by Brian Awehali
I was taken on a lovely tour of the fog-wreathed high mountain tea country in Nantou County, in the central and only landlocked part of Taiwan. It’s easy to see why the Portuguese dubbed this place “formosa,” which means “beautiful island.” Butterflies and lush vegetation abound.
Among the many interesting natural sites, I also saw the “bamboo house” that Nationalist (KMT) leader Lord Chiang would retreat to in the years after he lost his struggle against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and was forced to flee mainland China. I’m not sure if he went here before or after he contracted from his concubines the gonorrhea that would eventually sterilize him and leave him with only one biological son, but it was definitely before the “White Terror,” during which he imprisoned or executed upwards of 140,000 people, including a fair number of the Taiwanese intellectual and social elite, for opposing the Nationalist KMT government in Taiwan.
The issue of Taiwanese independence remains complicated today. A significant portion of Taiwanese, especially “mainlanders” of the business class who lament the economic limitations of being a small island economy with “only” 23 million people, favor re-unification with China. One of my partner’s uncles, a businessman who supplies shoes and handbags to high-end retailers, spoke bluntly of wanting unification: “Taiwan is too small,” he said. “To grow, we must unify.” He did not seem concerned, as a member of the upwardly mobile business class, of what freedoms he might lose were Taiwan to unify with China. Others, especially those of native Taiwanese descent, like the farmer I would cut bamboo with several days after photographing the bamboo house, above, feel differently: “In China,” he said, “the government owns everything and you own nothing. In Taiwan,” he enthused, “we own everything, and we have freedom: you can go to 7-11 for something any time of the day or night.”
It’s hard to know, given my own lack of command of Chinese or Taiwanese, and his far better, yet still limited English, if this was truly how he saw the issue of democratic freedom — as a a property owner and consumer — or if it was simply the way he could explain it in English. It could also have a lot to do with the fact that there may be more 7-11’s in Taiwan than there are Taiwanese.
After my tour of the mountains, I was invited to visit a local tea aficionado to learn more about the history, process, art, and etiquette of Taiwan’s second-most-acclaimed product (the first being the creation and modern defense of a functioning democratic Chinese society and government).
We entered and began the tasting: Spring and Winter varieties of Rose Oolong, Jasmine and Black teas were in the offing, and it was surprising just how distinct the flavor of each season’s tea was. I learned that the best tea is grown at the highest altitudes, where it takes the longest to mature. Winter tea is the most prized, and most expensive, though I personally favor the spring tea for its greener and grassier aroma and color.
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I am a mostly unapologetic hedonist, and often have as much trouble limiting my enjoyment of something pleasurable or delicious as I do stopping an interesting conversation, or leaving a beautiful place. So I kept accepting one cup of fine tea after another as my host offered them. I was at this tasting with my partner F. and her parents, and courtesy dictated that if I accepted more, more would be served. I was having a grand and fabulously caffeinated time, completely engrossed in asking as many questions as came to mind while everyone translated for me. What was the difference between black tea, green tea and oolong? (They’re all from the Camellia Senesis plant, but black tea is fully fermented/oxidized, oolong to a lesser extent, and green tea not at all). Why was the first short steeping of the tea always discarded? (To “wake” the tea and to wash away any residue on the leaves before drinking). Why were there so many steeps of each tea, and why such tiny cups? (We were performing a ceremonial method called gongfucha, and the exacting chemistry and temperature of the ceremony dictates smaller cups with hotter water). Would a person get fat from eating so many of these delicious biscuits, peanuts, and cookies between each serving of tea? (“Not as long as they’re consumed with tea!,” chirped my comfortably stout host.)
I also learned just how intensive the human labor of tea (especially oolong) is. The vast majority of it is picked by hand, a pound of tea requires tens to hundreds of thousands of leaves, and pay is generally very low. Taking this into consideration, the slower and more deliberate consumption of tea makes perfect sense.
It was not until many hours and maybe 50 cups of tea (small ones, but really: 50) that I realized just how very much tea had been consumed. I was tea drunk. When we finally tore ourselves away, my obviously great love of tea led our host to offer me a very fine traveling tea set and some lovely spring tea to take with me on my travels. Score!
That night, I worked merrily through the night on this blog post, while F. and her parents complained bitterly the next morning about insomnia and bad sleep.
It is not simply national chauvinism when the Taiwanese tell you, as they often do, that the very best tea is from Taiwan. Much of the choicest tea they produce is bought up by men doing business in mainland China, who use it as prized gifts with which to grease the wheels of commerce. This is so common, I was told by a merchant for one of Taiwan’s largest tea producers, that it’s sometimes hard for the average Taiwanese to get any of their prized winter tea. I noticed that the Wikipedia entry on oolong tea makes no mention of this. Then again, as great as Wikipedia is, you can’t be too trusting of everything you read online…