Drink Magazine

Why Gongfucha is Not a Tea Ceremony and Why Semantics Matter

By Dchew78 @peonyts

Gongfucha is often translated as “gongfu tea ceremony”. This, as we will see shortly, is inaccurate and misleading.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ceremony as such:

- Formal religious or public occasion, especially one celebrating a particular event, achievement, or anniversary:

- An act or series of acts performed according to a traditional or prescribed form:

- The ritual observances and procedures required or performed at grand and formal occasions:

- Formal polite behaviour:

In Chaozhou where Gongfucha begun (more on this later), Gongfucha is a ubiquitous everyday affair. Every household has the requisite equipment and it is part of their lives, not a formal occasion, and certainly no religion involved.

In fact, as testimony to the informality of it, in the past, woodcutters were known to bring along their tea sets when they were out in the forests. When it was break time, they would brew up some tea and enjoy a moment of tranquility; nothing formal about squatting in the middle of the woods.

How about defining it as an ‘act or series of acts performed according to a traditional or prescribed form’?

To understand that, let us look at what Gongfucha means in its original language- Chinese.

A bit of Etymology

Gongfucha (工夫茶) is frequently erroneously written as (功夫茶), even by native speakers (writers) of the language since both are pronounced the same way in Mandarin.

While it is a one word difference, as students of languages know, a word can make all the difference; in this case, “工夫” and “功夫” are quite different: 工夫 means time, leisure or effort while功夫 means skill or technique.

For example:


This sentence can be translated as: “To win her heart, {you} need time (or effort or both).”

This statement is one that you could repeat in front of the maiden in question with little fear and trepidation.

On the other hand, let us look at a slightly different statement:


This is best translated as “To win her heart, {you} need skill (or technique).”

The two sentences above have four different characters. Plus while the fair maiden might concur with the first, perhaps even feel a bit flattered, she is most likely offended by the second.

The earliest documented occurrence of the phrase is in “潮嘉风月记” (Tales of Chao Jia) where 工夫 (time, leisure, effort) was the written form, back in 1793. In the neighboring province of Fujian, the ‘other’ hub of Gongfucha, there was an appearance in the 1858 “闽杂记” (Miscellaneous Chronicles of Fujian), depicting the same phrase.

In the Chaozhou (Teochew) dialect, 工夫 is pronounced as “gang hu” while 功夫 is pronounced as “gong hu”. As Chaozhou tea addicts will tell you, they are enjoying their spot of “gang hu te” (Gongfucha), which means the phrase in question is工夫- time and effort.

What does This Mean then?

With a clearer understanding of what ‘gongfu’ means, we look at the definition of ‘ceremony’ again where it was described as ‘traditional or prescribed form’.

If ‘gongfu’ was related to skill, it is a clearer case for ‘traditional or prescribed form’, since technique is acquired through practice and honing of the said form. However where it relates to time, leisure and effort, a ritualistic repetition need not be the natural outflow of it.

Gongfucha is therefore properly understood as using time and effort to extract the maximum out of the tea. Given that Gongfucha evolved through the years, as we will see later in this chapter, a dogmatic adherence to the traditional or prescribed form is clearly not the case.

One way of looking at Gongfucha is the brewer’s interpretation of the tea, much like how jazz masters would interpret the standards differently. For instance, when handling the tea for the first time, we would smell it, see the tightness of its rolling, to access the best way of brewing it.

Why do semantics matter?

What is the purpose in debating over whether ‘Gongfucha’ is a ceremony- let us enjoy it for whatever it is, I can almost hear some cries.

Therein lies the crux, how we define it affects our enjoyment.

Let’s Dispense with Formalities

The label of a ceremony overly ‘formalizes’ the event. While it is appropriate for the Japanese Chanoyu where it is a prim, dare I say, ceremonial ritual, Gongfucha is for everyone and anyone who just wants to take time to enjoy a good cup(s) of tea.

As mentioned earlier, historically in Chaozhou (there are not many woodcutters these days, they use gas just like we do), woodcutters do it during break time. It was considered a natural accompaniment to watching Chaozhou Opera, as it would be after meal times, or when serving a family friend who dropped in for a visit. In other words, there is nothing formal about it, not any more formal than percolating coffee beans or serving Sauvignon Blanc.

It’s Complicated

Complicating matters is another issue with calling it a ceremony. As a ceremony, there are certain rules and regulations to be adhered to. For instance, during a wedding ceremony, depending on your culture, certain colors are taboo, as are certain symbols.

For Gongfucha, there are none. While there are etiquettes and best practices (as we will look at in Chapter 8), as you would expect any sport or hobby, but no one is going to gasp in horror or refuse to serve you further if you do not do the equivalent of the secret handshake.

Part of the allure of tea is how it helps you to relax and steal a moment’s leisure amidst your busy schedule- unnecessarily complicating matters detracts from that. Not to mention it becomes intimidating for a newcomer to pick it up.

Implies Dogma

The misperception is that Gongfucha is rigid, fixed and unyielding. That could not be further from the truth.

Geographically, Chaozhou, Fujian and Taiwan have different methods. Each teacher or master has his or her own peculiarities. Each individual tea addict eventually forms his or her own spin on their taught methods over time, based on their preferences, climate, equipment and other factors.

In short- there is more than one way.

More importantly, all teas are created different- no single brewing method fits all teas. The occasion or the guest would also affect the brewing methods (more on these in Chapter 7); to label Gongfucha as a ceremony implies rigidity and customary practice, rather than a flexible, intuitive interpretation of all factors applicable.

Terming and treating it as a ceremony therefore, runs counter to the spirit of Gongfucha.

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