Gongfu tea (Part I): Introduction

tea master performing a gongfu ceremony

This article is part 1/3 of our gongfu tea series. Here we will give a brief overview of the history, regional variations, meaning of the term, and key brewing concept that defines gongfu tea.

History of gongfu tea

Gongfu tea is an ancient Chinese tea ceremony which involves a ritual preparation and presentation of tea. Despite being highly formalised, it does allow for elements of artistic display, by both the tea master and in the overall arrangement of teaware and accessories. Another core principle is its social aspect, where hospitality is displayed by hosts toward their guests, as well as creating a space that encourages dialogue and contemplation.

The exact origins of gongfu tea are debated. Some scholars believe that it was fairly recent, in the 18th century, in the Wuyi region, Fujian province, that this style emerged. However, a more generally accepted theory is that it originated in the Chaoshan region during the Song dynasty (960 to 1279). Then, much later on, during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), it finally spread in earnest throughout greater China and began being incorporated into daily life.

Today, when we talk about gongfu tea, we generally refer to the original style from the Chaoshan region. This is an area in eastern Guangdong province, encompassing the historic cities of Chaozhou and Shantou. It sits on the border with Fujian province, which is one of the great tea-producing regions of the world and birthplace of oolong tea. Additionally, Chaoshan is a coastal region, which since the olden days of the Maritime Silk Road had been exposed to new ideas and was comparatively wealthier than inland regions. Considering such an amalgamation of factors, perhaps it is no wonder that gongfu tea has its roots here.

Regional variations

A number of regional variations of the gongfu tea ceremony do exist. Some simply skip the use of particular tools, or omit certain steps in the performance. Other variations, on the other hand, truly add something unique. Here we describe some of the more noteworthy ones.

Even within the Chaoshan area itself there are two styles of brewing: wet vs. dry. Wet brewing involves pouring hot water over the exterior of the teaware to maintain heat. Dry brewing, as the name suggests, skips this part. Additionally, when dry brewing, after pre-heating the teapot, it is then fanned and allowed to air out before adding the dry tea leaves.

Another variant is found in Sichuan province, where long-spouted copper teapots are used. These teapots are wielded by skilled performers who use various martial arts moves and balancing techniques whilst serving the tea. Often many years of training are required before the performer is deemed qualified.

Another innovation, originating from Taiwan, is the fragrance cup. This cup is not used for drinking, but rather for olfactory appreciation. Its tall and thin shape allows the concentration of aromatic compounds. These aromas are then savoured prior to each round of drinking.

A bit further afield, in Japan, gongfu tea was first introduced by Chinese merchants visiting Nagasaki, during the Edo period in the late 17th century. Senchadō is the local variant that evolved and it specifically focuses on the preparation of non-powdered green teas.

Meaning of the term gongfu

The Chinese characters for gongfu are 功夫 / 工夫 (Gōng Fū) and are alternatively transliterated as kungfu or kung fu. Many often associate this term with Chinese martial arts, however the literal meaning of these two characters is ‘skill, art, labour, effort’. As such, gongfu tea simply means “making tea with skill”.

Key brewing concept

Beyond its ceremonial elements, there is the key brewing concept that gongfu tea should use a high leaf-to-water ratio, small brewing vessel, short infusion times and have many steeps. It is said that this method truly brings out the personality of a tea by revealing different layers with each infusion.

In theory, all tea types can be brewed gongfu style. However, in reality, the most suitable teas are oolong, black and pu’er. By pu’er, we refer to all fermented teas. Generally speaking, green, white and yellow teas are less suitable, because repeat exposure to heat tends to quickly draw out an astringent and bitter brew.

Now that we have had an introduction to gongfu tea, we can move on to part 2/3, where we will give a detailed overview of the tools and teaware used, as well as offer a step-by-step guide to the ceremony.


What's next?

Already having a think about what teas to try first with your gongfu sessions? We recommend starting out by comparing a Jin Xuan versus Tie Guan Yin. Although both fall under the oolong category, their flavour profiles are vastly at opposite ends. As you progress through the infusions, note how each of these teas reveal their personality.

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