History, Significance, and Techniques of the Gongfu Tea Ceremony

The Gongfu Tea Ceremony, also known as the Kung Fu Tea Ceremony, is a ritualistic Chinese tea-making practice that involves the preparation and presentation of tea. The term “gongfu” literally means “making tea with skill,” and the approach is known for using smaller brewing vessels and a higher leaf-to-water ratio than western-style brewing. In this article, we will delve into the history, significance, and techniques of the Gongfu Tea Ceremony.

The History of Gongfu Tea Ceremony

Tea-making quality has always 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. The related teaware, the tea pot, and later, the gaiwan lidded cup, evolved over time. 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, while others believe that it was the people in Chaozhou in the Chaoshan area in Guangdong who started this particular part of the tea culture. Oral history from the 1940s still referred to Gongfu Cha as Chaoshan Gongfu Cha. Chaozhou is recognized by some as the capital of Gongfu tea.

The Significance of Gongfu Tea Ceremony

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, the 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.

The Techniques of Gongfu Tea Ceremony

Water chemistry is one important 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 used as this form of water lacks minerals, which will negatively affect the flavor of the tea and 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. It is said that hard water needs to be filtered, although the mineral content of even very hard water is solvated, and no amount of filtering will affect it.

During the process of Gongfu Cha, the tea master will first determine the appropriate temperature for the tea being used to extract the aroma of the tea. An optimal temperature must be reached and maintained. The water temperature depends on the type of tea used. For example, 75–85 °C (167–185 °F) for green tea, 75–80 °C (167–176 °F) for white tea, 80–85 °C (176–185 °F) for oolong tea, and 100 °C (212 °F) (boiling) for compressed teas, such as pu-erh tea. 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.

Tools and Equipment Used in Gongfu Tea Ceremony

The following is a list of the primary tools and equipment used in a gongfu tea ceremony in Taiwan, locally known as 老人茶 (Pinyin: Lǎorénchá):

  • Brewing vessel, which can be a Yixing teapot, porcelain teapot, or covered bowl gaiwan.
  • Tea pitcher (chahai) or any decanting vessel of a matching size, used to ensure consistent tea flavor (Chinese: 公道杯, Pinyin: gōng dào bēi).
  • Hot water kettle, such as an electric kettle.
  • Brewing tray or deep, flat-bottomed porcelain plate to hold spills (spills are typical).
  • Dark-colored tea towel or cloth.
  • Tea knife or pick for clearing the teapot spout and separating leaves from tea cakes.
  • Tea cups (traditionally, three cups are used in most instances) of matching size, also known as Pinming Cup (品茗杯).
  • Timer.
  • Strainer, sometimes built into the tea pitchers, which can be a tea strainer (Chinese: 漏斗; pinyin: lòu dǒu; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: liō tó͘).
  • Tea holder, which can be a tea leaf holder for weighing and dispensing or a wooden tea spoon to measure the required amount of tea leaves (Chinese: 茶匙, Pinyin: chá chí).
  • Optional: Tea basin or bowl for used tea leaves and refuse water.
  • Optional: Scale.
  • Optional: Kitchen thermometer.
  • Optional: Scent cup (snifter cup) used to appreciate the tea’s aroma (Chinese: traditional 聞香杯, simplified 闻香杯, Pinyin wén xiāng bēi).
  • Optional: A pair of tongs called “Jiā” (Chinese: 挾) or “Giab” (Pe̍h-ōe-jī: gia̍p) 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 color to the tray.
  • Tea pet, usually made from the same clay as a Yixing teapot, which is fun to have. One type of “tea pet” is a “tea boy” that is soaked in cold water before the tea ceremony. Hot water poured over it during the ceremony will make it “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 develop a patina.

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