China 101: Gong Fu Cha (Tea Ceremony)

“The art of tea is a spiritual force for us to share.” – Alexandra Stoddard

People may think that the British get unruly if they miss their cuppa in the afternoon, but the idiom is “for all the tea in China” for a reason: the tea ceremony is an institution here. It has been for over 400 years. People organize society around it. It is a time of day when families get together and share what’s on their mind.

As you might know, there are few things I love more than tea. And I’m pleased to say, that in China, they do tea drinking right. They appreciate it, they revel in all the flavors, and most importantly they use it as an opportunity to connect. Tea drinking is a communal process. The tea ceremony is a gathering where all of the stratifications of society fall away, and–for a brief moment–all are equal. Everyone has tea, billionaires and beggars alike. People hash out business deals, wedding plans, lunch menus, and so much more over this miraculous little leaf.

The words “Gong Fu” (pronounced Kung Fu) are usually associated with the Chinese martial art, but their true origin is with painstaking practice to achieve perfection. One must have patience and balance in order to achieve the high quality enjoyment that is standard with Chinese teas from our region. You remember when we sorted tea with Davi’s relatives and learned about Dahongpao at Wuyi Mountain? The primary export from Fujian Province is tea. It is tea that is coveted not only all over China, but all over the world, and consequently must be prepared with care.

Chinese people and Americans drink tea completely differently. We may be considered the philistines of the tea-drinking world. We almost exclusively use tea bags, and take it on-the-go, letting it steep forever. The purpose behind Gong Fu Cha, however, is to slow down and savor the fine little concoction you make. That’s why you sip from the tiny cup; otherwise, you seem overly eager to end the ceremony. Nobody wants that.

And there’s so much interesting equipment involved, as well. Almost everyone in our region owns a tea table or table-top, usually intricately carved out of wood or bamboo. Our apartment came with a table that has a drainage system attached, should you spill any tea. There’s a little hot-plate with a teapot, a pot for boiling water, a tea set, special towels, and so on. It’s so nice! Of course, each piece is intricately designed and wonderfully elegant in its own way.

The items necessary for Gong Fu Cha are:
1. Tea Pot- is usually small, only about 100-200ml. Ours is made from ceramic with a traditional lid, for easier access to the tea leaves. Many Chinese people also use a clay pot. Clay pots cannot be washed and absorb the flavor of the teas brewed within them. Each pot bears the stamp of its maker, and must be seasoned with tea before use.
3. Cha Hai- or “jug of fairness.” This item is designed to work as mediator between tea pot and cups. After tea has steeped, it should be funneled into the Cha Hai first, and only afterwards from Cha Hai to the cups. Through this action, tea is evenly distributed by Cha Hai and has equal strength and flavor. This brings fairness to every cup.
4. Tea cups- as previously mentioned, large or narrow cups are only for savoring and preserving the flavor of tea. In a traditional ceremony, tea must be drunk from small, flat cups. This represents patience and reservedness.
5. Water kettle – Maintaining water temperature throughout the ceremony is very important. Our hot plate has a thermometer that allows us to adjust for consistent temperature.
6. Bowl- After the customary rinsing of the tea leaves twice, excess water is placed in the bowl.
7. Brush- aids in the gentle cleaning, rinsing of the items.
7. Tea funnel – normally made out of wood, in our case, metal. Allows for neat transfer of the brewed tea from the pot to the Cha Hai. Used leaves that fall into the funnel can be place in the bowl.

In the video, you will notice that Chinese tea sets seem remarkably small, and are much more kinetic than Western ones. The reason behind this is to minimize the amount of time that the tea is able to steep. The longer tea steeps, the more bitter it becomes. Of course, some bitterness is palatable, but if you don’t restrict how long the water is in contact with the leaf, everything ends up tasting the same.

One of the other interesting parts of the tea ceremony is washing the tea set. It serves the same purpose as an autoclave. China has notoriously bad groundwater, full of parasites, pollutants, and any sort of nastiness that you can think of, so it’s essential to make sure that everything is decontaminated before use. And there’s something about picking up a steaming glass and holding it in the palm of your hand, as well.

1. Wash the tea set in boiling water. Traditionally, one washes all items twice. Excess water is placed in bowl.
2. Place desirable amount of tea leaves into the pot and gently pour water over tea to wash them. The pot should be almost overflowing on the first infusion. Using the lid of the pot, excess water and pollutants are drained into the bowl or directly into the basin of the tea table. Repeat for a second infusion.
3. Pour water over leaves again. Place lid on pot and allow to steep for the suggested amount of time. Pro tip: the longer is steeps, the more bitter it becomes, particularly with black or oolong varieties.
4. Using the lid of the pot, again drain tea into the Cha Hai using the funnel. Leaves that fall out are gently swept into the bowl using the brush.
5. Pour evenly from the Cha Hai into the cups.
6. Enjoy!
(7. Pour all water and tea leaves from the bowl into the basin of the tea table for clean up.)

This was my first time attempting Gong Fu Cha. Check out how I did!

As usual, it’s available in higher quality on Vimeo:

<3, V&K

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