January 1, 2005 The tea ceremonies at the Chen's home
New Year’s Day, Heather took us to a tea ceremony at the sumptuous and elegant home of Paolin and Wood Chen in the mountains east of Taipei.
The Chen’s bring in a dozen or so tea masters every New Year’s Day to set up their tea sets, and bring along their special teas to brew and serve. Each tea master creates an elegant area to serve 4 to 6 people. About 60 guests arrive—a polyglot of people from all over the world—Canadian girls here on modeling assignments, a German medical student and his Kaohsiung native fiancé headed south to meet her family, Joy and I, and, I am sure, a diverse mix of people from Taiwan’s society.
The first two floors of the Chen’s penthouse suite are very open and airy with large picture window views over all Taipei including the Taipei 101 Building. Other picture windows are filled with the view of the mountains and forest behind the building. The mountains here are very steep and very green. Chinese brush paintings of mountains appear to be out of perspective to Western eyes. I assure you they are not—the mountains here are exactly that way. As Taiwan is on roughly the same latitude as northern South America, the weather is always mild or hot and the mountains are covered with lush greenery we can only grow in pots or hothouses here in North Carolina.
(There are 9 pictures on this web page but I have put more pictures on a second page
(CLICK HERE) to see a second page of tea ceremony set ups)
Rita, one of the tea masters, prepares.
The Chen’s taste in modern art is world class and I would have loved to have seen more of it and had better opportunity to enjoy it. There was just so much, perfectly displayed. For a professional artist—and being so high in the air---it really was, as my Grandmother used to say, “a died and gone to heaven experience.”
We arrived a bit after lunch, and changed shoes for slippers (there are large pull out racks in the outer hallways of most large apartments, where you can store your shoes and choose a pair of slippers.)
For at least a half hour, we were at leisure to wander the suite and watch the tea masters set up their sets. Some tea masters’ places were all already reserved—tea aficionados had heard who would be serving and which tea, and had long since reserved a place. Others were quite free and Joy and I each chose different tea masters to attend so we could learn and see the most.
for a sense of scale --a foyer viewed from second floor
A young tea master setting up in the foyer
I attended her session first. She has hand writte poems for each place setting on thin shaved wood paper. The tea served was a type developed by a Japanese
master who died in 2004, so her ceremony was planned as a memorial to him.
The Taiwanese tea ceremony is not as formal and stiff as the Japanese version, we were told. While there are certainly meditative aspects to it, the Taiwanese ceremony seems to be more centered around providing a balanced and harmonious social experience, than an inwards looking meditation. That notwithstanding, we were told no tea master could serve or perform if he or she were not completely at ease and untroubled. It would affect the taste of the tea, the spirit of the socializing, etc.
The ceremony lasts about 35 minutes. Afterwards, “tea deserts” were served in the spacious dining room next to the orchid greenhouse. Tea deserts have a hint of sweetness about them, but most of the sliced fruits served with them are sweeter. We found—as have the Chinese, obviously—the tea deserts are a perfect compliment to the taste of tea. We liked the sticky rice rolls covered with shredded coconut best. So did the Canadian girls modeling. They had hardly had a day off in a month and, like all models, they look starved. The kitchen help brought them out an extra bag of these tea deserts for them to take home. We rode the subway back with them and know they were very grateful!
the dining room laid out with tea deserts
After about 45 minutes of tea deserts and socializing, we returned to choose a second tea ceremony to attend. My hostess, Paolin, having seen me struggle up and down off the mats on the floor at the first tea ceremony, tactfully suggested I might be more comfortable at a tea ceremony at a table the second round. I was thankful for the suggestion and have to say, in my eyes, a tea ceremony conducted with elegance and grace at a table instead of on the floor, loses nothing in grace and power.
At the end of the afternoon, we gathered coats and changed back into shoes, cabs and cars were summoned for the long drive back to the subway and reality and I took one last view out at both the mountains and the city. I was grateful that people like Wood and Paolin, who could obviously afford to have spent their New Year’s skiing in Switzerland or on a beach in Australia, had, instead, taken time to open their home to friends and guests to spread a little calm and wonder at the beginning of the New Year.
We felt honored to have attended.
(CLICK HERE to see a second page of tea ceremony set ups)