he gongfu tea ceremony or kung fu tea ceremony, is a Chinese tea ritual for preparation and presentation of tea. It is probably based on the tea preparation approaches originated in Fujian and the Chaoshan area of eastern Guangdong. The term literally means “making tea with skill”. Today, the approach is used popularly by teashops carrying tea of Chinese origins, and by tea connoisseurs as a way to maximise the taste of a tea selection, especially a finer one.
A gongfu tea table with accessories.
Attention to tea making quality has been a classic Chinese tradition. All teas, loose tea, coarse tea, and powdered tea have long coexisted with the “imperially appointed compressed form”. By the end of the 14th century, the more naturalistic “loose leaf” form had become a popular household product and by the Ming era, loose tea was put to imperial use. In Japan, tea production began in the 12th century following Chinese models, and eventually evolved into the Japanese tea ceremony, meant to be exclusive to political and military elites. The related teaware that is the tea pot and later the gaiwanwere evolved. It is believed that the gongfu tea preparation approach began only in around the 18th century. Some scholars think that it began in Wuyi in Fujian, where the production of oolong tea for export began; others believe that it was the people in Chaozhou in the Chaoshan area in Guangdong started this particular part of the tea culture.
Oral history from the 1940s still referred to Gongfu Cha as “Chaoshan Gongfu Cha”. It is likely that regardless of the earliest incidence of the approach, the place that first successfully integrated it into daily life was Chaoshan area. Chaozhou is recognized by some as the “Capital” of gongfu tea.
Chemistry and physics
In essence, what is desired in Gongfu Cha is a brew that tastes good and is satisfying to the soul. Tea masters in China and other Asian tea cultures study for years to perfect this method. However, method alone will not determine whether a great cup of tea will be produced. Essentially, two things have to be taken into consideration: chemistry and temperature.
Water should be given careful consideration when conducting Gongfu Cha. Water which tastes or smells bad will adversely affect the brewed tea. However, distilled or extremely soft water should never be utilized as this form of water lacks minerals, which will negatively affect the flavor of the tea and so can result in a “flat” brew. For these reasons, most tea masters will use a good clean local source of spring water. If this natural spring water is not available, bottled spring water will suffice. Yet high content mineral water also needs to be avoided. Hard water needs to be filtered.
During the process of Gongfucha, the tea master will first determine what is the appropriate temperature for the tea being used, in order to extract the essential oils of the tea. An optimal temperature must be reached and maintained. The water temperature depends on the type of tea used.
- 95 °C for Oolong tea
- 100 °C (boiling) for compressed teas, such as Pu-erh tea
Note: Green tea is usually not used for a Gongfu tea ceremony
The temperature of the water can be determined by timing, as well as the size and the sizzling sound made by the air bubbles in the kettle.
- At 75–85 °C, the bubbles formed are known as “crab eyes” and are about 3 mm in diameter. They are accompanied by loud, rapid sizzling sounds.
- At 90–95 °C, the bubbles, which are now around 8 mm in diameter and accompanied by less frequent sizzling sounds and a lower sizzling pitch, are dubbed “fish eyes”.
- When the water is boiling, neither the formation of air bubbles nor sizzling sounds occurs.
At high altitudes water boils at lower temperatures, so the above rules cannot be applied.
Tools and equipment
Below is a list of the main items used in a gongfu tea ceremony in Taiwan, known as brewing vessel, Yixing teapot, porcelain teapot, or a covered bowl gaiwan.
- tea pitcher (chahai), or any matching size decanting vessel, used to ensure the consistency of the flavor of the tea
- hot water kettle, e.g. an electric kettle
- brewing tray, or a deep, flat bottom porcelain plate to hold spills (spills are typical)
- tea towel or tea cloth, usually dark-colored
- tea spoon (tea pick) for clearing the teapot spout, and clearing tea leaves etc.
- tea cups (traditionally 3 cups are used in most instances), matching size. Also named Pinming Cup (品茗杯）). Fragrance smelling cup: is intended to capture the aroma and essence of the brewed tea, and is matched with the Pinming cups.
- strainer, a tea strainer sometimes built into the tea pitchers
- tea holder, tea leaf holder for weighing and dispensing, or a wooden tea spoon to measure the amount of tea leaves required
- optional: tea basin or bowl used as the receptacle for used tea leaves and refuse water
- optional: scale
- optional: kitchen thermometer
- optional: scent cup (snifter cup) used to appreciate the tea’s aroma
- optional: A pair of tongs called “Jiā” or “Giab” in both the Chao Zhou and Min Nan dialects.
- optional: a calligraphy-style brush with a wooden handle, which is used to spread the wasted tea evenly over the tea tray to ensure no part dries out and the tea “stain” is spread evenly to ensure a pleasing colour to the tray
A tea pet, usually made from the same clay as a Yixing teapot, is fun to have. One kind of “tea pet” is a “tea boy.” Prior to the tea ceremony, he is soaked in cold water. Hot water poured over him during the tea ceremony will make him “pee.” Traditionally these ‘pets’ are classical Chinese figurines, such as a Dragon, Lion Turtle, or Toad, and are used as a receptacle over which the wasted tea is poured, usually to avoid splattering of the hot water against the tray (both the sound and the spray this action creates)
The ceremony should be carried out in an appropriate space. A table large enough to hold the tea-making utensils, the drip tray, and the water is the minimum necessary. Ideally the surroundings should be peaceful and conducive to relaxation and socialization. Incense, flowers and low, soft, traditional music and songbirds will all add to the ambience.
