Gongfucha: How The Chinese Tea Ceremony became ceremonial

A teapot, serving jug, aroma cup and drinking cup for gongfu cha.

The Chinese Tea Ceremony, or gongfu cha is often thought of as being an ancient ceremony, performed throughout China and then passed on to the West relatively recently. The truth is that it originated in the Chinese south-eastern province, Chaozhou, and it was relatively unknown outside this area even in the 1950s.

Gongfu cha was the most elaborate method of tea brewing in China, using more utensils and smaller utensils than tea brewing in other parts of China.

What made gongfu cha better known was its popularisation in Taiwanese tea houses during the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Wistaria Tea House and the Lu Yu Tea Culture Institute both made important contributions to the popularisation of gongfu cha, as well as with standardising it and making it more elaborate. Zhou Yu, the founder of Wistaria Tea House is credited with having done research into historic tea brewing and contributed to gongfu cha combining Japanese, Korean and British traditions with the Chaozhounese brewing technique.

Taiwanese tea houses formed the Chinese Tea Art Friendship Association of Tea Houses in the late 1970s. In 1982, the Republic of China Tea Art Association was formed by the government in Taiwan, with the aim of promoting Chinese tea culture in Taiwan and abroad, and to educate about Chinese Tea Arts. There was a sense of responsibility in Taiwan to safeguard Chinese culture in the face of the Cultural Revolution.

As the tea bushes that began commercial tea cultivation in Taiwan came from Fujian province in south-eastern China, gongfu cha was also adopted as it came from the same sort of area, Chaozhou bordering Fujian.

All of these factors combined as well as the tea market beginning to sell domestically enabled gongfu cha to be widely practised in Taiwan, and certain additions were made: an aroma cup, to pour the tea into and smell the aromas from before drinking the tea from a second cup and a serving jug, to pour the tea from the teapot into, and from which the tea is poured into the cups. This jug ensures that the tea is of equal strength throughout the cups.

As well as a desire to preserve Chinese culture, tea houses wished to have a ceremony equal to that of Japan’s chanoyu matcha tea ceremony. Chanoyu has aesthetic elegance, Buddhist and philosophical ideas behind it and there is a strict set of rules that differ from one school to another in how each movement is performed and what role each person has to play in the ceremony. It is used to brew matcha, a powdered green tea. However it was another tea ceremony in Japan, called senchado that more directly influenced gongfu cha. Senchado is used to brew sencha, a loose leaf green tea. The teaware in senchado is Ming Chinese in origin, while Japanese aesthetics and philosophy underpin it. One impact of senchado on gongfu cha was the chaxi, an elegant and composed arrangement of teaware and decorations. As steps were added, some were for philosophical or aesthetic purposes, some for practical purposes, producing a ceremony more similar to senchado in its aims. An example of the former would be drinking the tea in three sips to represent heaven, man and earth. An example of the latter would be smelling the tea leaves and handing them around for observation. Although it is not necessary to do this, it does give some information on the tea to the person brewing and anyone drinking with them.

Tea brewing methods and ideas have been passed amongst Mainland China, Taiwan and Japan, adding to their history and making each ceremony or way of brewing more interesting along the way.


Sources: A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts by Lawrence Zhang (Marshaln), Gastronomica, Spring, 2016.
A Quintessential Invention: Genesis of a Cultural Orthodoxy in East Asian Tea Appreciation by Loretta Kim and Lawrence Zhang (Marshaln), China Heritage Quarterly, No. 29, March, 2012.

Spring Onion/Scallion/Green Onion Pancake Recipe

Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) is coming, which commemorates the last day of preparations before Lent, which in turn remembers when Jesus spent 40 days being tempted in the desert before he started his public ministry.

This is a savoury recipe based on Taiwanese spring onion or scallion or green onion pancakes. In Taiwan, these pancakes are breakfast items. The name of the onion will depend where you come from and how mature the onion is. I will call these onions “spring onions” because that is what they are called here in the UK.


Recipe for Spring Onion Pancakes


150g flour

290ml water

120g spring onions, which is 4 or 5 stalks

6 tablespoons soy sauce

2 cloves of garlic

cooking oil




Chop the spring onions into rounds about half a centimetre thick. Mix together the flour, water, spring onions, and a good pinch of salt and pepper in a bowl.

