Early Days

Early in my tea drinking life, I attended a workshop on the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. I was certainly aware of the traditional Japanese ceremony but, as someone who generally preferred Chinese style teas, I was eager to learn the “correct” way to prepare them.

I sat at a tea table that was prepared with all measure of implements I had never before seen: a handle-less tea cup with a lid, a deep porcelain dish with a many holed plate on top, a clay teapot so small I feared it would never brew enough to please anyone, something resembling a cream pitcher, a cylindrical holder with sticks and scoops and large tweezers, and cups so tiny they surely wouldn’t satisfy a Lilliputian. And then it began; a ceremony that had its roots in the teachings of Lu Yu, the “father” of Chinese tea; a ceremony that conveyed, through tea, the essence of Chinese culture.

Throughout this presentation there was more than an undercurrent of Chinese grandeur together with an ominous tone of condescension. Unlike the Japanese ceremony that focused on etiquette, the Chinese (correctly, it surely must be noted) stressed the flavor of the tea itself. It was the tea that was paramount. There were, nonetheless, certain steps that were essential. The passing of the dry leaf. The rinsing of the implements. The flourish when the tea leaves were introduced to the pot. The pouring of the water at a temperature just so.  The three counterclockwise circles on the rim of the chachuan (that is the porcelain dish with the plate on top.) The “living in the pot” to know the precise moment the tea was ready. The transfer from the pot to the pitcher and the pitcher to the cups. The tasting of the tea. And finally, appreciation to the tea master for having produced such an artful brew. Now I was truly chuffed for I had seen and drunk tea prepared in the traditional Chinese fashion.

Chaozhou Origins

A tea table set for gong fu preparation

Except that I hadn’t. Oh, I had seen tea brewed in a style I now know as gong fu[1] (and I’ve learned the names of the implements as well) but I didn’t learn the traditional Chinese tea ceremony for such a thing really hasn’t existed until recently. In China there were “ways of tea” but no “way of tea.”[2]

The gong fu way of tea originated in Chaozhou, a city in southeastern of China and it was very much a regional practice limited to the Chaozhou area and portions of Fujian Province where oolong tea was the principal tea consumed.  Elsewhere in China, where green tea was more prevalent, other, different ways of brewing and making tea were used.


Coming to Taiwan

The gong fu style arrived in Taiwan in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought by the waves of Fujianese migrations to the island, and took root there. Yet it remained simply a way of brewing tea and was not infused with any particular sense of ceremony. This began to change in the 1970’s as the export market for Taiwanese tea began to collapse and the government started actively promoting the domestic consumption of tea.  There were several prongs to this effort: turning increasingly to oolong production, Taiwan’s traditional form of tea making; encouraging the planting of high mountain tea gardens dedicated to producing top quality tea; the holding of tea competitions; and the development of the practice of “tea arts” or chayi.

A quiet Saturday morning at Hui Liu tea house in Yongkang Park, Taipei

The developing practice of chayi was especially strong in the new style of Taiwanese tea houses that were becoming more prevalent in the major centers of the island.[3]  Over several years a version of gong fu brewing developed that emphasized not only the brewing of the tea but the aesthetic nature of the brewing process.[4] Many practitioners of chayi claimed that what they were doing was reviving the ancient tradition of Chinese tea but at best they were codifying the regional practice of Chaozhou.[5] More than that, however, they were adding to that practice by introducing such innovations as the wenxiangbei (the aroma cup) and the gongdaobei (the fairness cup) which never had been part of Chinese brewing tradition in any region.[6]

Meanwhile in China

As chayi in Taiwan began to grow, China was finding itself without much of a tea tradition at all. The country was just beginning to recover from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and was searching for a sense of continuity in many cultural areas, including the art of tea. The Taiwanese art and practice of brewing was just what was needed to project a traditional version of Han culture.[7]

Gradually, the Taiwanese practice spread, along with the newly developed serving implements, to China where they were adopted and “nationalized” as part of the great Chinese heritage.[8] In fact, until very recently, Chinese Universities offered “Tea Master” certifications for those who had taken a prescribed course of study in chayi.

The New “Tradition”

The chayi associated with gong fu brewing continue to evolve in both Taiwan and China. For example, gong fu brewing has been taken outdoors and is performed by large groups sitting in a circle on the ground and brewing for the person seated next to them. Also, the practice has been “internationalized” with many tea lovers around the world now brewing “the traditional Chinese way”. From Chaozhou to Taiwan then to China as a whole the gong fu method of brewing has become the accepted method of brewing Taiwanese and Chinese tea. And this is a relatively modern “tradition.”

That’s my take. What’s your view?

[1] Gong fu means effort and/or skill.

[2] For a thorough exposition of this see Lawrence Zhang “A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts” Gastronomica Spring 2016, pp. 53 – 62. See also, Jinghong Zhang, “A Transnational Flow of the Art of Tea: The Paradox of Cultural Authenticity in Taiwan,” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 2017.

[3] See Scott Writer, “Feeling Your Way: The Cultivated Aesthetic in Taiwanese Tea Art” China Heritage Quarterly March 2012.

[4] This aesthetic was strongly influenced by the Japanese tea ceremony. Taiwan was a Japanese colony until 1945 and Japanese influences can be found in many of the country’s cultural pursuits. See both of the Zhang papers for more on this influence.

[5] L. Zhang p. 56.

[6] L. Zhang p. 58, J Zhang p. 8.

[7] J. Zhang pp. 6, 7.

[8] A recent blog by China Tea Set, “Do Justice When You Drink with the Sharing Teacup” claimed that the “fairness cup” or the “sharing cup” dates from the Ming dynasty, an indication of the extent to which gong fu brewing is now presented as the “traditional ceremony” with deep roots in Chinese culture.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this with your friends!