Drink Magazine

What Gongfu Tea is NOT

By Dchew78 @peonyts

As mentioned at any opportunity we get, gongfu brewing is an important part of the Chinese tea experience for oolong tea.

Previously we looked at the origins of gongfu tea, how to brew gongfu tea, different styles of gongfu tea and how to overcome the fear of a gaiwan, an integral tool in gongfu tea.

In this post, we will look at what gongfu tea is NOT.

It is not (always) a ceremony

Sometimes the gongfu tea brewing process is translated as gongfu ceremony, a translation I dislike.

What Gongfu Tea is NOT
There are occasions when it IS a ceremony, such as 茶艺表演 which is literally translated as a “tea art performance. That may rightfully be considered ceremonial since there are 16 to 24 steps (depending on which school) all with elegant sounding names and movements.

That is the ceremony which probably 90% of us will be a spectator rather than a ‘performer’.

Yet the authentic gongfu cha has its roots among the humble common man of Chaozhou. Peasants would watch operas with their gongfu cha set at the table. Even woodcutters would bring their tea sets with them and during lunch break they could just start a fire, boil some water to drink gongfu cha while squatting in the forest.

In short, it is a very pragmatic everyday man type of activity, not merely ceremonial or ritualistic but as much a regular event as a meal or a break.

Today in Chaozhou and Fujian, this remains the case. From rich bureaucrats to laborers, a tea set is virtually ubiquitous in their home.

It is not (mainly) about skills

Here a bit of understanding of mandarin is required.

Gongfu tea is written as 工夫茶 which is translated as time, effort or leisure.

For example, you could say “我花了一番工夫才把房间打扫干净” which means I spent quite some effort to clean the room. The issue here is effort- not skill (altogether there are some rooms that do require skills to clean!).

The confusion arises because of the homophone “功夫茶” where gongfu is translated as “skill”.

What Gongfu Tea is NOT

Image taken from www.china-tour.net

This gongfu is the same word as 少林功夫 or shaolin gongfu or often spelled as Kungfu owing much to David Carradine’s show.

This perpetrates the impression that it is a skillful activity that novices should venture at their own peril.

While there are skills involved in brewing tea- certainly there are, I wrote more than 20 articles on it ;p- it is more about attention and care than skill.

Of course if you are working in a Chengdu teahouse with the long spout and theatrical pouring as pictured, then there is genuinely a pretty high level of skill required.

However I have drank numerous infusions with people from Chaozhou, Minbei and Minnan, all of them pour water in a very practical manner- some circular motion around the gaiwan or teapot, some from a height but none of them in that theatrical manner.

It is not outdated

Quality never goes out of style as an old advert go.

The purpose of gongfu brewing is to get the most out of your tea, extract the full flavor. It is an activity in itself, savoring the subtle (and not-so subtle) changes from infusion to infusion.

Unfortunately for the younger generation, perhaps because of the “archaic” sounding name- hey we don’t do gongfu, we are MMA- they may think of it as outdated.

In certain circles, it is considered an “eastern thing” and perplexingly enough, that suffices as a reason to disdain it.

Don’t let culture bias get in the way of a good thing.

Gongfu tea is equal part brewing technique and tea appreciation. Just a warning, it will render mediocre tea undrinkable.

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