A recent discussion on T Ching has inspired me to explain the basic concepts of the Chinese tea ceremony, “gongfu cha.”

If you dwell in tea culture every day, it is easy to forget how much of your vocabulary is everything but common knowledge;  actually something very few people are familiar with. I often talk about “gongfu,” “gaiwans,” “yixing,” etc., to our customers and very few of them ever ask what these terms actually mean. This can create a false impression because through the discussion, I just realized that most people are probably just polite or don’t want to appear ignorant by admitting to not being familiar with these terms. Hence, I decided to write this article to shed some light on the exotic world of the Chinese tea ceremony.

What teas are most often used for Gongfu Cha?

While “gongfu cha” is mostly practiced with oolong and pu’erh, any tea can be prepared this way. It lies in the complex flavour profiles of these two tea types that they are best enjoyed this way. Many subtleties would be lost in a traditional English-style infusion. (Image on the left is a pu’erh “Bing Cha” disc. This is one of the most common and most traditional forms of compressed tea.)

Bing Cha disk with yellow wrapper

The Chinese term “gongfu” does not only refer to tea, but to anything that is created or conducted with great effort or skill. In connection with tea, we speak of “gongfu cha” (cha is the Cantonese word for tea). Some people argue that “gongfu cha” starts with the cultivation of the tea plant, involves its harvest and processing and finally culminates in the act of enjoying the result of all these efforts in the form of a cup of tea. For practical purposes, however, it generally refers to a particular style of tea preparation. (Multiple Infusions)

To prepare your tea gongfu-style, you’ll need a few accessories:

gong fu tea ceremony - a white gaiwan, glass fairness cup and bamboo tray
  • a small brewing vessel, usually a Yixing teapot or a gaiwan cup
    with 70 – 250ml capacity (yes, that is small!)
  • a set of small (thimble-sized) teacups
  • a shallow bowl or tea-tray
  • a set of smelling cups (optional)
  • a pitcher (optional)

Unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, “gongfu cha” can be practiced by anyone and at different levels of sophistication. It is geared towards the sensual experience of all aspects of tea rather than being a mainly aesthetic act. While it can be conducted by anyone and in many different ways, some scholars devote a lifetime pursuing the perfect cup of tea. The different steps involved in “gongfu cha” aim at stimulating all senses: sight, smell, touch and taste (sound as well if you judge water temperature by the noise your kettle emits!) Preparing multiple short infusions with the same tea leaves lets you experience different stages of the infusion individually, rather than “integrating” these infusions into one resulting flavour with a 4-minute infusion. Ball-shaped oolongs for example take a long time to unfurl and in the earlier infusions, the hot water interacts with a much smaller surface area of the leaves as in later infusions. This creates very different tastes in each infusion. Aged pu’ehrs require a few infusions to “clean” the flavour and reveal more subtle notes.

Conducting your own gongfu tea ceremony involves the following steps:

  1. Heat fresh water to the desired temperature (~85°C for most oolongs, boiling for most pu’erhs) and display the dry leaves (optional)
  2. Place cups and brewing vessel on your tea-tray or a shallow bowl. Preheat the gaiwan or Yixing pot and cups with hot water from the inside and pour some hot water over the outside as well.
  3. Empty all and fill brewing vessel with a lot of tea leaves (generally about 1/3 to 3/4 full!)
  4. Washing/waking up the leaves: Fill brewing vessel with hot water, close lid and pour hot water over the top (this helps to keep the temperature just right). Empty after 5-15 seconds. Pour away this first infusion, it isn’t for drinking. It’s intended to rinse dust off the leaves and helps to re-hydrate the leaves (waking up.)
  5. First infusion: Fill brewing vessel with hot water again to the brim, replace lid and pour hot water on top. Steep for 10-30 seconds (depending on tea and personal preferences). Pour infusion into the cups in a circular fashion, each one a bit at a time; DO NOT fill them one at a time since you’ll end up with different strength tea in each one. Alternatively, pour all tea into a serving pitcher and fill cups with this pitcher (Taiwanese method).
  6. OPTIONAL: Fill smelling cups first, empty them into the drinking cups and smell the empty smelling cup (this step is there to separate the smell of the infusion from the taste that inevitably involves our sense of smell).
  7. Repeat step 5 as long as you enjoy the flavour of the tea. You will have to adjust the water temperature and steeping time for later infusions (a slight increase from steeping to steeping).

That’s it! All pretty easy to get started with, but it leaves endless possibilities for experimentation and enjoyment. And there are many different variations on this practice.

This article has been updated from the original publication on December 6, 2013.