Luyu center fosters rebirth of Chinese tea culture
Tea drinking is part of China's daily routine.
Certainly, in no other country except Japan does tea drinking appear to be more universal. Tea is drunk in China by people of all ages and classes, on all occasions, at any time of day or night.
Tea drinking is also an art.
Greatly promoted during the Tang (A.D. 618-907) and Sung (960-1279) dynasties, tea became more than a drink. The two great dynasties cultivated a culture of tea appreciation. Tea treatises, tea paintings and tea poetry abounded. China teemed with tea houses where people could enjoy their tea while listening to lectures, reading manuscripts, exchanging political opinions, or strolling about the exquisite gardens of the tea house.
But, by the early 20th century, Chinese tea art was headed towards oblivion. A combination of internal decay and external pressure was swaying the foundations of China's last dynasty. During the chaotic era, tea came second to survival.
Now, though, the Republic of China on Taiwan has brought unparalleled peace and prosperity to its people. And, tea appreciation has been reborn.
Over the last decade, the Luyu Tea Center has offered instruction in the art of tea, training over 15,000 students. The Luyu Tea Center administers examinations every year to the thousands of people who wish to become "tea masters."
Status as a "tea master" is the highest honor which lovers of the tea ceremony might hope to attain. But standards are very strict, and not every lover of the tea ceremony is confident enough to take the "Masters Qualifying Exam" held by the center.
Starting in December of 1983, Luyu had conducted exams every May and December. But, from 1989 on, only one exam has been given in May of each year, and less than 30 people a year attempt the rigorous test to become "tea masters."
On examination day, each participant must take a written test in the morning to verify that he has a true grasp of different kinds of tea leaves, myriad tea utensils and the rigid propriety of the tea ceremony.
In the afternoon, all examinees are divided into groups of four which take turns demonstrating their ability to skillfully and gracefully make tea that has just the right color, smell and taste.
Within 40 minutes, each examinee must finish 12 assignments, which will reveal whether or not he has full control over the kind of teapot for each of three appointed kinds of tea leaves, the proportion of tea leaves to water, the temperature of water to infuse the tea leaves, and the time required for subsequent brews of tea.
To date, fourteen examinations have been held, and 117 people have earned the accolade of "tea master." These masters, few in number, are in high demand by tea houses and tea leaf vendors.
Most people, however, pointed out Tsai Jung-chang, director of the Luyu Tea Center, don't take the exam in order to find a better job. For them, qualification as a "tea master" is affirmation of a very personal relationship with tea and the tea ceremony.
The purpose of the exam, according to Tsai Jung-chang, is similar to that of a sports meet which is aimed at upgrading both the games and athletes. Tsai feels selecting "tea masters" is an effective way of raising the overall quality of tea art.
The Chinese have traditionally believed that tea is for conveying truth. In Tsai's opinion, traditional Chinese tea art is a rigorously ordered "religion of beauty." In preparing and drinking tea, one cultivates oneself, seeking a quiet, peaceful state of mind or a Zen-like enlightenment.
This is very different from afternoon tea in England which brings people together for small talk.
In Tsai's opinion, people in Taiwan are already sufficiently skilled in tea drinking and tea making. He deems upgrading both the spiritual as well as artistic and cultural aspects of tea appreciation to be more important.
The Japanese, for example, adore tea and have developed their own distinctive tea ceremony rooted in the principles of Zen Buddhism. Member of the Academia Sinica, Li Yih-yuan, pointed out the Japanese tea ceremony, or cha-no-yu, might seem over-elaborate or too formal, but it is a socially significant ritual for schooling an individual in the established rules of etiquette.
Lin Ku-fang, a moving force in Taiwan's cultural circles, also emphasized the sacred meaning of tea ceremony in upgrading human spirit and culture. "Harmony, respect, cleanliness and tranquillity are the four qualities to be emphasized in tea ceremony."
Some people dislike the title of "tea master," finding it to be too "simple" and far less meaningful than "tea artist." A Luyu staff-member explained, "the center has high expectations of harmonious relations between people and tea."
The title of "tea master," observed Tsai Jung-chang, provides an affirmation of certain skill and knowledge. But, a "tea artist" would be more akin to a Japanese tea-ceremony expert, or cha-jin, requiring artistic accomplishment in addition to tea making skills.
Tsai admitted that it would not be easy to find so many "tea artists" within a short period of time. Lai Fen-yu, who is now teaching the tea ceremony at Luyu, deemed it imperative to establish a "modern Chinese tea art," by not only restoring the spirit of traditional Chinese tea culture, and adopting some of the better points of the Japanese tea ceremony, but also by searching out a refined and practical style suitable for modern Chinese in every detail from tea utensils to tea making.
As such, the "tea masters" program is only a start, Lai observed. The future lies with true "tea artists" capable of realizing and complimenting the gentle beauty of Chinese tea.