My weapons of choice for gongfu practice
Longquan: home to swords & tea cups
I’ve been using a variety of hand made Longquan celadon cups for the last few months, and they’ve quickly become my favourite choice for a Puer session. Longquan 龙泉 is a town in Zhejiang province 浙江 famous for sword & celadon production since the Song dynasty. The weight & thickness of celadon teaware makes it a good pairing for dark soupy teas like ripe puer. Jing de zhen porcelain just doesn't retain heat as well and is more suited to delicate oolongs. Moreover, Longquan celadon slowly develops patina with use, as the glaze cracks and tea stains colour the cracks. The cup with 2 fishes (above right) reflects 3 months of daily use. Submerge these cups in water when not in use, to get an even pattern of large & small cracks. To increase contrast, and prevent build up of tea stains in the cracks along the rim, you should give your cups a quick brush with toothpaste or baking soda once a week.
I particularly like the minimalist designs of the 叶家 pottery studio, and their hand crafted flourishes.
Delicious glazed crackling
I often find myself contemplating my teaware like they're stone pets or some kind of inscrutable companion. Observing their slow evolution from white unblemished porcelain into tea-fractured masterpieces makes them all the more intimate. Enjoying the accumulation of patina on these sturdy cups & my yixing pots has become part of my daily relaxation ritual. After dinner each night, the family will gather around the cha pan and discuss the day’s events & appreciate tea. The practice of Gongfu cha has brought us together, where the TV used to rule all.
It’s funny how a simple ritual can come to rule your life.
Shanghai School of Tea Arts
My wife is taking a 茶艺师 “tea ceremony master” course at the Shanghai School of Tea. The Chinese government takes this ritual very seriously! To get Level 1 certification you need to complete a 3 month course, with 2 full days of lessons twice a week, and there is a practical as well as computer administered exam at the end. There are 3 levels to complete before becoming a master of the tea ceremony.
The best thing about it is now we can have gongfu fights over the cha pan each night.
Future master of the tea ceremony... FIGHT!
What is gongfu cha? 功夫茶是什么?
To westerners, gongfu cha seems fiddly & time consuming. Instead of using a large teapot, gongfu cha practitioners seek out tiny yixing teapots barely the size of one coffee cup. Why would you use such a small teapot to serve so many people? The answer is simple - steeping the tea leaves repeatedly in short bursts prevents them from over steeping, and allows guests to appreciate the evolution of the flavour & aroma over 10 or more steeps. It also reminds us that the finer things in life require more effort to make & should be enjoyed slowly.
“Gongfu” in relation to tea ritual, means “complicated” or “full of work”. If you spend a lot of effort & concentration to make a cup of tea – it’s gongfu cha. I like to think gongfu cha also retains a spiritual connection to the other kind of gongfu - the martial art of wushu, with its codified forms & elegant, purposeful motions.
Making tea with bamboo, wood & clay instruments, adds a soulfulness that elevates tea beyond the realm of mere beverage. There is something primitive & elemental in gongfu cha. I love the ritual of breaking off the leaves, pouring the boiling water inside & outside the teapot, and watching the steam evaporate off the yixing clay.
In my mind, Gongfu cha is not about unnecessarily complicating things, it’s about giving simple things more meaning. Evoking culture through ritual, reminds us that life is a game we can enjoy as deeply as our mind allows.
Setting the stage
First we must set the stage correctly. Remove unnecessary items from the cha pan & surrounding table, as if clearing your mind of distraction. Of course there may be some items that absolutely belong on the stage, even though you don't actually use them to make tea. Putting everything in its place is about ordering the mind before one starts. The idea is to achieve a serene state of mind, which can only enhance what the tea imparts.
But there’s also a more rigorous side of gongfu cha. There are a few deceptively simple looking movements in the Chinese tea ceremony that are actually quite hard to master. Let’s start from the beginning…
First step is to measure out your tea leaves and invite your guests to appreciate the dried leaves. Whilst they’re doing this you can warm your teapot or gaiwan. This step is called "tang hu" 烫壶 if you’re using a teapot, and "tang bei" 烫杯, if using a gaiwan. Pour a third of boiling water into your chosen vessel and roll it slowly so the hot water warms the sides of the vessel evenly. Of course you could just fill the vessel completely with boiling water, but then it wouldn’t be gongfu cha would it?
Discard the water and place the tea leaves in the gaiwan. The hot cup will bring out the fragrance of the dry tea leaves. You can then invite guests to "wen xiang" 闻香, or smell the aroma from the gaiwan lid.
The next step is called "run cha" 润茶 which means “moisten the tea.” There are two elegant motions to complete this step.
