Inventing the Way of Tea in Taiwan

Inventing the Way of Tea in Taiwan

Chinese Tea Ceremony
Photo by David Boté Estrada

One never knows how to read the NY Times when it comes to their reporting on the lifestyles of the one-percenters, but not far into a recent cringe-worthy NY Times article about a tea ceremony being held in California I began to suspect that the author was not on the same side as her subjects.

Ms. Elspeth is one of Los Angeles’s early tea ceremony adopters in certain and predominantly white wellness circles. She was introduced to it after what she calls an “amazing chain of serendipitous events”: Her neighbors in Venice Beach had gone traveling and they found themselves detoured in Bali, unable to travel to Japan because the Tōhoku earthquake had just hit, killing many thousands.

But someone in Thailand had shared a book with them called “The Way of Tea,” written by an American man named Aaron Fisher, who lived in Taiwan and had taken the name Wu De.

This then started her on a journey which eventually took her to Taiwan, where “she was given the tea name Tien Wu, which she was told means ‘heavenly dance.'” Nothing wrong with that I suppose, even though most Chinese with the surname “Tian” would use the character 田 for field or farmland, not 天 for heaven. Still, if getting a name is part of someone’s spiritual journey that ‘serendipitously’ started because a disaster killed thousands of people, who are we to judge?

What interests me here is not so much the obvious orientalism of those in “predominantly white wellness circles” who have taken an interest in this ritual, but the fact that the ritual itself is actually an amalgam of no less than three different nation-building processes: Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese. In other words, the orientalism itself starts in East Asia. The true history of the “Chinese” way of tea 茶道 is not well known, but is nicely detailed in Lawrence Zhang’s 2016 article: “A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts.” (An un-paywalled version can be found here.)

Central to Zhang’s article is the argument that the way of tea is the product of “nation-work,” or a “process through which the abstract concept of the nation is made tangible through practice.”

In this case, the tradition itself is at least partially invented, with a regional custom appropriated, foreign practices borrowed, and then, after mixing, inserted into a narrative of national tradition with deep historical roots.

The regional custom at the heart of this practice involves making tea by brewing whole leaves in clay teapots. As someone who brews tea this way pretty much every day I can confirm that it produces a very delicious and satisfying cup of hot liquid. (I also recommend cold-brewing tea in the summer by placing whole leaves in a pitcher of water and putting the whole thing in the fridge over night.) This practice was first recorded in print by Qing dynasty scholars around the 18th century. They remarked on it as an unusual method of brewing tea peculiar to the coastal regions of southern China. At that time most Chinese tea was made by whisking a powder into hot water, not unlike how Japanese matcha 抹茶 is still prepared today. There is no mention of any special rituals surrounding the preparation of this drink. That is because this is a thoroughly modern adaptation, one which Zhang traces to a small group of Taiwanese tea shop merchants in the 1970s.

In the 1970s a new generation of middle class consumers was beginning to emerge in Taiwan, but tea was then associated with the “gambling, smoking, and prostitution” which went on in traditional tea houses. Tea merchants actively sought to change that in order to attract new middle class customers for their product.

It took years of public advertisements and various promotional campaigns to change public perception of these new institutions. They also consciously presented their own offering as distinctly cultural and modern; in contrast, the older teahouses were backward and something to be discarded

To create a “new style of tea brewing that gave it an aesthetic value” the proprietors of the new tea houses turned to the Japanese tea ceremony. The term “the way of tea” used in the article was actually taken from the Japanese tradition of chadō. This Japanese tradition dates back to the sixteenth century, but is itself the product of a long history of “mixing history, aesthetics, and Zen Buddhism into a complex ceremony” that continues today. It is also a product of nation-work, “supported by an elaborate institution of formal schools and lineages, and actively promoted by the Japanese government as something quintessentially Japanese.”

Having been a Japanese colony for fifty years, Taiwanese tea merchants were well acquainted with this Japanese tradition and so it was natural for them to turn to it when they sought to reinvent the practice of Taiwanese tea drinking in the 1970s. They initially called this practice Zhonghua chayi 中華茶藝, or “Chinese tea arts.” This was at a time when Taiwan’s Nationalist Party still sought to portray the country as the true home of Chinese traditional culture and the legitimate government of all of China. Thus a practice that had helped to define the Japanese nation was being appropriated as something “distinctly Chinese,” something that Taiwan was “trying to revive and promote while China was abandoning traditional ways.” As China opened up to Taiwanese businesses, this practice soon came to be embraced there as well. Today, a visitor to China will likely be told that this ceremony is the “the fruit of a process of over a thousand years of accumulation, dissemination, and development” within China, completely erasing the role of Japan or Taiwan from that history.

The term most commonly used is not “the way of tea” but gongfucha 工夫茶. I suppose “making tea with effort/skill” doesn’t sound sufficiently orientalist for the New York Times or the wealthy Californians they write about. I think the term gongfucha better captures the rather utilitarian origins of this custom, even if it already implies a more refined and aesthetic pracitce than how most people drink tea today. As I wrote in 2014, most young Taiwanese today are more likely to drink some form of cold sweetened milk tea bought from a street-side vendor than to take the time to brew hot tea in a clay pot. Still, I love Taiwan’s high mountain teas and am glad to know more people are learning how to drink them, even if I like mine without sugar, or orientalism.

2 Replies to “Inventing the Way of Tea in Taiwan”

  1. And now, gongfucha in Chengdu, presenting itself as a cradle of this style of tea, has changed into a less-utilitarian theatrical practice, probably influenced by the association of gongfu with martial arts…

  2. Kerim, don’t make me nostalgic for the wondrous chayiguan of Taichung in the mid-1980s! At the time the invention of bubble tea was not far off, and coffee was not as hegemonic among hipsters. Tatami and low table apportioned rooms, with a wide variety of books and newspapers, were the preferred haunt, usually located around the corner from an MTV. There were even chayiguan built as gardens on a Taoyuan rooftop. Oh well, here in Boston, high mountain oolong in my office will have to do