Origin of Chinese Tea Ceremony (功夫茶)
Although tea has been consumed in China at least since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it was not until the Ming Dynasty (1386-1644) that it became common practice to brew tea from whole leaves, which is the way tea is generally brewed today -the earliest tea was brewed with pressed tea (powder tea)-.
GongFuCha (功夫茶), which necessarily uses leaves instead of powder, is first mentioned in a text during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Yuan Mei (1716-1797), the famous gourmet of the Qing Dynasty, wrote in his food book Suiyuanshidan (隨園食單 / 随园食单), The Menu of the Sui Garden), about his stay in the Wuyi Mountains (武夷山) -in northern Fujian province near the border with Jiangxi province-.
He wrote that tea was brewed in pots containing not more than an ounce of water and drunk in cups «no bigger than a walnut.» Yuan did not use the name GongFuCha (功夫茶) to describe the type of preparation he experienced. Still, the emphasis on the use of small cups, miniature teapots, and repeated infusions highlights the essential elements of the process.
Most scholars believe that the Gong Fu Cha ceremony originated in Fujian province in southeastern China, where the production and export of Oolong tea were also born. In contrast, others believe that it was in the city of Chaoshan (潮汕 )in Guangdong province that this unique art was born. It is not surprising that oral tradition still refers to Gong Fu Cha in the 1940s as Chaoshan Gong Fu Cha (潮汕功夫茶). However, it is agreed that it was in the latter area that this ‘way of drinking tea’ was most quickly and successfully integrated into people’s daily lives.
Today, the tea ceremony is evident in every corner of China. However, between 1950 and 1970, during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, it became practically a crime to prepare tea carefully and ceremoniously. But it continued to develop in other Chinese cultural communities, such as the island of Taiwan. It then spread to the rest of China after the economy slowly opened up when Deng Xiaoping took power after 1976. This new form of tea preparation, called chayi, tea art (茶藝 / 茶艺) not only takes its form from Chaozhou tea practice but also borrows the aesthetic and philosophical foundations of the Japanese tea trade – and included foreign elements from the Japanese tea ceremony, especially influences from senchadō (煎茶道).
Consequently, today there are two main streams of Gong Fu Cha: a more practical practice by tea enthusiasts in China and a more refined and tool-intensive one developed by practitioners inspired by the Taiwanese version.
The chemistry and physics behind
The aim of Gongfu Cha is essential to prepare the tea in such a way as to give it the best possible flavour. Tea masters in China and other Asian cultures study for years to perfect this method. Many believe that the chemistry and physics behind the Gong Fu Cha ceremony make this method superior to all other forms of blending Chinese tea. However, the technique itself does not explain why this exceptional cup of tea is produced. There are essentially two things to consider: water and temperature.
Water is of fundamental importance when preparing a Gong Fu Cha. Water with a strong taste or smell will adversely affect the brewing of the tea. Distilled or overly soft water should never be used, as it lacks sufficient minerals and adversely affects the taste of the tea, making it flat and tasteless. Therefore, most tea makers use water from a local source with pure water of medium hardness. If this is not possible, bottled mineral water that meets these conditions will suffice. During the process, the tea master first determines the ideal temperature for the tea to be infused to get the best out of the essential oils in the tea leaf. The optimum temperature (around 95 degrees C) must be reached and maintained during all process stages.
Utensils and steps of the tea ceremony
Twenty years later, in an unfinished manuscript from 1957, Weng Huidong 翁輝東, a Chaozhou native who was also a local linguist, wrote a chapter in his planned Chaozhou Tea Classic in which he outlined the process of brewing tea in this style. It is considered the first treatise on GongFuCha (功夫茶). Weng first listed the utensils needed to prepare tea according to the GongFuCha (功夫茶) method. They included a small teapot, small cups, a plate, a teapot with a kettle, a bowl for wastewater, and other small utensils.
Part of the Gongfu tea ceremony is entirely about the aesthetic appearances and the display of the tea itself. Therefore it is important not only to know what a Gongfu tea set is, but also what it is comprised of and how to use each tool, because drinking tea Gongfu style is as much about the enjoyment of brewing tea as it is about the actual drinking of the tea.
The ceremony consists of seven steps aimed at getting the best out of the tea:
(1) First, one should prepare all the wares and start the fire;
(2) as the water warms, one should prepare the tea leaves by separating out the finer grains from the larger leaves. The larger pieces would go near the spout at the bottom, while smaller leaves would fill the middle, and then the finest particles would be placed on top. One should take care not to overfill the teapot, for it would then produce a tea that is too strong and bitter;
(3) at the right moment, one would take the now heated water and pour into the pot in a careful and controlled manner.
(4) the bubbles that are produced from the pouring of water onto the leaves should be scraped away with the teapot’s lid.
(5) after replacing the lid onto the teapot, hot water needs to be poured onto the teapot itself to keep it hot to concentrate the fragrance in the pot.
(6) the cups need to be warmed as well with hot water.
Steps five and six should be repeated until the tea is brewed and ready to be served, at which point the tea should be poured from the teapot into the cups in an even manner, leaving no trace of water in the pot itself.
(7) The tea is now ready to be drunk hot, with a quick emptying of the cups by each individual and three sniffs of the cup’s bottom for the fragrance.
This process described by Weng can be considered the canonical gongfucha practice. It fits historical descriptions of gongfucha and also contemporary practice by tea drinkers.
Tea houses were not always respected places
Since the renaissance of tea houses as “respected” places, appeared the “new” art of tea ChaYi, (茶藝 / 茶艺). It has become the dominant term to describe the contemporary and national tea practice based on Chaozhou GongFuCha (功夫茶). Chayi, however, is a neologism with no historical background. The term was and still is more associated with various tea houses -sometimes trendy places- categorized as chayiguan (茶驿馆), tea art houses, and specializing in serving tea as a beverage.
The practices of these new tea houses are in sharp contrast to traditional Taiwanese tea houses, which are often associated with gambling, smoking, and prostitution.
Before there were two different kinds of public spaces where people could drink tea. Both, for different reasons, were considered not acceptable by most Taiwanese.
The first were called “chashi (茶市)” that means “tea room“ -beside tea and wine, provided also “nüpei” – that are … “escorts”. The second were “old man tea house” – “laoren chaguan“ that were simple and usually not very clean places mainly frequented by older Mainlanders that followed Chang Kai-shek to Taiwan in 1949.
It took several years of public announcements and various advertising campaigns to change the public’s perception of these new institutions. While China underwent an enormous political and cultural upheaval with the Cultural Revolution, Taiwan continued professing an orthodox form of Chinese culture. In this case, the tea arts were something that Taiwan could claim as distinctly Chinese. It sought to revive and promote as China abandoned traditional forms. Taiwan has strong ties to the Chaozhou region (that we referred before as one of the first places where the tea ceremony was established), as many Taiwanese come from these areas.
The import of the idea of chayi (茶藝/茶艺) meant a need to lift up the casual movements of traditional GongFuCha (功夫茶) and regulate them – and elevate Chinese tea to art. Manuals similar to the Japanese ones began to appear. They described step by step how to prepare tea using the new art of tea based on GongFuCha (功夫茶) as a foundation, with the addition of inspecting the leaves by sight and smell.