Preheat a frying pan (or skillet) on a high heat. While the pan is heating up, prepare the dipping sauce: peel and slice a couple of cloves of garlic and add to a small bowl with several tablespoons of soy sauce.

Add a couple of tablespoons of cooking oil to the pan and spoon in about 4 tablespoons of the batter. The pancake will be ready to flip when the surface dries around the outside and there are holes and bubbles visible.

Flip the pancake again after around a minute. The pancake will be ready when both sides are golden brown, so that you may have to flip the pancake a few times. Continue to cook each pancake until all the batter is used up.

Dip in the garlic infused soy sauce and enjoy, preferably followed by one of our teas!




一期一会 “Once in a lifetime meeting”

The above phrase is in Japanese and can be translated in a variety of different ways. Literally the meaning is “one lifetime, one meeting”. It is pronounced ichi-go ichi-e. Japanese has a range of four character idiomatic phrases called yojijukugo  四字熟語, of which this is a famous one. It is closely connected to the Japanese tea ceremony, and it expresses the idea that every meeting amongst people is unique, and cannot really be repeated and therefore should be cherished.

This idea is what I want my company to be all about, appreciating each occasion that we receive to spend time meeting people for tea, which we will prepare as best as we can.

Ichi-go ichi-e written on the wall in the guest room of a friend’s house, expressing the same feeling that every meeting is a once-in-a-lifetime event and should be treasured.

Even though the same people can see each other again, the same meeting cannot really be repeated. The Japanese tea ceremony is therefore based on the idea of preparing for and enacting your role with great sincerity and care, in order to honour this unique meeting with your guests or host. Ichi-go ichi-e is connected to the Japanese appreciation of the sadness and beauty of impermanence.

However we consider it philosophically, gongfu cha is a longer process than drinking tea western style, so it encourages people to talk to each other, and enjoy the tea that they drink. It is also very often a novel activity, and a conversation starter. For people for whom gongfu cha is a novel activity, high quality tea is often a novel drink as well, so we can use it to form friendships, enjoy something nice and healthy together, and share an interest all at once.


Tea Tasting with a Wine Vocabulary

I have written before the similarities between wine and tea, but it is surprising how many words that we use to describe tea are borrowed from wine tasting, such as “softness” – low tannins in the case of wine, and no unwanted bitterness in tea.

Although this can be pretentious, this kind of terminology makes it easier to learn about indicators of quality and to learn to develop the palate to recognise different characteristics of wine and tea respectively and enjoy them more.

Tea tastings are quite similar to wine tastings, in that the aim is to observe the appearance, taste, aroma and finish.

The “finish” is the sensation that comes after swallowing. A good tea will make you salivate, returning a sweet flavour to the mouth, and will feel smooth on swallowing. I prefer teas that do not leave a sense of dryness when you drink them, although some people are not averse to that. “Complexity”, or exhibiting many different flavours is also desirable in both wines and teas. “Viscous” teas are often pleasant to drink and some teas have greater viscosity than others. This quality differs from tea to tea however, so a tea lacking viscosity is not necessarily bad.

In ageing tea as in wine, people will talk about particular years that produced good teas, and the characteristics of particular harvests, caused by the weather conditions of that season. Again, in a similar way to wine, you will hear people talking about how tea’s flavour and colour is affected by ageing. Tea gains complexity but also becomes more mellow.

A lot of individual flavour descriptors can also be the same such as “vegetal”: having flavours that resemble vegetables. “Floral” and “fruity” are terms that can be used in contrast.

Similarly, flavour wheels can be used with both wines and teas to try to describe flavours more precisely, from saying that a tea tastes floral, to saying that it tastes like jasmine.

This detailed way of describing teas derived from wine tasting does not seem to be so prevalent in East Asia, although our tea farmers will also describe teas as being too “rough”.

These terms can be fun to use, and useful in identifying flavours, if a little bit pompous. Ultimately, taste is quite subjective at the same time, so I would suggest not holding too tightly to flavour descriptors as being definitive.

