Taiwan’s tea culture is slowly being overtaken by modern life and an influx of commercial coffee houses. As PETER ENAV finds out, for many Taiwanese, tea is more than simple refreshment.

High above the bustle of central Taipei, Chou Hsien-bang surveys a field of waist-high wulong tea, its dark green leaves dappling the face of Barefoot Orchid Mountain.

Dressed in snug white trousers and a spotless white shirt, the 35-year-old seems oblivious to the blazing sun as he talks about his passion for the Vermillion Orchid Farm, the 2.5-hectare tea plantation he runs with his wife. Tea teaches me the connection between man and nature,” he says. “It teaches me to judge things. It gives me my basic direction.”

Chou is one of the exemplars of Taiwan’s tea culture, a set of principles governing the cultivation of a beverage that has been at the heart of Chinese life for more than a 1000 years.

Everything about the culture is meticulously regulated, from the placid work rhythms on thousands of rural tea farms to the bygone commercial practices in century-old tea shops on narrow urban lanes to the leisurely imbibing in camphor-tabled teahouses.

“Tea culture is connected to the Chinese concept of ‘wu wei’,” Chou says later as he pours a cup of smoky-flavoured wulong in his sitting room. “That means a lack of striving, a readiness to adopt oneself to the power of nature.”

Tea culture came to Taiwan with the first waves of immigrants from mainland China in the mid-17th century and gradually worked its way into the marrow of the island’s life. By the middle of the 20th century, it was expressed in thousands of teahouses, tea farms and the merchants who sold it.

But the vitality of tea culture is waning. Over the past 40 years, the island’s once-dominant agricultural society has given way to high-tech modernity, and fewer and fewer of its 23 million people have time for complex tea rituals or the contemplative outlook they are supposed to produce.

The change is particularly evident in Taipei, where Starbucks coffee shops and a handful of local spinoffs have begun to replace old style teahouses as the venue for young people looking to relax. A small group of devotees is mounting a rearguard action to preserve the old ways. Ho Chien is the proprietor of Taipei’s Yeh Tang Tea House, a centre of the city’s tea culture. I want to preserve the past” he says.

Nestled into a quiet alley of old-style Japanese houses and small businesses, Ho’s tea shop seems a throwback to a kinder, gentler era. Traditional landscape paintings adorn the darkened walls, electric fans cool the heavy air and wooden shelves are lined with high-end Taiwanese teas – baozhongs, wulongs and a few selected greens and blacks.

Leaning over a table made more than 60 years ago, Ho explains his personal tea philosophy with the passion of a true believer. “Tea should be natural,” he says. “It should be simple and direct. But drinking it is a very subjective experience. The same cup of tea will affect different people in different ways.”

Several blocks away, Singapore native Li Shu-yun prepares tiny cups of tea for a group of visitors at her Chrysanthemum Chaism – the word turns the Chinese character for tea, or “cha”, into a complex philosophical doctrine.

Amid traditional flower arrangements and stark, modern furniture, she fills a ceramic tea pot with dark, brittle leaves, and lets them steep. Beside her are all the implements she needs to perform her craft – a brazier for heating the water, a tiny bamboo spatula for inserting the tea into the pot and half a dozen thimble-sized cups for drinking it. “Tea is not only for the taste,” she says. “Tea is for bringing peace.” •
• For more information on Taiwan, call 020-7928 1600 or see www.taiwan.net.tw.”