Big Circle, Little Circle
The first motion is "xuan zhuan fa" 旋转法or “the circle technique” and is used when pouring boiling water into a gaiwan. This step allows the tea leaves to awaken, unfurl, and release the xiangqi “fragrance”. It is also informally referred to as “big circle, little circle” – imagine drawing an anti-clockwise spiral with the boiling water until the gaiwan is about one third full, or just covering the leaves. If you pour left handed, you should pour clockwise. Why? The hand motion is designed to welcome guests. You want to beckon them in, not flick them off.
This is my favourite motion for its obvious symbolism and the great deal of concentration it requires to draw a perfect spiral. I like to practice it again when pouring tea from the "gong dao bei" or fairness cup into the guests cups.
Phoenix dips its head three times
The next movement is a key moment of showmanship in preparing green, red, yellow & white tea. It is a beautiful movement called “fenghuang san dian tou” 凤凰三点头 or “the phoenix dips its head three times.” Imagine your arm is the neck of the phoenix, and the kettle is the head. Your pouring hand must rise and fall three times in a graceful melodic movement that adds “qi” to the water and makes the tea leaves dance in the rolling water – an especially beautiful sight when preparing green tea in a glass vessel. It's all in the wrist, you have to adjust the angle of the teapot slightly as your hand rises & falls, so the water stream does not break when pouring. It should look effortless & graceful, but it's not as easy at it sounds!
Water evaporating from an yixing teapot
Making Puer or Oolong teas
When making heavily processed teas like oolong or puer tea, there are some additional you can use.
First, do a flash rinse of the leaves, called “xi cha” 洗茶 or "washing the leaves". It’s good hygiene to wash your tea, flush out some of the chemicals & dust.
When pouring hot water into the teapot, instead of “phoenix dips its head” you can use “gao chong di zhen” 高冲低斟 where you start pouring from a lower height and then “pull” the water into a longer stream by raising the kettle higher. This will create the same “rolling water” effect as “phoenix dips its head.” Once again, the water speed should not increase or decrease. Pour until the water level is even with the mouth of the teapot.
Now you’ll have water bubbles and twiggy debris floating around the mouth of your teapot. Using the teapot lid, gently brush these unsightly objects off the sides, in a step called “chun feng fu mian” 春风拂面 or the “spring wind lightly brushes”. Then place the lid on top to close the pot.
Now you might think it’s time to let the tea steep and serve it to your guests. But you’d be wrong, it’s time to shower the teapot with boiling water in a step called “lin hu” 淋壶. Apart from creating a beautiful display of wispy steam coming off your yixing pot, this shower helps to maintain the temperature of the pot during steeping and extract more flavor from the leaves.
Serving the tea
Now you’re ready to serve the tea, with the help of two Chinese generals from the Three Kingdoms period – Guan Gong and Han Xin.
The next 2 movements are used for all kinds of tea, whether you're using a teapot or gaiwan.
“Guan gong xun cheng” 关公巡城 - “Guan gong patrols the city”
Guan gong (also known as Guan Yu) is that angry guy with the red face & massive halberd who you see in Chinese restaurants, and he wants you to put all your cups together in formation! Pick a formation based on the number of cups, if 4 cups, make a square, if 3 cups, make a triangle, if 8 cups form lines – it’s up to you, he’s been dead for centuries anyway. Once you’ve got your cups in formation pour the tea in a continuous pour, ensuring every cup gets an equal amount. Imagine Guan gong is the teapot, and the cups are the city. Gong guan ceaselessly does his rounds until all the teapot is empty. You have to time it just right so that the cups are evenly full - try not to run out of tea mid round! If you have 4 cups and want to be extra flashy, you can place your teapot lid in the center of the 4 cups and pour the tea on top of the lid so it cascades down into the cups (just like the champagne towers you see at Chinese weddings).
Han Xin counts his troops - “Han Xin dian bing” 韩信点兵
General Han Xin was a superb strategist who never lost a battle. He doesn’t want any troops to be left behind idling & getting bitter. To make sure every last drop of tea is extracted from the teapot, point the teapot spout straight down and dip it quickly into each cup. The last few drops are extra concentrated so make sure each cup gets a drop.
And that’s pretty much it. Rinse & repeat, until your tea is exhausted, or you are.
In today’s fast paced world, so full of distraction, practicing gongfu cha is an existential act. Focused on nothing but making & sharing the best tea possible, the ritual clears the mind & refreshes the body. Some use digital scales & automatic kettles. Others go out of their way to collect mountain spring water, and bring it to boil in an iron tetsubin over a charcoal flame. Is this obsessive and self-righteous? Or something to be admired? A search for pure form, a desire to experience nature unadulterated by modern convenience, to live fully in the moment, appreciating everything it has to offer.