This article was originally posted to T Ching in March of 2014.
The jury remains out on the appropriate nomenclature for a practitioner of the art of gong fu cha, aka “kung fu tea.” The unique collection of skills and sensibilities employed to discern the subtle qualities of tea and to bring them out into liquid form do not fit within any established title. The term “tea sommelier” has been used – my distaste for using French terminology for a Chinese practice notwithstanding – but the title falls short in that a sommelier does not “make” the wine in the way that one “makes” tea.
Furthermore, “tea master” is inappropriate because a tea master is the person who crafts the tea – oversees its cultivation, harvesting, curing, and processing – not someone who prepares the finished tea leaves for consumption. Thus, the question lingers, and I have only objections and no suggestions. On the other hand, enthusiasts of the parallel discipline of teaware are unambiguously aficionados.
From the Spanish aficion, meaning love or affection, this beautiful word originally referred to devotees of bullfighting. It was introduced to the American lexicon by Ernest Hemingway, himself an aficionado, through his novel The Sun Also Rises and other works. Since then, the word’s use has broadened to describe anyone with a deep and abiding passion for a particular subject – usually something cultural, artistic, or aesthetic.
The way I feel about my teapots goes beyond enthusiasm or appreciation – it is similar to the way some people feel about their pets or possibly babies. Indeed, in Chinese the act of using and cultivating a teapot is expressed with the verb yang, meaning “to raise,” as one raises a child or an animal. The small, unglazed teapots used in gong fu cha are more than essential equipment; they are themselves works of art and objects of deep appreciation. When I make tea alone, using a new or especially favored teapot, I will put my chin in my hands and gaze at it intently. I’ll pick it up and caress it, kiss it, press it to my cheek – I probably look like an insane person to the casual observer. But the clay is smooth and warm, and the curves and weight of the pot become comforting and familiar after many uses.
Made from particular varieties of high quality clay, the most famous – but by no means the only – one being zisha clay from Yixing. Gong fu pots are porous and absorb the flavor and aroma of tea prepared in them. Each teapot is dedicated to a particular type of tea and used only for that. To use any other tea would muddle the flavor of both the tea and the teapot. A well-seasoned pot that has been used many times not only conveys the true flavor of the tea, it enhances it and lends it depth. The clay itself takes on a matte luster as it becomes saturated with the tea oils. They say that a pot that has been used 1,000 times can make tea without any leaves, only hot water.
The progressive enrichment of the pot adds physical, gustatory, and aesthetic dimensions to the natural development of sentimental value that any object acquires with long use. They are simple and unassuming – thin-walled but dense, plain or modestly adorned, and without glaze, enamel, or any coloring but that of the clay itself.
To a true aficionado, the beauty of a gong fu teapot is first in its function, and only second in its form. Gong fu teapots are finely-tuned instruments, and their brilliance can only be fully enjoyed by a seasoned tea person, in the act of making tea. The appearance of a cold, dry teapot says no more about its quality than the body of a car says about the engine. The car must be driven – and the teapot used – in order to be truly experienced.
A knowledgeable aficionado can of course spot the eloquence of a master craftsman (or, more often, the flaws of a poor one), and good clay can be told by its feel and sound: high quality clay has a characteristic ring when tapped. The way a vessel holds heat, its pour, the scent of the hot clay itself and its acquired patina – these can only be known through use. Likewise, the elegance of the steam as it peels off of the glistening clay and leaves the surface dry like a vanishing fingerprint, the way it feels hot and full in the hand, and of course the flavor and fragrance of the tea that is made in it, are experiential, sensory pleasures. Teapots are art, but they aren’t sculpture – they are tools. Just as a lover of cuisine will in turn learn to love and appreciate fine knives and cookware, a true lover of tea inevitably becomes an aficionado of teaware. One path leads to the other, and to the love of austere beauty and simple joy in all things.
Image courtesy of the contributor.