Visiting the Shanwaishan Organic Ecological Tea Farm

My work over the past 35 years has taught me that our lives can be powerfully enriched and inspired by tea. Over the years, I have learned to watch, listen, and respect the influence that this magical beverage has on the way people behave.  Marlene Dietrich once said of tea (while discussing the British and their tea drinking habits), “There is no question that it brings solace and does steady the mind. What a pity all countries are not so tea-conscious. World–peace conferences would run more smoothly if ‘a nice cup of tea’, or indeed, a samovar were available at the proper time.”

One of my most memorable and peaceful tea occasions happened when I was visiting the Shanwaishan Organic Ecological Tea Farm high up in the mountains near Tipei in Taiwan. The day before, while speaking at a conference in Taipei, I had noticed a group of Buddhist monks at the back of the hall – their beautiful yellow-orange robes very visible amongst the more conventional suits. As soon as all the presentations and official conversations were over, they approached me, smiling broadly, and invited me to visit their tea garden the following day. I was touched and thrilled and turned to my Taiwanese host (Jackson Huang, Thomas Shu’s older brother) to ask if it would be possible to change our plans for the following day so that we could accept their kind invitation. Of course it was!

When we arrived the next day at the organic garden (which sits right up at the top of the steep mountains just south of Taipei), I was welcomed with big smiles and great warmth and, after the initial welcome bowl of tea and a lot of chatter, we headed off on a tour of the garden. A ride in a car was offered but I preferred to walk – and couldn’t help laughing as the monks happily tucked their robes into their belts and clambered onto quad bikes – such an unexpected mode of transport for monks!  As we wandered the estate, there was singing and joking and endless chatter. We were friends so quickly! The monks were so obviously in love with their tea plants – and the garden, where the tea bushes thrive without the use of any chemicals, seems to have added another layer of joy to their peaceful and happy lives.

After walking the entire estate, during which I learned how the monks care for the entire environment by making their own organic fertilisers, how schoolchildren visit regularly to understand the tea plant, and learn how to process the leaves, we went inside the main building where the monks live and work. After lunch I was invited to take part in a special tea ceremony that the monks have adapted from the traditional gong-fu style of tea brewing.  To complement the tea, that has been grown above the ground, they served roasted peanuts that have grown below the ground – to symbolize the completeness of the nourishment we need in life, taking some nutrition from above the earth and some from within it.  The leader of the religious community explained how we can all learn to live our lives better by thinking about the how the tea plant lives and thrives. He told us that each new leaf bud – which of course we need to make good tea – cannot grow and strengthen on its own. It needs the generosity and support of the shoot on which it grows, and of the other shoots that make up the complete bush, and on the roots that, below the earth, seek out the water and nutrients that feed the plant and make it healthy and strong.  And, he explained, so it is with society. Each individual cannot survive or live well if left alone, without the support of family, community, and a solid root system that respects the earth and cares for the environment in order to ensure continuing support through life and on into the future. Quietly delivered, this inspirational reminder of the importance of tea and the tea plant had a profound effect and reminded us all that we need to respect and support each other in our efforts to succeed and achieve wonderful things in our lives.

After the formal ceremony, we drank more tea sitting at the upstairs window of this beautiful tea monastery. It was late afternoon. Soon the light would gently fade and the wonderful view would be hidden. But for half an hour or so we peacefully gazed across the valley to the silhouette of the neighbouring mountain range. “Look!” said one of the monks. “Have you noticed the shape of those mountains?  Can you see what it looks like?” As I let my eyes rest on the pattern of the peaks and smooth slopes across the valley, I realised that I was gazing at the outline of a peaceful sleeping Buddha.

Tea historian, writer & consultant

Jane Pettigrew is a tea specialist, historian, writer and consultant. Since 1983, she has been working in the UK and around the world to explain and share the fascinating world of tea.

She has written 15 books on the many and varied aspects of tea, its production, history and culture, and she writes for tea related magazines and journals.

She also gives regular tea masterclasses and tea tastings, speaks on radio and TV and acts as consultant to tea companies, new tea businesses, table ware and tea ware companies.

At the World Tea Awards 2014, two of her books were nominated for Best New Tea Book Award– A Social History of Tea (co-authored with Bruce Richardson) and The Tea Sommelier Handbook in Spanish and English (co-authored wuth Victoria Bisogno).