Culture

A Famed Tea Master Revives Asia’s Ancient Philosophies and Organic Farming

David Tsay quit his engineering job to become a tea farmer and strong voice for traditional tea farmers.

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With its clear bright froth and fragrance, it was like the nectar of Immortals.
The first bowl washed the cobwebs from my mind, the whole world seemed to sparkle.
A second cleansed my spirit, like purifying showers of rain.
A third, and I was one of the Immortals.
An excerpt from the poem, The Way of Tea, written by Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.) poet Chao Zhen

In ancient Chinese legend, Shennong was the deity of agriculture. One day, while suffering intense heartburn and stomach ache, he went to pour some hot water into a cup to help soothe his stomach. He noticed that some leaves had fallen into the water, and they conjured a pleasing aroma.

Shennong sipped it, and found the warm drink not only left an enjoyable, bitter-sweet aftertaste; it also cured his indigestion and had a sobering effect on his mind. This is the origin of tea, according to The Classic of Tea, a definitive book on tea written by Lu Yu (733–804 A.D.) during the Tang Dynasty.

For thousands of years, tea has been the Chinese people’s most cherished drink. Its popularity has spread around the world, inspiring new legends and legacies.

The story of Taiwanese tea master David Tsay is one that links the ancient past with a fruitful future. He was an electronic engineer before dedicating his life to organic tea farming. His journey has had a flavour similar to the tea he cultivates — it’s been a harmony of bitter and sweet.

Journey to the past

Tsay found his way to a love of tea through “rebellion,” he says. In high school and college, his peers rebelled against traditional Asian culture, turning to new interests such as disco. Tsay went in the opposite direction; he rebelled against the contemporary trends, delving deeply into traditional culture.

“It’s probably because I love Chinese culture so much, especially Journey to the West [one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, first published in the 16th century]. I remember no matter how powerful the Monkey King was, he could not escape the palm of the Buddha’s hand,” Tsay says. “So I began to study the Buddhist scriptures.”

He joined a Buddhist club in college, and whenever he visited temples or discussed Buddhist scriptures with others, they always drank tea together. “When I drank tea, I felt it was warm and comfortable,” he says. “It makes one refreshed, but not over-stimulated. It is the most ideal drink.”

Tsay was also fascinated by how tea is served.

(Photo by Ady Zhuang)
(Photo by Ady Zhuang)

“You have to set the tea table, prepare the tea, warm the pot and cups,” he says. “All this must be presented sincerely and carefully. The tea will be shared with many people, giving one a sense of dedication, shortening the distance between people.”

Though there was much he loved about drinking tea, Tsay’s body was especially sensitive and tea upset his stomach. During one visit to the temple, Tsay drank tea that a farmer had brought from his own farm. He was surprised to find he felt no discomfort.

Tsay realized that the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used on modern tea farms might be causing his body to react badly. In Chinese tradition, tea is meant to heal, yet it seemed to Tsay that tea grown with modern methods could have the opposite effect.

In the late 1980s, Tsay became inspired by an emerging organic farming trend in Germany. At the time, Tsay was an electrical engineer, but in his spare time, he began studying organic farming methods and would often visit tea plantations in Taiwan.

Stalwart on a difficult path

“I was often driven out of tea farmers’ homes,” he says. “They thought, ‘How can someone who lives in the city, in an air-conditioned place, understand anything about farming?’” The farmers he spoke with believed the only way to grow tea was to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

In 1996, during a visit to the mountains, Tsay and his wife encountered a catastrophic mudslide caused by a typhoon. The mud completely buried the house next-door to them, merely 10 metres away. He and his wife were trapped for 11 days.

“I was shocked, feeling that human beings are really small in the face of nature,” he says. Tsay’s near-death experience gave him an even deeper respect for nature, inspiring him to dedicate himself to organic tea farming.

He started helping tea farmers find investors and market organic products, hoping to alleviate the economic pressures that made them feel a switch to organic was too risky. “With funds, farmers don’t have to worry about money,” he says. “Then we can help them look for the most organic farming methods.”

Different tea gardens are suited to planting different kinds of tea trees. But to maximize profit, tea farmers grow the most popular tea species, regardless of their farms’ climate and soil. If the conditions are not suitable for the specific tea species, the farmer has to use chemicals to make it grow well.

“I asked them to recall the tea their grandfathers grew,” Tsay says. “Then we found some tea gardens in Tieguanyin; some grew green tea, and some high-mountain tea. They are all very different. Matched with the most suitable drying processes, they are just so distinctive and wonderful.”

Not only did Tsay help other farmers, he also began farming himself in Taiwan.

“Tea grown with chemical fertilizers will increase tea fragrance. Killing pests using pesticides will make the tea leaves look better,” he says. “But these are changes made deliberately to satisfy consumers. People should know that, originally, tea leaves were not like that.”

Tsay hopes consumers can look past some of the superficial benefits of tea grown with chemicals, since the flavour of organic tea is just as rich, or even better, he says.

One of the teas he grows actually thrives because of pests. It’s a honey-scented black tea suited to growing in the Taitung area of Taiwan. These tea trees thrive better when their sap is sucked by the leafhopper Jacobiasca formosana, so no pesticides can be used on them.

The leaves are harvested by hand, then fermented with traditional techniques that foster a honey-like scent. The tea is mellow and smooth, with a sweet aftertaste.

A traditional tea ceremony crafted with utmost care

Tsay will bring this tea to the Luxury Home & Design Show, where he will host a special tea ceremony for guests. He has personally monitored the growth of this tea very carefully, giving it not only the physical conditions it needs, but also imbuing it with the spirit of a tea farmer who is rooted in the ancient reverence for, and appreciation of, this “nectar of Immortals.”

Architect Imu Chan designed a tea house specifically for the ceremony with a similarly profound spirit. Chan’s philosophy is that nature and light are essential to human well-being, and building with these elements uplifts the body and mind.

The pottery ware in which Tsay’s tea will be served was crafted by Master Tian Chengtai in the mountains of Taiwan. “It seems our spirits echo, bringing back to us the energy we put into our work,” says Master Tian. He spent six years refining a traditional pottery technique using a wood-fired kiln. His pottery ware is now much-desired among high-end collectors, and it is also perfectly suited to accentuate the flavour and overall sensation of drinking tea.

(Left and centre: photos by Ady Zhuang. Right: photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)
(Left and centre: photos by Ady Zhuang. Right: photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)

Tea runs through traditional Chinese culture like a river that clears away negativity in one’s heart and nourishes one’s body and mind.

In Confucianism, it symbolizes a noble character. The customs surrounding it are intertwined with the Confucian concepts of propriety. In Buddhism, it is important to reach a state of emptiness and tranquility, and tea has long been held to have a purifying effect. It helps clear the mind. In Taoism, drinking tea aligns with the idea of harmony between humans and nature.

Just as Shennong’s suffering was soothed when he took the first sip of tea, Tsay hopes that drinking traditionally grown tea can help people today to purify not only their bodies, but also the poisons of the heart.

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