Gong fu cha literally means making tea with skill or great effort. It sometimes called Kung fu instead but given that in the western mind the words Kung fu are associated with a physical martial art Gong fu is often preferred when talking about the tea ceremony.
This post should be quite a long one as I shall go into detail about gong fu cha assuming you as a reader know nothing about it.
This post is not aimed at experts or long term practitioners of gong fu cha (I am fairly new to it myself) more at demystifying the practice for those who have interest but are intimidated by all the different equipment needed and unsure what is necessary and what is optional.
I hope the below post will give a simple practical explanation of all the equipment used in gong fu cha and how to use it.
I have researched gong fu cha for a while but I only tried it for the first time last week. We shall walk through my first attempt together (interspersed with explanations) and hopefully by the end you will feel more confident about trying it yourself (and hopefully make less of a mess than I did).
- Brewing vesselBasically a vessel that you put the tea leaves and hot water (or cold if cold brewing) in to brew the tea.
The most common types are either a tea pot or a gaiwan.
Western readers will already be familiar with how a tea pot works. The difference between normal tea pots and gong fu cha tea pots is that the tea pots for gong fu cha are tiny (usually only able to hold a volume between 100-200ml/ 3.5- 7 fl oz of water).
The tea pot is usually made of one of the so called “four famous styles” of Chinese pottery. Yixing, Jian Shui, Rong Chang and Qin Zhou. These pots are unglazed which means that the pots absorb the aroma and the flavour of the tea placed into them. This leads to a more flavourful liquor over time but also means each pot can be used for only one kind of tea. Someone who uses these pots and drinks a lot of tea may have a pot for pu-erh, a pot for heavy roasted oolongs, a pot for light roasted oolongs and so on. It is possible to have porcelin or celadon tea pots as well.
The other brewing vessel is something a Western reader may be less familiar with, and it is the vessel I have used for my gong fu ceremony and in the pictures below.
A gaiwan is made up of three parts; the main body which resembles a cup, a lid, and the saucer the main body rests upon. The tea leaves are placed in the main vessel and water is added and swilled around with spilled tea being caught in the saucer, the lid can be used as a makeshift filter to keep in the tea leaves while the brewed tea is poured into a cha hai or a cup. It is also possible to drink tea directly out of the gaiwan using the vessel as a cup but there is a risk of over brewing the tea if you cannot drink fast enough (this is called grandpa style).
The particular gaiwan I used has a volume of only 100ml/3.5 fl oz which is typical of gaiwan’s used in gong fu cha. This one is made of porcelain. Gaiwans are usually made of porcelin or glass although it possible to get gaiwans made of clay in one of the “four famous styles” I have already mentioned above. A porcelain gaiwan has two advantages over a clay tea pot; firstly, it can be used for any type of tea you can brew a pu-erh in a gaiwan and then rinse it out and brew a green tea without the previous brewing effecting the taste of the current one, secondly, price. A good quality clay tea pot can cost anywhere from £40/$50 to over £200/$250. A gaiwan of porcelain or glass costs between £8/$10- £20/$25 depending on quality, size and where you get it from.
My gaiwan has a poem written in calligraphy on the back of it.
If anyone else is interested I asked a friend of mine who is from Hong Kong to translate the poem for me. He explained it as follows (his words in italics);
So, this poem was written by a prolific poet, painter, and politician in the Qing period. (In china, you tend to be all three together, or none of them at all) He is especially famous for paining pictures of bamboos, and this poem seems to be his comment on his trade.
The first lines talked about how he have drew bamboos in 40 years (probably an exaggeration, we liked to do this quite a lot, but he is probably quite experienced when he wrote this poem)
The second lines talked about how he drew: he drew in the day, but think about what how he draws during the night
The third talked about the style: he tried to keep it simple, by removing the un-necessary part to keep it all beautiful and clean
And the fourth line is probably the most philosophical: the basically said that he have drawn bamboos from youth, but he is probably talking more about him transforming from drawing bamboos in a realistic, and un-necessary way to drawing them to its most simple, clean, but powerful form.
Literal translation is;I have drawn bamboos for forty years; Where I drew everyday and think about them every night; I eliminated all the unwieldy parts and kept it clean, slim, and beautiful; This is what I do when I starts to know my trade.
- Cha hai (jug)After brewing the tea is poured into this vessel to prevent over brewing of the liquor. The cha hai is then used to serve the tea by pouring it into the tea cups.
This particular Cha hai is made of bluestone and has a volume of 175ml/6 fl oz. Due to the shape I find it quite easy to hold.
- Strainer.Usually placed on top of the cha hai in order to filter out any loose tea leaves not caught by the lid of the gaiwan.
This particular strainer is made of Celadon pottery and comes with a stand (see picture). To use I simply remove the strainer from the stand, rest it on top of the cha hai and pour the tea from the gaiwan into the cha hai through the strainer. Metal strainers are also common.
If you use the lid of a gaiwan to catch most of the tea leaves a strainer is not mandatory but I find it makes the drinking experience more pleasant as it prevents little pieces of tea leaves from getting into the drink.
- Tea cupUsed to drink the tea out of (obviously). Gong fu cha cups are often 50ml in volume as the idea is to savour the flavour of the tea rather than drink large amounts from any one brewing.
The cup pictured is a tea cup with a porcelain emerald glaze. It is slightly larger at 75 ml/2.6 fl oz in volume but I used this one as it is my favourite. I love the little fish.
Fish in a pond of tea.
