If big profits are not his motivation, what fuels Gao Ding Shi’s dedication to natural methods of tea farming? Indeed, Mr. Gao has great reason to be sensitive to this issue: personal tragedy.
Along with tens of thousands of other migrants from China’s Fujian province, just 180km across the Taiwan Strait, Gao’s great-great grandfather arrived in these parts from Anxi, the mountainous county renowned as the homeland of Tieguanyin, perhaps the world’s most famous Oolong tea. These mountains reminded him of home. He had grown tea in Anxi, and so when they moved to Taiwan looking for a better life, they grew tea there, with the clippings they’d brought from the mainland.
The family’s next generations continued growing tea; technology and the commercial tea market changed alongside them. By the time his father took over tea production, Taiwan was in an exportation boom and volume was therefore highly valued. Pesticides were commonplace, often cheap ones banned already in the developed world. His father died young and painfully of cancer, and other members of his family developed cancer and crippling diseases which by all appearances seemed directly related to living alongside chemicals.
This loss, and seeing his family suffer from needless poisoning left huge emotional scars in Mr. Gao (his eyes well up quickly when speaking of his beloved father) and served as the catalyst for major life—and business— changes.
“The tea trees are my brothers and sisters,” he says, “members of my extended family. They have fed and protected my own family for generations and I wish to return the favor.”
And then, The Rain.
Gao Ding Shi’s tea processing house lies at the bottom of a winding road cut through thick swaths of trees and has a terraced view overlooking valleys. One feels embraced by the mountains, a welcome visitor in their realm. The processing area itself is really just a concrete house, half of which is living space for his aging mother who spends most of the day peeling vegetables, making food and sleeping while her son, other family members, and a few hired helpers carry on making tea.
This is not what many readers might have in mind when thinking about a tea processing plant; this is real life. There are bugs and flies coming in and out of the open doors; the floors are far from spotless; a friendly dog wanders about; laundry hangs next to baskets of drying tea. In short, nothing Better Homes and Gardens would aim their cameras at.
Yet this is artisanal tea production, not sterile factory tea production. Life happens here, and in the best sense, we can taste it in the tea. Mr. Gao washes his sturdy hands, which are thick from hard work—barely calloused despite the almost constant work he does—yet as elegant as a cellist’s, and opens a pack of jiao tai, the green tea he produces.
Luckily, it starts to rain. Heavily. The transformation from sunny day to stormy lasts but a few minutes. Soon, relentless vertical curtains of water are falling across the outside landscape. The morning harvest yielded five bamboo baskets, (each the width of outstretched arms) full of tea leaves of the Qinxin Heimien cultivar and they were left to wither in the sun outside. With the first drops of rain, though, Mr. Gao scurries to bring the baskets inside and place them on racks to wither there. He planned on making some Dong Fang Mei Ren from those leaves, but this slight change of procedure makes it more appropriate to make red tea from them. Man plans, God laughs. And man needs to quietly, humbly adapt.
I say ‘luckily’ about the rain. Had the day remained clear and dry, Mr. Gao would have been too busy with his tea leaves to attend much to us. Making Dong Fang Mei Ren takes more time and effort than red tea, foreign guests or none. But now he had some time to sit with us, pour us some tea, and chat. Somewhat unusually, he steeps his green tea for four minutes at 40C, water quite cool. “A good tea is good at any temperature,” he says gently. He steeps and pours his tea calmly, slowly, one thing at a time. A lovely peace falls over the place, nestled as it is in the forest and now caressed by the lulling sounds of rainfall.
Before the weather clears and it’s time to say goodbye, we have the luxury of spending a few hours in Mr. Gao’s calm company. Even aside from what I know of his commitment to Nature and Tea, I have the feeling of being in the presence of a truly beautiful soul, some- one living in total flow and happy with the easy partnership he has with life.
“Tea has taught me humility, to be humble towards Nature. When we want to smell tea leaves, we bow down to them, we don’t keep our head held high.”