- The first stage of preparation is known as 溫壺燙杯 (simplified: 温壶烫杯, Pinyin: wēn hú tàng bēi) literally “warming the pot and heating the cups.” At this point the cups and pot are laid on the table. They are then warmed and sterilized with hot water, the excess is then poured away. When pouring from the cups in the Taiwanese Lăorénchá style, the wooden tweezers may be used instead of bare hands.
- The second stage of the preparation is known as 鑒賞佳茗 (simplified: 鉴赏佳茗, Pinyin: jiàn shǎng jiā míng), literally “appreciate excellent tea.” At this point those who would partake of the tea during the ceremony examine and appreciate its appearance, smell, and its other characteristics.
- The third stage of the preparation is known as 烏龍入宮 (simplified: 乌龙入宫, Pinyin: wū lóng rù gōng), “The black dragon enters the palace” (this term in particular is used when Oolong tea is used for the ceremony, as “Oolong” literally means “Black Dragon”). The teapot is filled with tea. For a 150 ml tea pot at least 5 grams of tea leaves are used, however depending on the size of the pot and the strength of the tea the pot may be filled between 1/2 and 2/3 full.
- The leaves are now rinsed using hot water poured from some height above the pot, this is known as 懸壺高沖 (simplified: 悬壶高冲, Pinyin: xuán hú gāo chōng), “rinsing from an elevated pot”. This is done by putting the teapot into the catching bowl. Water heated to the appropriate temperature for the tea is then poured into the pot until the pot overflows.
- Any debris or bubbles which form on the surface are then scooped away gently to keep the tea from around the mouth of the pot which is then closed with the lid. This is known as 春風拂面 (simplified: 春风拂面, Pinyin: chūn fēng fú miàn), meaning “the spring wind brushes the surface.”
- At this point opinions differ as to what should be done with the tea. Some suggest that the tea be steeped for a short while, and discarded into the cups (重洗仙顏, simplified: 重洗仙颜, Pinyin: chóng xǐ xiān yán), meaning “bathe the immortal twice”. This is in order that the temperature inside and outside of the pot is the same. Others recommend immediately pouring the first brew into all of the cups without allowing the tea to steep.
- Customarily this first brew is poured into the cups but is not drunk. This is known as 行雲流水 (simplified: 行云流水, Pinyin: xíng yún líu shǔi), “drifting clouds and flowing water”. It is essentially a slightly extended washing of the leaves.
- The pot is then refilled with fresh hot water until the water reaches the mouth of the pot. This is known as 再注清泉 (Pinyin: zài zhù qīng quán), “Direct again the pure spring” or 回旋低斟 (Pinyin: húi xuán dī zhēn), meaning “pouring again from a low height.” This second term refers to an important principle in the brewing of Chinese tea ceremonially: Gāo chōng dī zhēn, “high to rinse, low to pour.” This is because in the rinsing the tea is rinsed using the force of water poured from a height, whereas in the brewing water is poured closer to the leaves in order not to force the flavour from the leaves too rapidly.
- The bubbles which may have formed on the surface are removed using the lid, and the pot is closed. The hot rinse-tea from the first brew is then emptied over the teapot’s outside. This is known as 刮沫淋蓋 (simplified 刮沫淋盖, Pinyin: guā mò lín gài). Wait for 20 to 50 seconds, depending on the type and quantity of the tea used before beginning to serve the tea.
- In most Chinese gongfucha ceremony the tea is poured evenly into the teacups, in a circular manner around the guests. In the Taiwanese style ceremony however, often the tea is first emptied into the tea pitcher (cha hai) before being served to the guests. A quality oolong tea is good for anywhere from 4 to 8 infusions. Some Pu-erh teas can last for 8 or more infusions. Each subsequent pot follows the same procedure, but requires a slightly longer infusion time.
- In the Taiwanese style ceremony, at its highest form, the aroma of the tea is enjoyed as well as its taste. In this case, the tea is first poured into the tea jug, and then into scent cups (聞香杯), or sniffer cup. This is known as 毆杯沐淋 (simplified: 殴杯沐淋, Pinyin: ōu bēi mù lìn), “bathing the scent cup.”
- The drinking cup is placed upside down over the top of the scent cup and balanced there. This is known as 龍鳳呈祥 (simplified: 龙凤呈祥, Pinyin: lóng fèng chéng xiáng), meaning “The dragon and phoenix in auspicious union.” This is a ritualised action, and is viewed by some as a form of prayer for the prosperity, well-being, and happiness of the guests.
- The two are inverted so that the scent cup is upside down in the drinking cup. This is known as 鯉魚翻身 (simplified: 鲤鱼翻身, Pinyin: lǐ yú fān shēn), “the carp turns over.”
- The final stage, 敬奉香茗 (Pinyin: jìng fèng xiāng míng), “respectfully receive the fragrant tea,” occurs when the scent cup is lifted and the tea is released into the drinking cup. The guest can then enjoy the aroma of the tea from the scent cup before consuming the tea from his drinking cup. In good etiquette the drinker will drink his tea in three sips, no less; the first a small one, the second the main one, and the last an after taste.
End of ceremony
- The ceremony ends with the used tea leaves being put into a clean bowl for the guests to appreciate the tea in its used form. Good etiquette dictates that the guests should make appropriate compliments regarding the choice of tea.
Cleaning up is an important step in the ritual.
- Brewed tea and tea leaves should not remain in the teapot after the ritual. The pot must be cleaned up thoroughly and rinsed with hot tea.
- Utensils must be sterilized with boiling water.
- The teapot should be rinsed with hot tea and the outside should be rubbed and polished with a good linen cloth.
- A clay teapot should never be washed with detergents or soaps.
- The tea pot must be allowed to dry naturally.
- The utensils and serving cups should be allowed to air dry on a tea tray.