- Cha he (presentation vessel)Essentially this is a dish to keep tea leaves in before they are used. Not always necessary but useful. I like to use it to photograph my tea leaves in for this blog before I use the leaves to make tea.
- Tea pet (not mandatory)A small figure usually made of Yixing clay that is placed on the tea tray. Popular tea pets include Buddhas, pigs, toads and lotus pods. I have also seen rabbits, fish and pandas. My tea pet is a Jin Chan, a mythological creature also called a money toad.
In Chinese mythology a Jin Chan would appear outside houses and business that would soon be blessed with wealth (note: the old style Chinese coins on the back of the Jin Chan, Chinese money used to have a hole in the middle and be kept on ropes as on the Jin Chan’s back) as such it is seen a charm to bring prosperity and riches (spoiler alert: it hasn’t worked yet).
The tea pet “drinks” tea drops if you pour a few over the figure. Overtime it absorbs the aroma of tea and becomes glossier in appearance. This process can take months or years.
Doing this is called “raising” a tea pet.
- Tea tray or a bowlGong fu often involves a certain amount of spillage, some by design, some because many people (myself included) are clumsy, as gong fu involves moving the tea between several vessels. Traditionally the tea ware is placed on a gong fu tray which has small holes often in the shape of a picture or Chinese characters that the tea fall down into the deep tray beneath.
Sadly I do not own a tea tray yet but if you are interested in what they look like here are some of my favourite tea ware sites linked to the tea tray sections;
Handmade Tea Tray (ChaBan)
Yunnan sourcing is a China based site (though there is a US based site if you are in the US as the majority of my readers seem to be according to the blogs stats page). The teaware on this site is comparatively cheap although some of the silver and clay teawares are still quite expensive.
Path of Cha has my dream tea tray it has such a beautiful design while still being practical, sadly I can’t afford it but I may be asking for it for Christmas.
If you do not own a proper gong fu tray you can still gong fu. A large bowl that the tea can be discarded into works almost as well. The tray I placed my gong fu equipment on is a tea tray that came with a glass tea set I own (which you may have seen on this blog) the tea set is designed for Western style brewing so I had cereal bowl at the side which I used to discard water when necessary. I still spilled water on the tray but it was deep enough not to matter too much.
My set up
So here is my final set up. It is not perfect as I have no tea tray but I have all the essentials, the gaiwan for a brewing vessel, the cha hai to serve the tea, the strainer to catch the leaves and the cup to drink from.
Not pictured, the cha he presentation vessel and the bowl I used to discard water into.
As gong fu cha is a Chinese discipline I chose a Chinese tea for my first attempt. Bi Lo Chun Snowflower is a white Chinese tea from Yunnan sourcing (see picture below). With gong fu it is common to use more tea than in Western brewing. While it may be usual when western brewing a white tea to use around 2g/0.07 oz of tea for a single cup of tea (generally using around 200-250ml/7-8.7 fl oz of water) Gongfu Cha you should use 5-6g /0.18-0.2 oz even though the gaiwan often holds only 100ml/ 3.5 fl oz of water.
Instructions for gong fu cha
This is one of the things it is easier to see than to do. I tried taking stationary pictures for a step by step guide (and made a mess and scorched my fingers) so video is a better medium.
The tea shop Path of Cha has an excellent video on this and they were generous enough to grant me permission to post it here.
This is my favourite video on the subject as it shows how to brew gong fu style in a simple way. You may want to watch the video slightly slowed down it is very fast paced.
Path of Cha also has one of my favourite tea blogs (if there is interest I may do a future post about my favourite 5 or 10 tea blogs) and goes into a lot of detail about different tea cultures especially Japanese and Chinese tea cultures.
The different infusions of tea
This is my personal experience of the aroma and taste of the tea used in my gong fu attempt using one particular type of tea. Your experience will be different depending on what tea you choose.
The whole point of multiple infusions is to get as much flavour as you can out of a small amount of tea leaves by brewing multiple infusions with short intervals you really get the full profile of the tea in a way you do not with Western style brewing.
I noted down my impressions of each infusion.
10s- light and sweet
15s-light and sweet, slightly more floral than the first infusion
20s-slightly woody in profile
25s-very light, slight peach aroma
30s-lighter woody profile with a sweet fruity aftertaste
35s-sweet aftertaste after a rather bland initial flavour
40s-juicy and fruity with a peach after taste
45s-sweet, fruity, smooth
50s- sweet, fruity, smooth
To make a fair comparison I also brewed some of the Bi lo chun snowflower tea Western style at 80 degrees celsius/ 176 degrees fahrenheit for 4 minutes.
Western style the tea was smooth, initially it tasted a little woody but there was a peach aftertaste. I enjoyed the Western style liquor but I can see how I missed out on a lot of flavour profile when I compare my tasting notes for the western style tea to the tasting notes for my gong fu style tea.
What I learned/Tips
If using a porcelain or glass gaiwan do not overfill it. Make sure to only fill up to the flared part of the vessel that way you can hold the top of the vessel without burning your fingers on the hot porcelain or glass.
Don’t rush to pour the tea from the gaiwan into the cha hai or you will burn your fingers (ask me how I know).
If you are doing the gong fu cha alone (as I did) No one can drink that much tea (and I tried). Instead try filling the gaiwan half the way up so you get one cup per brewing instead of two (remember to adjust the amount of tea leaves used if you use half the water use half the tea leaves when you fill the gaiwan or the tea will over brew).