A Brief Introduction
The ancient art of the Chinese tea ceremony is known to be a ceremony of the highest esteem that a host can offer a guest. While the Chinese tea ceremony is remarkably simpler compared to the Japanese version, (the Japanese version tends to be more rigid and pays a lot of attention on the structure of the environment whereas the Chinese tea ceremony pays more attention on attaining the perfect brew) there are fixed steps to be followed as well.
Though there are many versions of the Chinese tea ceremony, the one that is considered the most sophisticated among all is the Gongfu tea ceremony. It is thought to originate from either Guangdong or Fujian. This tea ceremony suits oolong teas best and is occasionally used for pu’er tea as well. There are six factors to take into consideration when performing a tea ceremony:
The host should be cheerful yet calm to create a relaxing ambiance.
2. Tea Selection
Besides having a great taste, shape and fragrance, it should have an elegant background (i.e. name and story) as well.
3. Water selection
Hard and distilled water should never be used to boil tea. Distilled water gives the tea a “flat” taste while hard water makes it taste bad. Optimally, clean and clear spring water should be used.
4. Tea ware selection
True, lacquered tea ware looks beautiful but the pots that brings out the best in fermented teas are the Yixing teapots, which do not glaze, remaining porous even after being fired in the kiln. One pot should be used to brew only one type of tea, as the pot absorbs some tea and the flavour of the tea will be enhanced as time goes by.
The tea ceremony area must be clean and spacious enough to not feel cramped. Ideally, it should be quiet as well. Incense, music or artworks are sometimes used to enhance the environment, though it might not be necessary since a tea ceremony can be performed outdoors.
The host should have a graceful manner while performing the tea ceremony which can be seen through the hand movements and facial expressions.
This timeless ceremony blends the three teachings that have shaped China. The Buddhism’s Middle Way, the Confucian Golden Mean and the Taoism’s Way of the Tao. It requires one to have a calm demeanour, good ethics in aspects such as tea serving; and respectful interaction among one another. A tea ceremony fosters good relations among one another as well as bringing a sense of serenity by reminding mankind of their relationship with nature.
Process of a typical Gongfu Tea Ceremony
- Wen Xiang Bei – Narrow snifter cup used to appreciate the tea’s scent. Tea is not drunk from these cups.
- Pin Ming Bei – Chinese teacups.
- Cha Tuo- A small saucer for the teacup (sometimes smaller than what is pictured; being just enough to hold the teacup)
- Zi sha hu – A teapot made from the famed Yixing purple clay, known for its flavour absorbent properties.
- Cha pan – A water catching tray for the tea ceremony. A basin can be used as well.
- Gong dao bei – Tea from the teapot will be poured into this pitcher before serving to ensure an even taste.
- Cha dao zu – A set of utensils for measuring out tea leaves including tongs to pick up hot items.
- Cha he – A shallow dish that is used for appreciating the scent and appearance of tea.
Below are the steps in a typical Gongfu tea ceremony. Each step has a traditional four character name.
*Take note that the teapot’s spout should not be pointing at anyone at all times as this is considered rude.
1. Wen hu tang bei – “warm the pot and heat the cups”
Boiling water is poured into the teapot and then poured into the teacups. This is to ensure that the utensils are warmed and prepped for the tea savouring process, which enhances the tea’s fragrance.
2. Jian shang jia ming – “Appreciate excellent tea”
The tea is placed in the Cha He and passed around guests for it to be appreciated. The guests should complement the appearance and fragrance of the tea.
3. Wu Long Ru Gong – “The black dragon enters the palace”
The “black dragon” refers to the colour of Oolong tea, which is normally a dark burnt brown with subtle hues of other colours depending on the type of tea. The amount of tea needed depends on many factors such as type of tea and the size of the teapot but the amount of tea leaves used typically fills ½ to 2/3 of the pot. Put the leaves in the tea strainer if your pot does not have an inbuilt strainer.
4. Xuan Hu Gao Chong – “rinsing from an elevated pot”
Water heated in a kettle to the suitable brewing temperature for the tea is poured at roughly the height of the pourer’s shoulder to a slight overflow in the teapot to rinse the tea leaves.
