Asian tea ceremonies: Gongfucha

In difference to the everyday occidental tea customs, the Asian tea ceremonies are part and expression of a way of life. They are rooted in the appreciation for the preparation of tea as an act of conscious and caring hospitability. With utensils perfectly adept for the purpose, high quality tea is prepared in a beautiful environment.

The Chinese tea ceremony: Gong Fu Cha 功夫茶

In the Chinese tradition, “Gong Fu” does not only designate the martial arts, but any activity that leads to great skills and mastership trough time and repetitive labour. With respect to tea, this means to a highly refined way of tea making.

The tea (camellia sinensis) originates in China, we can thus say that China has the oldest tea culture. The Chinese tea ceremony is an important part of that culture. The word “ceremony” is often associated with something really complex, complicated, and not easy to be performed by a lay person. We would hence better speak of the Chinese way of tea making than of a ceremony. In China, it is called “Gong Fu Cha” 功夫茶 or “Cha Dao” 茶道. The first means “the art of tea”, which speaks for the usage of the word “ceremony”. The latter means “the Way of tea”, which rather describes the way of preparing the tea. The more, in the spiritual sense of the word, a Dao is always a path of inner perfection through means of working towards “outer” perfection, be it a motion in martial arts, the posture in Zen or the sound of the flute in Shakuhachi etc. With respect to the preparation of tea, the idea is the following: a tea of high quality entails a multitude of rich aromas, which all want to be enjoyed. With the European pouring method, which is using 12 grams of tea leaves on a litre of hot water and letting it steep for few minutes, this multitude of often subtle and sublime aromas cannot be brought out properly. Every cup poured from that big tea pot with tea brewed in the occidental style is of the same taste.

In China, Oolong and Pu Er teas, but also black teas are prepared in this way. Green, yellow and white teas can be prepared in Gong Fu Cha, those, however, request more attention. The slightly adapted Gong Fu Cha method described in the section “Gong Fu Cha for green teas” below is more suitable.

The following tea dishes are required for the Chinese tea ceremony: a small teapot with one or two decilitres content. In China, either teapots made from Yixing-clay or Gaiwan (盖碗, „lid cup“) made of porcelain are used as recipients to infuse the tea leaves. To this adds a recipient of similar size and content to hold the infused tea. In China, they use small kinds of pitchers made of clay, porcelain or glass. The tea cups and scent cups are really small, with a maximum content of one big sip. These are made of clay or porcelain, too. The dishes should rest on a tea tray or brewing tray to hold the spilled liquid. Then there are the tea utensils, i.e. a strainer, a tea spoon, a kind of funnel, a pair of tongs, a stick and a long needle. The spoon and funnel are used to put the tea leaves into the pouring recipient. The tongs are to grab the tea cups (it is polite of the host not to touch the small cups with his or her fingers), the stick and the needle are needed a.o. when the spout of the teapot is clogged. The idea of the utensils is not to touch neither the tea leaves nor the tea as a liquid with the hands.

The “Way of the tea” goes and flows from the teapot into the pitcher, from there into the scent cups and into the cups. After the tea has been poured from the scent cups into the cups, its fragrance remains at the high walls of the scent cups to be enjoyed. These are often not used, though, and instead the participants in the tea ceremony are offered the lid of the teapot, respectively the Gaiwan, or from the empty tea cups.

In the first place, all the tea dishes are warmed, that includes the fact that a “Way of the tea” is always exclusively made with hot water. Then the tea leaves (usually six grams, a little less or more depending on the tea cup) are shovelled into the teapot or Gaiwan with the tea spoon through the funnel. Then follows the first pouring, which is to wash the tea. Even more important than the cleaning is that the tea leaves start to “wake up” by absorbing water and start to unfold. The following pourings will bring out the aromas much better after this first washing, and the cups are “getting used to the tea”, as this first, still very subtle tea, is poured into the (scent) cups and then into the tray. It is only now that the first drinkable pouring comes. For this first pouring and the following ones, the tea leaves are not left to steep, as the infusion is poured over into the pitcher immediately. It is only by the time when the tea gradually weakens in taste that it is left to steep for a while. This procedure, pouring by pouring, can be repeated until the leaves do not release any taste anymore.

The individual pourings offer the opportunity to the tea to show itself to those enjoying it in all its complexity and multifacetedness. Each pouring shows new sides of the tea, sip by sip is a new discovery. Whoever prepares a beautiful tea in Gong Fu Cha and encounters the tea attentively will be highly rewarded with rich gifts.

Gong Fu Cha for green teas

For white, yellow and green teas from Taiwan, China and Korea, a slightly adapted form of Gong Fu Cha is seen as being ideal:

You need a vessel of about two to three decilitres content, ideally a high glass, for this way one can enjoy observing the steeping leaves. After the first warming of the glass and dishes, four grams of tea are brought into the vessel. Now the tea is poured with 80 degrees hot water and left to steep for two and a half to five minutes, the same as for the European method of tea infusion, according to the indications on the tea box. A second and third pouring follow with the same steeping time. An alternative method is to leave a rest of hot water just covering the tea leaves, which will make the second pouring more intense, but in that case the steeping time needs to be somewhat shorter than it is for the first pouring. Prepared in that way, white, yellow and green teas turn out really intense and aromatic, but not too strong, and they offer an incomparable pleasure.

Gong Fu Cha at Länggass-Tee



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