Apparently gongfu, or kung fu, simply means done with skill, and cha mean tea; so gongfu cha means tea done with skill. There are many variations of gongfu cha, one of which is a showy thing that looks like the waiter can’t decide whether to serve tea or fight a duel; you can spot it right off because the pot has a rapier like spout and the waiter is flinging it all around looking very grim. While entertaining—you can see a youtube video here—it is not the sort of gongfu cha that I’m interested in
Yes, but is the tea any good?
The gongfu cha I want to explore is a way to brew tea which has evolved into numerous styles, some free and some ceremonial, though none so formal as the Japanese tea Ceremony Chanoyu, which if I understand correctly, is really more about Zen practice than it is about tea. You’ll find a youtube search that returns videos of people performing various versions of gongfu cha: here.
Underlying gongfu cha is an approach to brewing and appreciating tea that differs from the standard western approach. If we can understand the ideas involved in this approach, then we can utilize them however we wish: in a traditional ceremony, a personal ceremony, or something more spontaneous—because it makes wonderful tea and it’s fun.
A Radical Shift: slow down and surrender to the tea
The core idea is simply this: in order to enjoy every possible nuance from the tea, use whole leaves, use more of them with less water; do multiple short infusions, and really pay attention to everything, the aroma, the look of the leaves, the taste, and how these things change.
When I was a kid I loved a candy called jawbreakers. If you smashed one and looked at a cross section you’d see many thin stripes of different colors. It wasn’t just hard candy, it was rock candy so hard you couldn’t chew it; you had to keep it in your mouth and let it slowly dissolve. As it dissolved it would expose the next layer, which would be a different color. Not only did this make for variation within one piece of candy, but it made time an integral part of the experience. You didn’t just eat the candy, you keep checking it out as you went—what color is it now? And now? It added another entire dimension to the candy, and turned eating a sweet into a small journey.
Gongfu cha takes a similar approach, it keeps the leaf whole and only pulls one layer of flavor into the water at a time. Inside a tea leaf are many different water soluble elements which don’t all infuse at the same time. If you use a small pot and have a large amount of leaf relative to the amount of water, a quick infusion will peel off just one quick layer of rich, complex flavor and aroma. Then you repeat that for as many infusions as the tea will sustain, each layer potentially adding or removing elements to the experience. One pot of tea gongfu cha style is a series of experiences—how many depends upon the tea; some leaves will produce a panoply of different infusions, others are good for only two or three. Regardless of the number, it becomes a story, a journey.
Gongfu teaware can be traditional and stunningly beautiful, but it could also be done with ordinary items; any basin or tray with sides, juice glasses or shot glasses, espresso size cups, a cream pitcher, and a mug for a small pot and a saucer for a lid. That would be one way to go for say, an impoverished student. I’ll go into more of these details in coming posts where we’ll get into ways to do it.
A gongfu teapot draining into a decanter (or fairness pitcher), short tasting cup, tall aroma cup, and cup serving tray, all on a water draining tray. It is hard to get a sense, in the photograph, of how small these items are; the tall aroma cup on the right holds between one and two ounces, and the inverted teapot will easily fit in the palm of the hand. To a westerner they seem at first like children’s toys, but if you use a larger pot with gongfu cha, you end up making huge quantities of tea over the many infusions.
One wag, seeing a demonstration of gongfu cha with its repeated infusions remarked that it seemed to put the tea in tedium. Well, if you just want fast drink without having to give it any thought, then yes, that is a clever way to describe how gongfu cha is not those things, but he entirely missed the point. He should rather say that it puts the tea in te deum because it lends itself so well to a contemplative approach. It requires awareness and care to make have tea this way. Typically the cups are tiny by western standards so as to focus your attention on the tea; less is indeed more—this is not about quenching thirst, it is about experiencing fully and celebrating the whole experience of what can be provided by a leaf.
Western Style vs Gongfu Cha
Western Style Gongfu Cha
small amount of leaves to water large amount of leaves to water
one long infusion multiple short infusions
all the flavor at once different flavors from different infusions
can be done while distracted requires focus
uses large pots uses small pots
uses large cups uses small cups
aroma is incidental aroma cups focus on aroma
leaf is often cut or powdered leaf is whole
ignores leaf look and aroma savors leaf look and aroma
ignores tea texture relishes tea texture
ignores tea aftertaste relishes tea aftertaste
ignores tea qi relishes tea qi
usually has milk and sugar added never has milk and sugar added
sometimes has lemon added never has lemon added
very precise and delicate pouring precise, but splashy; needs a tray or bowl
uses glazed pots often uses Yixing pots dedicated to one tea
tea is always 100% oxidized tea runs the gamut from 0 to 100%
tea is usually a blend tea is almost never a blend
tea is consistent from year to year tea reflects vintage, varies from year to year
most teas will keep a year or two most only keep a few months
never degrades with age those that do keep improve with age
One Possible Gongfu Cha
If you just want some tea to drink while your attention is elsewhere, (and I think that can be a wonderful way to enhance doing some things), then gongfu cha is probably too demanding—reach for a good teabag; I recommend Typhoo! But, if you want to take a real break, an oasis in your day, gongfu cha can offer that; and if you want to add ceremony, ritual, and a sense of event then gongfu cha can be a great way to do that, whether you want to study a traditional approach or invent your own.
Gongfu cha requires that you yield to the experience; you must devote care and attention to the processes of preparing and taking tea. In return it gives you yourself, aligning your mind with your body, and bringing you into the present moment. It also gives you the best tea you’ll ever have.