. (For this to be true at the north end of the island, one would expect a heavy preponderance of Wen Shan bao zhong in the shops -- which was not in fact the case in Taipei City; every kind of Taiwan tea was sold in abundance there. But perhaps Taipei, as capital city, is off-scale.)

Down by the lake, I was interested to see a short, stocky tea bush labeled as being over 100 years old:

It is not, however, C. sinensis sinensis; its placard proclaimed, rather, that it is of the assamica cultivar. That, of course, is the cultivar one finds in Assam (India), as well as in Yunnan province of China (pu'er tea and the wonderful golden dian hong are both assamica teas). But this lone bush silently propounded a mystery to me, and I wanted to know more. Who was it that brought it to Taiwan, so long ago? and who had the idea of planting it right here by the lake? Perhaps this was once someone's back yard, rather than the commercial area it is today ....

I was also quite struck to see, housed in one and the same building, both a Ten Ren store and a Starbucks:

There can be no doubt that this is a sign of the times; but is it more than that? an omen of things to come? Nobody wants to deny folks (Asians or others) their coffee; but it's a bit hard not to wonder whether 'coffee culture' might not eventually choke out cha dao here, if only because everyone is in such a hurry nowadays. Haste is an infectious disease. Tea takes time; it's supposed to take a bit of time, of course, and it can consume a whole morning or a whole afternoon if one will let it. Its connection with the meditative arts goes back to the Tang Dynasty at least. Coffee, on the other hand, is brewed and sold (in the US and in American-style coffee shops such as Starbucks) for people on the go; I have heard more than one coffee-drinker refer to it as a 'caffeine-delivery system.' This in itself is enough to explain the ever-burgeoning popularity of Starbucks.

Of course a Starbucks aficionado would assert that every Starbucks purveys a selection of teas as well as coffee; and moreover that Starbucks strives to create a relaxed environment in their shops, where people can lounge and linger, reading the newspaper or working (wi-fi) on their laptops. All of this is true. But -- Starbucks and other purveyors aside -- I confess to some worry about the impact that coffee's growing popularity in Asia could have on the traditional primacy of tea. I actually spent some time asking younger Taiwanese what they think about tea; their answers were mixed. Some of them professed to have no interest in it at all; I got the sense that to them, cha dao was something quaint and antique and a bit mystifying. Others of that generation, meanwhile, are interested in it and still do drink it on a regular basis.

On the whole, my impression is that Taiwan's cha dao, while subject to constant challenges from modern (especially occidental) culture, is hardly moribund. Certainly Taipei is thick with cha ye dian and cha fang, so -- there at least -- people are buying and drinking plenty of tea (and it stands to reason that that is even more the case as one moves farther away from urban environments). It will be another generation or two before anything more definitive can be said about this. But the Taiwanese are themselves already sensitive to the issue: it was during the presidency of Lee Teng Hui (李登輝) that a national task force was established for the founding of a tea museum, specifically in order to help stem the tide of coffee and soft-drinks in Taiwanese culture. Sufficient funding was eventually raised to underwrite the opening of such a museum, in the small township of Pinglin. Naturally this was a site I had to visit.

Pinglin Tea Museum

On a bright May morning, my new friend Huang Chi-Fang picked me up at my hotel. Together we drove down the new highway, Route 5, from Taipei city to Pinglin. As we drove and conversed, I learned how it was that Chi-Fang has come to speak such excellent English: for many years now he has belonged to the local chapter of Toastmasters, whose members meet regularly to foster 'the arts of speaking, listening, and thinking.' Chi-Fang has certainly put this experience to the best possible use.

Along the way to Pinglin, one can see small tea-farms flourishing in the hills. This is not gao shan or 'high-mountain' tea; for that, one must go further south, toward the center of the island, to places like Li Shan or Ali Shan. Moreover, these plantations are not large; they are surely worked and tended by individual families whose lives are closely tied to the soil (about 80% of the Pinglin population of 6,000 are farmers). Most of them are descended from farmers who migrated here from Anxi, a county in Fujian province. As Fujian is the birthplace of wulong cha, that genealogy goes a long way toward explaining the dominance of oolongs in Taiwan.

Driving into town, it's hard to miss the Pinglin Tea Trade Museum (坪林茶業博物館), touted by some as 'the largest tea museum in the world.' From the ridge where it sits, at the head of its imposing stair, the front of the building looks out over the Bei Shi River, which flows through the town.

Although the museum is said to have had as many as 5,000 visitors a day, we had the place practically to ourselves on this particular morning. It was early enough that the heat was not (yet) oppressive when we arrived. From the front door one walks into a central courtyard onto which there are several openings, including the door to a cha ye dian -- a shop where one can purchase cha ye (tea leaf) to take home. This is a somewhat different concept from the cha guan -- or, as it's more commonly called in Taiwan, the cha fang -- the 'tea house' where one goes to sit and drink tea that is brewed there; nonetheless, any cha ye dian worth its tea will have some sort of table or counter where one of the personnel will brew the teas they sell so that you can taste them. This one was no exception, as we found out; but first, let me tell you about the museum exhibits themselves.

I was not quite sure what to expect in such a museum, but I was pleasantly surprised by what we found there: a thoughtfully-conceived, carefully-laid-out set of displays and dioramas that together constitute a mini-education in the cultivation, processing, history, and enjoyment of tea. Naturally enough, there is a noticeable emphasis on oolongs and their production, but one can find out here about other types of tea as well. There are enough quantitative data to satisfy the hard scientist, and enough visuals to keep the interest even of younger visitors. One of the most whimsical was an imaginative diorama depicting Lu Yu, the Tang-Dynasty 'Sage of Tea,' in the very act of composing his famous Cha Jing. Others showed modern (mechanical) as well as traditional equipment used for processing oolong teas. If anything was conspicuously absent, it was dishes full of actual tea leaves. This cannot have been accidental; perhaps they did not want to risk having tea samples get stale or dusty -- which would have been fatally anti-aesthetic and unappetizing.

We spent the better part of an hour browsing through the museum displays, and then it was time to see what the cha ye dian had to offer. As we approached, its double glass doors slid smoothly open to admit us to a deliciously cool shopping space, with its carefully-chosen wares immaculately laid out. The air of the place was redolent of freshly-baked tea; as I soon learned, this was because the manager of the shop keeps a bamboo basket of tea baking slowly over an electric grill, specifically for the aroma.

The shelves were well stocked, but featured a relatively small spectrum of teas -- all of them one or another type of oolong. The rarest and most costly were the Da Yu Ling, a very rare tea, and a competition-grade Li Shan oolong. All were presented in beautiful packages, of various sizes; and the shop also has glass cases displaying some carefully-chosen tea wares for sale.

We had not been browsing long when we were greeted by the demure young woman whose job it is to brew tea for clients of the shop. She is well set up to do so, with canisters of the various teas on offer, a hot-water kettle, and plenty of porcelain in which to brew and serve several different teas at one time. Chi-Fang and I were joined by a small group of (apparently local) folks who sat down and chatted happily with one another. We all tasted a variety of the teas sold by the shop, and I made some selections to take away. The relaxed and bright environment provided an ideal place to drink (and think about) tea. We talked some about technical terminology such as 回甘 ('hui gan,' i.e. 'recurring sweetness'), and other evaluations of quality; Chi-Fang offered his own idiomatic criterion for the basic acceptability of tea: is it 順口 ('smooth mouth,' i.e. favorable to the palate)? If one can say so, one has declared it to be a good tea.

-- corax

[to be continued]

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