Exploring Chinese Tea Culture – The Gongfu Tea Ceremony

The Gongfu tea ceremony is China’s take on ritualized tea drinking. Rather than a strict procedure with symbolic and aesthetic connotations like the Japanese tea ceremony, the goal of the Gongfu tea ceremony is to present a finely crafted cup of tea. The ceremony relies mainly on the knowledge and expertise of the tea brewer, but proper teaware and quality tea also play a major role in the tea drinking experience.

The term “gongfu” is a variant spelling of “kung fu”. Although the contemporary understanding of kung-fu refers to Chinese martial arts, its original meaning refers to any skill that learned through practice and training. In this case, “gongfu” refers to the skillful preparation of tea. The ritual is also called the Fujian tea ceremony, the Chinese tea ceremony, and Gongfu Cha.

Chinese Teapots and Teacups

Proper teaware is as important to the experience of drinking tea as the tea itself. Three teapots are used during the ceremony: one for boiling water, one for brewing tea, and one for serving tea. These teapots can be made of porcelain, cast iron, or glass; but clay is widely considered to be the best choice of material for brewing tea. Chinese Yixing clay teapots, in particular, are believed to be the best because tea oils are absorbed into the clay’s pores, thus enhancing the flavor of the tea over time. Gaiwan teacups made of porcelain or glass are sometimes used to brew and serve the tea instead of a teapot.

The teacups used during the ceremony are generally made of porcelain or clay. They are purposefully smaller than typical teacups so that it takes only a couple gulps to finish the tea. This prevents the tea taster from lingering too long on a single cup of tea.

Procedure of the Gongfu Tea Ceremony

  1. Boiling water is the first and arguably the most important step of tea brewing. The quality and temperature of the water have the direct effect on the tea. Poor water quality results in a distasteful tea. Likewise, water temperature needs to be monitored since different teas require different water temperatures.
  2. The boiled water is poured into the brewing teapot and the teacups for a couple brief seconds then discarded. This washes away any dust that may have collect in the teaware.
  3. Loose leaf tea leaves are measured and placed into the brewing teapot. Boiled water is poured over the leaves, but then discarded after a few seconds. This cleans the tea leaves and causes them to unfold slightly. At this time, it is customary for the tea tasters to examine the aroma and appearance of the tea leaves.
  4. Hot water is poured into the brewing teapot until it overflows a bit. Bubbles on the surface of the water are considered unappealing so the tea brewer skims them off before placing the lid on the teapot. Hot water may be poured over the teapot in order to keep it hot.
  5. Once it has finished steeping, the tea can be served from the brewing teapot or decanted into a separate teapot for serving. The finished tea is poured evenly between the participants’ cups in a circular motion. The tea leaves are usually cleaned out of the teapot so that the participants can examine and appreciate the tea.

Oolong teas are the traditional favorite for use in the tea ceremony since it can support multiple infusions, but any variety of Chinese tea can be prepared in this style. Puerh teas are occasionally used during the ceremony since they are famous for their durability when it comes to multiple infusions.