The Tea Paradise Under the Frozen Peak

Travel in the center of Taiwan, 1999

by Ales Jurina 

The life of Tea Planters

The life of the four thousand tea planters living in the village of Luku that spreads out picturesquely on the slopes of the Tung Ting mountain (which translates as “Frozen Little Peak,” and rises about 4,000 ft. above sea level) in Central Taiwan is for most of the year monotonously quiet. Only when the dew has dried on the tea bushes (soon after dawn, for we are in the Subtropics, only a few kilometers beneath the Tropic of Cancer), the entire planter family sets out for the tea field to spend the whole morning harvesting the tea leaves by hand. Around noon, the pickers return with full baskets and while the tea leaves wilt spread out on bamboo platters in a shady place, the family gives itself up to the favorite activity of the day – the preparation and joint consumption of a lunch consisting of many courses.

After a noonday rest, the male members of the family embark on processing the tea. With little technical help the tea leaves go through the following time-honored and time-tested phases (the first 12 tea bushes were brought to Luku in 1855 by a certain Feng Chi Liu from Fujian, where he had been called to examinations for an official state career):

1. Withering

2. Light rolling – by hand or in simple wooden rollers

3. Repeated (usually 7 times) short sharp drying in rotating drums heated from the outside (today usually by gas)

4. Repeated pressing of the leaves wrapped in white cloth, either by traditional treading, or with a simple machine (alternately with the sharp bursts of drying)

5. Completion of drying in a grating dryer

This fifth phase is reached by the evening, and then the whole family again gathers for the final process. The dried leaves are poured out in a heap on a large circular table, round which everyone sits watching the interminably long TV news as they painstakingly pick up the tea leaves (now already rolled in irregular balls) one by one and break off the little flags of remaining stem. As the news ends the work usually ends too, and the concluding tasks fall, once again, to the head of the family. He weighs its out into 600 g (= 1 yin – the local unit ofweight or about 21 ounces) portions, vacuum packs it in decorative cardboard boxes and then sets it out, marked by a certain number of standard white flowers, on a shelf by the entrance to the house.

Only now is the working day over, and the members of the planter family usually go out, often to evening courses in the “kung fu” tea ceremony or to the popular music schools for adults. The way the latter operate is remarkable: in one large hall the players of the different instruments (the national instruments – the “pi pa,” a wooden flute, a single-stringed violin and various small drums), first rehearse “separately” and only then play the new piece together. Very occasionally the head of the household will go to the local inn in order to discuss the development of the tea crop with the competition (but usually over a bowl of tea rather than alcohol). On Saturdays and Sundays there is no tea picking or processing, since these are sales days.

The Tea Market, the Flower Rating

At crack of dawn, the tea room is cleared and gradually changed from a living room into a workshop or tea shop. A large objet trouvé, skillfully modified for the “kung fu” preparation of tea by a local craftsmen is dragged out from a corner, water is boiled in a large kettle on a gas stove and everything is ready – the customers can come in. And come they do, or more precisely people from the smog-bound capital Tai Pei drive up in large limousines to breathe the fresh air in the famous high-mountain climatic spas of Ali Shan and to buy fresh supplies of tea.

Although the supply is broad and plentiful and the competition between the four thousand planters producing the same type of tea – Tung Ting – is huge, sales are all conducted in a calm and polite spirit. The customer goes from planter to planter, taking a route that might seem accidental but is in fact guided by the white-flower marks on the tea packages: Here they have three-flower Tung Ting, there they have two-flower, and over there they even have five-flower. And every Taiwanese knows the prices corresponding to the flowers in any year.

Tea Tasting

In mid-May the decades-old tea cycle is traditionally interrupted and at the same time crowned by a mass tasting of the spring harvest, at which flowers (1–5) are awarded to the tea production of each planter, and prices for the flower categories are set for the next year depending on the quantity and quality of the crop. The high point of the tasting is the announcement of the “Tea of the Year” – the single winner of the six-flower award. Each of the 4,000 planters supplies 2 x 1 yin of tea for the tasting, which takes place on an anonymous, two-round basis. The first round is conducted by a tasting committee selected from the planters themselves, and the second by a committee from the state tea commission (The Taiwan Tea Board). After the results have been counted and announced, life under the Frozen Summit returns to its usual quiet, only the map of the tea customers’ itinerary through the village of Luku is slightly modified.


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