Gathering Around The Hearth: A Contemporary Tea Ceremony
This year at the Nantou County Global Tea Expo, the ‘Tea Culture Exhibition Hall’ has expanded its scope to include a museum-like exhibit and films in addition to live demonstrations of tea culture. In previous years, there were interactive displays where guests could freely observe and partake in tea the brewing ceremonies of their choice. Each space had its own artistic style and cultural orientation from around the world. This year the live demonstrations have been refined and consolidated into three spaces with rotating installations. They still offer variety while allowing for more developed, artistic themes of tea brewing. The other day I got to participate in one of these tea ceremonies that was designed by a few friends from Lu Gu.
The name of the ceremony in Chinese is 圍爐煮茶 which loosely translates as “Gathering Around the Hearth and Brewing Tea”. My friends conceived of the theme and designed the installation themselves, which I experienced as a really clever innovation of traditional Chinese culture. The first two words in the name refer to the traditional family gathering on the last night of the year before Chinese New Year. It is all about the nourishing warmth of a home cooked meal with family. This sentiment is the essence of the tea ceremony that was designed for this year’s event.
Two hosts and five guests made up the tea party that took place on straw tatami mats with small wooden tables arranged around a large iron kettle of boiling water set upon a charcoal stove. The hosts simply facilitated the party while the guests all brewed tea for each other. Each guest was given a type of tea to brew among five of Taiwan’s most recognized specialty teas: Oolong, Aged Tea, High Mountain, Jin Xuan, and Black tea. We each wore a traditional style apron bearing the name of our tea type and were instructed on how the ceremony was to take place.
After the basic methods were explained, it was an easy-going, spontaneous event where we all brewed tea with the tea and tea wares provided. We shared our own brew and received pours from others teapots as we went along. The conversation flowed along with the tea, and it was a friendly gathering around the charcoal stove - a symbol of warmth and sustenance.
Drawing water with handmade Japanese bamboo ladles from the communal antique iron kettle to fill and refill our gong fu teapots again and again to share our distinctly flavored teas was really fun as well as highly satisfying. The presentation that was steeped in tradition and style accommodated a kind of free-for-all tea party where we all got to enjoy not just one type of tea from a single server, but five types of tea from five servers all at once! What a brilliant idea it was on many levels. It was embedded in Taiwan tea culture with touches of the historical Japanese influence, and embodied the naturally free, informal - yet very traditional Taiwanese style that has seduced me into making this island my home.
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Here's a list of the top 10 teas that Taiwan is most famous for, followed by a brief description of each one. The word Oolong refers to any type of partially oxidized tea i.e. from 5% to 85% oxidation. It also refers to specific processing methods that clearly distinguish it from Green and Black Tea types.