The Chinese determine the right brewing temperature is determined by the size of the bubbles formed while boiling. They use creatures’ eyes as a guide; bubbles the size of fish eyes for black tea, crab eyes for oolong and prawn eyes for green tea. (Though green tea is not used in a Gongfu tea ceremony)
5. Chun Feng Fu Mian – “The spring wind brushes the surface”
Any froth or floating tea leaves are gently brushed away with the tea pot’s cover. This helps create a clear tea.
6. Chong Xi Xian Yan – “Bathing the immortal twice”
To ensure the temperature on the outside and inside of the pot remains the same, hot water is poured onto the covered teapot.This also helps to cure the clay in addition to creating a seal that ensures all the tea flavour remains in the pot. At this point, some will steep the tea for a short while (roughly 10-30 seconds) or pour out the tea immediately to the tea pitcher.
7. Hang Yun Liu Shui – “A row of clouds, running water”
This means that the first brew is not meant to be drunk. The tea is poured from the pitcher into the teacups.
8. Long Feng Cheng Xiang – “the dragon and phoenix in auspicious union”
The tea cups are placed upside down on top of the snifters and offered to the guests, a symbol of prosperity and happiness the host wishes upon the guests.
9. Li Yu Fan Shen – ‘the carp turns over’
The guest accepts both the cups and turns them 180°.
10. Jing Feng Xiang Ming – “Worship the fragrance”
The snifter is lifted from the tea cup. This tea is then emptied into a bowl or into the tea tray.
11.Hui xuan di zhen / Zai zhu qing xuan – “pouring again from a low height” / ‘direct again the pure spring’
Hot water is poured at a lower height from step 4, usually at a slightly higher height than the rim of the teapot. It follows a principle called Gao Chong Di Zhen – “high to rinse, low to pour”. Previously, pouring from a height creates a force to cleanse the leaves but water is now poured from a low height so that the flavour can be released slowly.
12. Gua Mo Lin Gai
The leaves are steeped at this point. Depending on the type of tea and preference of the tea ceremony master, it takes anywhere between 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
13.Guan Gong Xun Cheng – “Guan Gong patrols the city”
The teacups are arranged in a row and poured into the tea snifters. This is done while moving the hand left and right gracefully. Guan Gong is a famous military general in the Three Kingdoms period. This move is akin to him marching up and down to guard the city.
14. Han Xin Dian Bing- “Han Xin calls the soldiers”
The last drops are poured in an elegant movement. This move is likened to Han Xin, a famous Han general commanding his soldiers to fight.
15. Ou Bei Mu Lin- “bathing the snifter cup”
The entire contents of the teapot is poured into the tea pitcher and poured into the snifters. A teacup is placed upside down on top like step 7.
16. You Shan Wan Shui – “walk in the mountains and play in the river”
Any remaining water in the teapot is emptied into the basin or tea tray.
17. Long Feng Cheng Xiang- “The dragon and phoenix in auspicious union”
Another prayer for the guests’ happiness and health is offered with the offering of the snifter cup with an inverted teacup on top of it. This is the same as step 8.
18. Li Yu Fan Shen – “the carp turns over”
The guest accepts both the cups and turns those 180°.
19. Jing Feng Xiang Ming – “respectfully receive the fragrant tea”
At this point, the guest will lift up the snifter cup and let the tea flow into the teacup. The lingering aroma of the tea in the snifter is to be smelt and savoured by the guest before drinking the tea.
20. This step involves the etiquette to drink the tea. The teacup is either picked up with the finger pads of both hands or with the thumb and index finger using the middle finger to support the teacup. The latter method is used as well when a cha tuo is involved. The tea should be drunk in 3 sips; the first sip is for taste; letting it settle on your tongue and to appreciate the complexity of the tea flavour, reminiscent of a wine tasting technique; the second sip, is a bigger sip, also known as the main sip and the final sip is to empty the cup and to take in the aftertaste.
21. The same tea leaves can be brewed for a few times until they no longer yield the same flavour. With each subsequent brew, the tea should be left to steep for a longer time. The leaves will be taken out of the teapot with tongs and put into a basin to be shown to the guests. The guests should complement the tea’s quality. With this, the tea ceremony is done.