Last Friday, members of the Swarthmore community sat down together to listen to lectures and musical performances, brew tea, and learn about the significance of Chinese tea culture. “Sipping Culture: The Aesthetics and Philosophy of Chinese Tea Culture” was hosted in the Wister Room by representatives from the Wistaria Tea House, Taiwan’s oldest and most prestigious teahouse.
The Tea House representatives brought their diverse range of tea ware and pots of boiling water that popped and steamed throughout the event. The careful adherence to ceremonial procedures created an atmosphere that prepared attendees to take in the tea and demonstrated the diverse means of artistic expression that goes into the presentation of tea in Taiwan.
The representatives included a woman who played the guqin, a traditional Chinese string instrument, and Hui-Feng Lin, the mother of Ami Chou ‘15. Chou, who helped to organize the event, leads Swarthmore’s meditation club and spent a month at Fo Guang Monastery in the south of Taiwan in the summer after her freshman year at Swarthmore.
Amie Chou ‘15 – whose father co-founded the Wistaria Tea House 30 years ago, and whose mother is currently the CEO of the Wistaria Cultural Association – explained that she hoped the event would instill appreciation for tea and Chinese tea culture in Swarthmore students. Having grown up surrounded with Chinese tea culture, Chou wanted to bring a part of herself to Swarthmore and provide students here with a new way to think about tea.
“It feels good to bring a part of myself that is really dear to me here. [...] Tea and tea ceremonies aren’t something I do here because it takes so much time to have tea that way and experience it that way,” she said.
Through telling intricate myths surrounding tea, explaining the ways tea has shaped Chinese and Taiwanese culture, and showing how tea has become a form of both individual and collective expression, members of the Wistaria Tea House managed to provide students with a novel perspective on the humble drink that Chou considers a valuable part of herself.
“There was something really impressive about the effort that goes into tea […] there’s an appreciation not only about the way you drink tea, but the way you interact with it,” said Sara Morell ’15, a student who attended the event.
The event included a lecture and a performance of the guqin, which both provided an extensive background of Chinese tea culture, history, and aesthetics for the attendees. The heart of the event, however, was the tea ceremony itself. When Hui-Feng Lin, announced it was time for each table to begin making tea, a room of hesitant attendees began attempting to crack the code of bowls, pots, and cups in front of them.
“There was slight chaos when the six of us [at the table] tried to figure out how to follow all the steps in the right order. But it worked out,” Morell said.
After a few rounds of brewing tea — with the help of members of the Wistaria Tea House who walked around, subtly nodding and shaking their heads to help uncertain attendees through the process — each table began to develop a rhythm. As the tea grew stronger, attendees began to feel more at ease.
“A lot of people, through tea, felt relaxed and started to chat. People didn’t even want to leave. Professor Alan Berkowitz had to say, ‘In ten minutes you have to leave,’” Chou said.
Chou’s mother expressed to the attendees that the Swarthmore event had the most positive atmosphere out of all the times the Tea House had hosted this type of event.
According to Morell, observing the bonding power of tea-brewing was one of the most enjoyable parts of the afternoon. The ritual of making and drinking tea is an exchange of giving and receiving — since only one person at each table actually pours the tea, everyone else must engage in relationships of trust. Chou agreed, acknowledging the influence tea can have in facilitating communication and connections.
“In order to drink tea in the way of a Chinese ceremony, you have to pay attention to the scents, what you’re feeling, what you’re tasting. It brings you to the present. It makes you slow down […]. Tea brings people to the present together,” she said.
At a time when Swarthmore is seeking to define its meaning of “community,” events like this that foster forms of intimacy and connection could provide new ways of bringing the College community together.
“That could be very powerful for framing larger community building,” Chou said.
Featured image and all photos by Elèna Ruyter and Kassandra Sparks/The Daily Gazette