Water for Tea

The photo shows the same tea brewed with different waters. The cup on the left was brewed with tap water, and on the right with bottled water. Although I shall probably do a similar experiment in future to make sure, in this instance the bottled water performed slightly better than the tap water. The buttery and nutty aroma and taste of the tea was more pronounced whereas the tap water actually presented a subtle but unpleasant aftertaste. However, this did show that the water that you choose to brew tea with makes a difference.

The area where water comes from changes its taste. There are people who claim that all water tastes the same, or that all water is tasteless, but I find that when I go to different places, my tea tastes different, and as I brew it in the same way, the difference must come from the water. Some areas have harder and others softer water, and this affects the taste of tea. Surprisingly, soft water is actually not as preferable when it comes to tea. When I was in Vienna, I noticed that the water is very soft, which actually didn’t bring out the flavour of tea as well as water with a higher mineral content. However drinking the water on its own does taste very nice.

Some people recommend filtered water for tea. Filtered water tends to produce sharp tasting tea. I’ve come across the recommendation to blend together mineral water and filtered water, that while mineral water will give good flavour, the additional filtered water will keep the mineral sediment from affecting the kettle too much.

In Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, the oldest and most famous work on tea, written in the 1st century, it says that the best water for tea comes from a spring, and ideally flowing over stone, while the worst comes from a well, though a more frequently used well is better. River water meanwhile should come from the less used part of the river.

I recommend that while travelling, you take with you some tea that you know well, and see whether it tastes different, or alternatively, you could do a bit of an experiment with bottled waters as I did above.



Tea Competitions

Taiwan has a number of different tea competitions, that take place throughout the year,

90% of competitions in Taiwan are for oolong teas, but there are also competitions for black tea, such as the one in Yuchi, and for special Taiwanese teas such as Oriental Beauty and Muzha Tieguanyin. Competitions can have hundreds or even thousands of entrants.

The incentive for farmers to enter their teas for competitions is that their teas are more marketable for quality, and if they score highly, will allow them to sell their teas for several times the original price.

Competition winning teas are assured to be of high quality, as they have been tasted by experts who have verified that they are better than many other competitors. In addition, they preserve regional teas, tea culture, and traditional techniques.

The first major one of which was the Lugu Farmers’ Association Dong Ding Oolong Tea Competition, in 1976. It has since served as a template for other tea competitions around Taiwan.

How do they work?

Judges carefully evaluate and taste the tea entrants, for criteria such as dried leaf shape, brewed colour, brewed aroma, brewed flavour when hot and when cooled down, and brewed leaf shape.

Naturally, all teas have to be brewed using the same parameters: 3g of tea for 6 minutes in a 50ml cup, with the water at near boiling point. They are also given a code before judging so that the entries are anonymous and they are repackaged so that it is clear when resold that the tea was entered for competition.

Processing a tea for a competition is challenging, as the teas to either side of yours can influence the evaluation as the teas are judged against each other as well as according to criteria. In addition, the conditions of the day of competition will affect the nature of the tea, and have to be taken into account.

In stages, the tea is tasted by different judges and given different gradings, whose prices change accordingly.

Not trying to be cheeky, but if you would like to try a tea that was awarded a high grading in a competition, try our Honey Black Tea.


More on bowl brewing

In a previous post, I described a technique for tea brewing that uses bowls and spoons.

This technique is used in Taiwan for tea evaluation and has many advantages:

  • the tea can be left for a long time while still drinking to see how bitterness comes in, and how the tea develops
  • several people can drink together at their own pace
  • one can observe the leaves very easily in an open and wide container
  • it is very convenient. There are other methods for evaluation such as competition brewing, but this is one way in which brewing can be roughly standardised to drink teas side by side.
  • brewing in bowls also cools the tea down very quickly. This could be a disadvantage as well depending.

I use gong fu drinking cups, as this is effectively a continuous gong fu session, as the tea is constantly brewing as it is drunk.

You can refill the bowls with more water as you wish.

To brew tea in bowls is excellent to compare and contrast flavours, aromas etc. The only drawback is that if one tea is drunk directly after another, the flavour that you already taste affects how the next is perceived. Perhaps a palate cleanser could help.

I do highly recommend this technique however for its ease and because it does help when comparing teas and is an easy way to test for bitterness and observe the leaves for their colour, shape and texture.