Travel in Taiwan Culture

Taipei's Philosophical Tea Masters

By Christopher Logan Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung

The national drink of China for 1,000 years or more, tea is also the calm center of Taipei's modern society. In homes and offices, visitors are customarily greeted with a cup of tea. Healthier than a cigarette break, a steaming cup brightens faces and improves relationships. How to prepare and offer tea has been the subject of much study, and Taipei is blessed with a number of true tea masters.


A woman demonstrates the elaborate process of preparing tea, a ceremony that involves more that just tossing tea leaves into boiling water.

Lin Yi-san (林易山), secretary-general of the Ten Ren Tea Culture Foundation (天仁茶藝文化基金會), aims at educating people in high art and elegant manners. Using tea as a simple medium for expressing the complexity of Chinese culture, he has developed elaborate tea ceremonies based on the style common during the Tang dynasty. Participants in these ceremonies appreciate not only fine tea, but also music, pictures, poems, flowers, incense, and each other. Lin calls it a form of group spiritual development.

"In the tea ceremony, tasting the tea mingles with tasting life. The ceremony warms human hearts, encouraging all to seek truth, goodness, and beauty in the world," Lin says. Such ceremonies involve meticulous preparation and are rarely demonstrated in public. By contrast, the distinctively green Ten Ren shops throughout Taipei are staffed by trained tea makers who prepare fine tea for customers. This provides a chance to see tea brewed by experts, and to buy some samples of high-quality leaves.

Tea Drinking with a Conscience
Tea master Shen Fu-han (沈甫翰), offended with the extravagance and waste that was becoming fashionable in tea making, has designed ceramic tea equipment which conserves both fuel and water. His pragmatic and beautiful designs, now commonly used in Taipei tea houses, symbolize Shen's devotion to economy and simplicity.

Shen was a civil engineer for many years before opening a shop selling fine teas and antiques in the Howard Plaza Hotel. He speaks English, and enjoys discussing philosophy over a cup of tea. Citing the Buddha's precept against killing, he asks: "Isn't wasting our resources and making more garbage a form of killing? We should cherish the beauty in our lives by taking care of what is important."


For Shen, quality is as important as economy. To many, these concepts seem like opposites when selecting tea leaves. In fact, says Shen, they match well. "Good leaves can be brewed many times," he explains, "and it doesn't take a large amount to make fine tea. Inferior leaves become bitter after a couple of pots, because you have to use more to get flavor. Later on you get high levels of tannin and caffeine, and the flavor is gone."

Referring to elaborate ceremonies as "tea opera," Shen prefers comfortable conversations with friends over a cup of good tea. "I don't perform," he says with a smile.

A Unique Tea Ceremony
At the Luyu Tea Center (陸羽茶藝中心), upstairs of a Ten Ren shop at 64 Hengyang Road (衡陽路), students gather every Wednesday night to learn the art of selecting and brewing tea. Here, general manager Tsai Rong-tsang (蔡榮章) has developed a ceremony ideally suited to Asian society.

"Chinese relationships are hierarchical in nature," Tsai notes. "One person is higher and the other is lower. While important, this can be a burden." To relieve this burden, Tsai developed the "Wuwo" (無我) or "no me" tea ceremony, in which several tea makers draw lots for positions in a circle. Each person makes four cups of tea and passes three to the right. From the left come three different cups of tea, brewed according to the styles of other participants. Visitors may also receive a variety of samples.


In homes and offices, it is customary for visitors to be greeted with a cup of tea.

One does not criticize the tea, but learns instead to appreciate different styles and improve one's own. To further relieve social pressure, the Chinese tit-for-tat relationship known as kuanhsi, by which business is commonly conducted, is also abandoned in the "no me" ceremony. The meaning of "no me" is escape from one's social identity. For Tsai, "The tea ceremony is a chance to find your true self."

Immortality Tea
Pan Yen-chou (潘燕九) was born in Suchou, China to a family of artists. A painter and carver of chops, he is now over 70 years old--but you would probably guess his age at around 50. At an early age he befriended a Taoist master, who agreed to take him on as a pupil. The young Pan's mother wouldn't hear of it, so the Taoist prepared to leave. In parting, he taught the boy the ancient tea preparing method called Hsienchia (仙家茶道). "Immortality Tea"(養生茶) is made with freshly powdered green tea, infused with cold water.


"Warm water is all right, but it should not be hotter than 40 degrees centigrade," Pan advises. Tea is full of vitamins and enzymes which are destroyed by boiling water. Fermentation, which eliminates the chlorophyll, also erodes some of the beneficial chemicals. Green tea is not fermented, and can be mixed with good drinking water to produce "Immortality Tea."

"Scientists have found that some chemicals in tea can help control cancer," Pan asserts. "That follows the wisdom of the ancient Chinese, who knew this method could prolong life. His favorite tea is Lungching (龍井) or Dragon Well, the type developed near his home town. Mainlanders who came to Taiwan in the late 1940s encouraged the cultivation of this fat silver-green variety of tea. Does he prefer the mainland product? "No, Taiwan Lungching is better!" he replies.

Travel in Taiwan Culture
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