Gongfucha is often described as a “tea ceremony”. The most elaborate setups include aroma cups just for sniffing and warm every piece of teaware with hot water prior to the two or three rinses of the tea. After washing, rinsing, swishing and sniffing, it might be time to taste the tea. This process can be a soothing ritual for some – but also may turn off newer tea drinkers who might write off gongfu as being too complicated.
I think describing gongfu practice as a ceremony can create a false parallel with Japanese tea ceremony – traditional matcha preparation, for example. I know that for farmers, teashop workers and everyday people in China in 2020, a formalized ceremony practice is not common. Even in tea stores aiming to impress customers, the tea service tends to be relatively simple and most of the sales process occurs during tasting and conversation — though that isn’t to say you can’t find a formal, aestheticized gongfucha experience if that’s what you’re looking for.
During a stay in Kunming, I tagged along with a group of other student-tourists to attend a tea ceremony class. Each student was provided with a tea tray, gaiwan, gongdaobei, cups, etc. to comprise a full set (no aroma cups though). A young woman in a fancy robe sat at the front of the room with her own setup.
The teacher led the class step-by-step through each element of the tea-brewing process. It was fairly typical gongfu, including the teaware warming step and rinses. However, extra attention was given to the way each movement was made. There was emphasis on moving slowly and precisely, and we were told men and women should hold the gaiwan differently and move in different ways. The focus of the whole process was the act of making the tea, and tasting at the end wasn’t discussed much. During this whole ordeal, another young woman took photos with an expensive camera, making sure to get good action shots of each student (the photos were included with the price of the class).
For someone who isn’t into Chinese tea, i.e., most people, I think a class like that could be an interesting ‘cultural experience’, if you don’t mind the overt tourist-pleasing vibe. I don’t think it would inspire a newfound interest in tea and would likely relegate one’s concept of ‘Chinese tea’ to the realm of the regal & formal. For hip world travelers the unnecessary gendering and strict rules of the ceremony presented that way could definitely be a turnoff. If you’re a tea nerd of the mind that we should defend gongfu from the destructive forces of western capitalism by keeping it our little secret – maybe these classes are something we should support and convince all of our enemies to attend in order to permanently turn them off the tea habit. But if we’re all going down with climate change anyway, maybe we should try and spread the tea thing around, at least to the people we like.
Dogma seems antithetical to such a personal learning process, especially one with little consequence like getting into tea. I’m trying to promote the personal tea journey here. There is something invaluable about studying something relentlessly over a lifetime and tea is a perfectly good subject with the special benefits of caffeine and theanine. Do away with any notion of ‘wrong’ when it comes to tea consumption and try as much as you can. Let the tea speak for itself and when you find something you really like, make sure to buy enough of it for the long haul. That’s all the guidance anyone needs.
What I’d like to end on is an emphasis that gongfucha doesn’t have to be formal or time-consuming. And while you can create as much of a ritual as you like, with all the steps, at the end of the day you may get longer-term satisfaction from focusing on the tea itself rather than a complicated method. All you need is a brewing vessel and cup and you can experience everything the tea has to offer.