Kung Fu Kicking Gong Fu Tea
I have a funny story about misunderstandings about gong fu tea.
Tranquil Tuesdays was asked to present a traditional Chinese tea service for a big art cultural center opening event in Beijing sponsored by Hermes this past spring. I told the organizers Tranquil Tuesdays could happily do a gong fu style tea service for guests. When we were ironing out logistical details of the evenings event, the organizers were concerned we would need a lot of space even though I kept on telling them a small tea table would be sufficient.
“But won’t you need a lot of space for the Kung Fu?”
And then I realized they thought we were doing Kung Fu martial arts with our tea brewing. So very bemusedly I reassured them “gong fu tea is a style of tea brewing—it isn’t like we were are going to do Karate kicks and chops while serving tea” and we shared a big laugh together.
And they aren’t the first to be confused so I thought I would take a chance to clear up what gong fu tea is exactly: a tea brewing style that is meant to showcase a tea’s full flavor steep by steep leisurely enjoyed amongst company.
Lets start with the phrase gong fu (功夫）which is in fact the same phrase used to describe one of China’s most popular martial arts. Literally, gong fu means “time and skill.” In spirit it connotes a certain discipline of patience, mindfulness, and full attention. When applied to the martial arts that means the single-minded discipline to cultivate the spiritual mastery of wu shu marital arts. When applied to tea, it means carefully and mindfully brewing tea to bring out the best of each tea.
Gong Fu Tea Brewing is a style of tea brewing that was pioneered in Chaozhou (read more about Chaozhou from our trip there) in southern China. Meant as a social ritual to enjoy the company of others, it is a way of savoring tea by carefully maximizing the best possible brew and slowly enjoying a tea steep by steep—which is why such small cups are used to savor each steep in succession.
Typically gong fu brewing is used for oolong teas. Often specialized teaware pieces like a gaiwan or a small yixing tea pot are used for gong fu tea brewing.
What started as a regional way of enjoying tea in the Chaozhou area, gong fu tea has evolved into a style of tea appreciation that has been embraced as the ultimate expression of Chinese tea appreciation for Chinese tea enthusiasts worldwide. For further reading on the historical evolution of gong fu tea I highly recommend “A Quintessential Invention” from China Heritage Quarterly which points out:
“Gongfucha has thereby become a language, not only a means of consuming tea but also transmitting what is considered a distinct national tradition.”