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.

Tea Art Houses (茶藝館) in Taiwan. Part 1

When visiting Taiwan, a nice way to experience tea culture is to visit a tea art house. In these places, customers are treated to drinking tea gongfu style in a peaceful setting, and can learn more about tea and how to brew it. To create a “pop up tea art house” is basically our objective in events.

The interior of a tea house

Tea art houses give an appearance of having always been part of Taiwanese culture, providing a glimpse into the past.

The surprising truth is that tea art houses have only been in Taiwan since the 1970s.

Before this, there were two types of tea houses. The first was ‘Old men rooms’, places for old men to socialise. These men were the Mainland Chinese who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek’s army. They were public officers and former soldiers, separated from their families.

There were also tea houses which employed hostesses and were associated prostitution. Consequently, tea houses were associated with the elderly or prostitution. Many Taiwanese were therefore not interested in them. Simultaneously, coke and coffee were seen as drinks for the elite, as they were symbols of ties to the US.

In this context, tea art houses were started by a small group of tea practitioners in Taipei. They emphasised high quality tea, and the art of making tea. Manuals explaining how to prepare tea gongfu style were published. Through efforts, tea art houses were accepted by the Taiwanese, and gained government recognition, in the forming of the Republic of China Tea Art Association.

Tea art houses are now established as good destinations to visit, and are even promoted to tourists. They are an opportunity to escape busy city life, spend time with friends drinking tea and probably also enjoy a meal.

Please join us at our events in the future for a similar break from a hectic lifestyle to experience the culture, tastes and aromas of Taiwanese tea.

Guest Post by Diary of a Northern Teaist

The Northern Teaist is a brilliant tea blogger, and he has kindly written a guest post on bowl brewing in Taiwan. Here it is:

I first encountered the bowl tea technique whilst doing some research into the ancient links between tea and Zen.

Intrigued by the elegant simplicity of this way of tea preparation, I did some further reading.

It seems as though bowl tea can trace its origins back to Taiwan’s rural past. In the days when nearly all journeys were undertaken on foot, farmers would often leave tea making provisions in small shelters by the roadside to assist weary travellers.

In modern times the tradition of serving bowl tea still exists, but these days it is most often used as a way of showing guests respect and hospitality.

As with the somewhat similar “Grandpa” style, bowl tea reduces tea infusion down to its absolute basics – tea leaves, hot water, and a receptacle in which the two may meet.

bowl_tea_1 There is a subtle difference, however – whereas Grandpa style is great for an on-going, casual tea session in the middle of a busy day whilst attending to other matters, bowl tea is at its best when used to create an oasis of calm, with the focus on just the tea itself.

I like to think of the bowl tea approach as Grandpa style with the ceremonial and meditative aspects of gong-fu methodology layered on top of it. Although the idea is the same – to treat the leaves with reverence and by doing so extract the best out of them, without the more complex details of gong-fu sitting between the tea and those drinking it, I find myself able to concentrate more on the tea,
rather than how it is made.

Most aspects of bowl tea are open to individual interpretations and preferences.

The water temperature depends of course of the class of tea being used. I find that this method works best with strip Oolongs and loose-leaf sheng Pu-erhs, so that means water close to or at 100 degrees C.

I like to use a bowl with a capacity of about 300 ml. After warming / rinsing the bowl with a little hot water, I then drop in about a pinch and a bit’s worth of tea leaves, which is usually in the vicinity of 1 – 1½ grams. Generally speaking, the leaves will probably be in contact with the water for longer than they would when steeping gong-fu style, so it’s best to err on the light side to avoid over-steeping.

Don’t overthink the correct way to hold the bowl when it’s holding hot tea liquor. Your hands will soon fall into the right position for that bowl, although thumb and index finger from each hand along the rim of the bowl, and the middle finger of the right hand supporting the bowl on its underside works well for me.

Because tea in a bowl has a larger surface area, I find it a great way to experience the full-on aroma of a tea. I love to hold the bowl close to my face for a few seconds and inhale deeply before tasting the tea.

Short of using glass teaware, this is one of the best infusion methods you can use if you want to see the leaves stretch and unfurl.

As far as steeping times go, it’s ready when you think it is.

Top up the water level in the bowl as and when.

So grab a bowl, a few fine leaves, and some hot water, disconnect from the everyday, and lose yourself for a while..

Taiwan Tea is “New”…

“New” Tea in Taiwan

You could be fooled into thinking that the cultivation of tea in Taiwan must be nearly as old as that in Mainland China. After all, the island of Taiwan is very close to the Mainland and has very good terroir. However, it only began in the 19th century. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem so long ago to my mind, compared to when things started on the Mainland.

Beginnings of Tea in China

Legend says tea goes back to around 4000 years ago when the Emperor Shennong drank hot water that a tea leaf had fallen into and “found it refreshing”. Somewhat more recently, 1000 years ago, cultivated tea was given as a tribute to the Emperor from south-west China. At that time, it was seen more as a health drink than something to take for pleasure. Drinking tea for pleasure is an idea that dates from 4th and 5th centuries.

The Dutch and British

The other assumption that I at least made, was to think that the Taiwanese were entirely behind selling their tea from the beginning. However, European thirst for conquest and the creation of the Dutch East India Company, as well as the British companies Jardine Mantheson & Co. and John Dodd & Co. in the 1850s and 1860s also played important roles.

Tea cultivation started in the 19th century when seedlings of tea trees were taken from the Wuyi mountains in Fujian province to northern Taiwan. At this time, tea from Taiwan was drunk in Taiwan or in China.

In 1855, Linfengchi took oolong trees from Wuyi and took them to Dongding, which started the story of Dongding oolong.

In 1855, Jardine Mantheson & Co. bought semi-finished oolong from Taiwan and sold it around the world.


After 1860, John Dodd also saw that Taiwanese tea had potential and so he gave out loans to farmers in northern Taiwan to increase their production. He also made tea-making faster by bringing Chinese tea masters to Taiwan so that everything could be done on the island, and the tea did not have to be shipped to the Mainland to complete processing. In 1869, he shipped 127 tonnes to the US, where it was a great success. He also shipped to England. Exports grew from 180,000 pounds in 1865 to over 16 million pounds in 1885. This resulted in tea being Taiwan’s biggest export at the end of the 19th century.

Between 1875-1908, Tieguanyin was taken from Anxi province in China and planted in Muzha Zhanghu in Taiwan, which started off Taiwan’s version of Tieguanyin.


When the Japanese gained control of Taiwan after the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-April 1895, they increased black tea production and set up the Taiwan Tea Research and Extension Station in 1926 to develop tea varietals (cultivated varieties of the tea plant, camellia sinensis) that were more suited to Taiwan, some of which are still used to this day, such as Jin Xuan. The Japanese also took Taiwanese tea to international trade fairs.