There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says being a recluse on the mountain is much easier than being one in the midst of the city. This philosophy of being in the world but not of it inspired the creation of several urban monasteries and nunneries. Amidst all the chaos, pollution, noise and traffic of Taipei, Wistaria offers one the chance to leave the world behind and satisfy that inner desire for renunciation. The Chinese character for “calm” is used to describe the tea house on its brochure, perhaps succinctly capturing just what Wistaria is all about. Stepping through the gate and into the garden with its hidden pools, fonts and tables for tea, one immediately feels different. Here is a place to relax, even just for a lunch hour, and all the cares of the life just twenty paces behind are momentarily gone. Inside, the sun shines through glass-paneled ceilings, dances with the dust and enlightens the wooden floor in turning arabesque patterns. Flowers are arranged freehand at each table and other plant life is scattered about in no particular order, including the vines that have come up through the floor and walls from the garden outside. There are some tables, but most of the tea rooms encourage one to sit cross-legged on tatami mats Japanese-style. Even the organic loose-fitting clothes of the waitresses make it feel like a Sunday afternoon, though it may be a hectic Tuesday. Leaning back against a brick wall covered in splotches of moss, watching the same sunlight move across the garden just outside and sipping a nice rock tea is why “calm” isn’t Wistaria’s gimmick, it’s Wistaria.
The former tenant of Wistaria, David Chow, introduced Western liberalism to Taiwan in the 1950’s and transformed the house into a place for social discussions and debate. In the early 60’s it was damaged by a typhoon and remodeled with a Western-style façade, lending Wistaria a unique amalgam of its original Chinese and new Western architecture. Soon after, it was purchased by Zhou Yu’s family. In the mid 1970’s, Zhou Yu again altered the house’s interior to make it suitable for cultural activities, art shows and discussions. After the crackdown of Taiwan’s democratic movement in the late 70’s, Wistaria became the meeting place for political discussion and a new generation of artists. In 1981, Zhou Yu officially named it Wistaria Tea House, offering a new “Cha Dao” based on a combination of ancient Daoist philosophy and the beliefs of the more modern Chinese literati. Wistaria’s unique atmosphere is a blend of the art shows, expressing spiritual depth and elegance, tea culture and the scholarly and political discussions that have always echoed there. It has become a meeting place for social activities, symposiums, art, music, political discussions and teachings on the “Way of Tea.” In 1997, the city government of Taipei declared Wistaria a Taipei City Historical Site. In 2003, they turned the operation of the teahouse over to the Wistaria Cultural Association and called it a “public space for Dao.”
Zhou Yu himself has been an invaluable part of the history of tea culture. He has written a plethora of articles and taught freely of Cha Dao for decades. He was one of the first Taiwanese to bring Puerh tea and culture to Taiwan in the 80’s. Zhou Yu is a big factor in Taiwan’s development into one of the premier centers for tea appreciation in the world. He is also the president of the Taipei Teahouse Association, which has more than twenty members trying to create such hermitages in the midst of the hustle of the capital. It was an honor to sit him down for a nostalgic talk about Wistaria and its memories. Zhou Yu said that having been damaged by typhoons and the big earthquake “Wistaria is as much created by man as it is by nature. That rusticity helps inspire relaxation. Outside in the world there is so much distance between our lives and nature, but in here even the light is natural.” When asked about the decoration of the teahouse he said that he didn’t spend much money remodeling the teahouse, but he did try to “infuse it with spirit.” He said that the decorations, plants, flowers and even the garden are filled with hidden pockets of beauty that will only enhance one’s relaxation, not intrude upon it. “The art often needs to be sought out,” he said with a smile. He reminded us that Wistaria will be closed for the entirety of 2007 for remodeling and maintenance, though they will probably rent a smaller location elsewhere.
Another big difference between Wistaria and other “gong fu” teahouses in Taiwan is the menu. While most of the nicer teahouses throughout the island offer peaceful gardens and koi ponds, most seem to have the same nine samples of Taiwanese oolong on their menus. Wistaria, on the other hand, boasts a variety of teas including Mainland and Taiwanese oolongs, green teas, rock teas from Wuyi, and even Puerh. One can even order samples of some of the famous vintage Puerh teas, though many are costly. One Korean friend told me about his first business trip to Taiwan. He said that being a tea lover, he convinced his associates to spend the afternoon at Wistaria. Since it was a special occasion he ordered a pot of Hong Yin Yuan Cha right off the menu. This most expensive tea had apparently rarely been selected before, as the waitress’s jaw dropped in disbelief. She rushed into the other room and phoned Zhou Yu to tell him about the unusual order. Zhou Yu rushed over and my friend said he had one of the most splendid afternoons of his life. After the Hong Yin, Zhou Yu freely shared some 1920’s and 1930’s teas with the group and successfully converted several of them to a life of tea. “It was an amazing day,” my friend announced. Whatever one’s budget and taste, there is a suitable tea available at Wistaria. Zhou Yu has even been supervising and ordering production of modern Puerh tea for several years, and spends a large part of each year in Yunnan researching and creating his excellent teas.
Whether one is traveling in Taipei and the crowded subway and noisy streets are getting annoying, or if one lives and works in the capital, one can find refuge in a nice pot of Wistaria tea. As the steam rises through the beams of sunlight one may look up and notice the art on display, the people scattered about reading, talking quietly or just sitting enjoying some food or tea and think perhaps that time has lost its sway; it might as well be a lazy afternoon on the banks of the Yellow River in China. In this age, much of living in the Dao is finding the space and time to observe some peace and quiet. And it was with that intention in mind that Wistaria was created, an island hermitage in an ocean of urbanity.