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Kungfu Tea? Understand Chinese Tea Culture & Ceremony (Gongfu Cha)

Kungfu Tea anyone?  Tea is not just tea in China.  Chinese tea culture is rooted deep in tradition, family, respect…and daily life.  Coming from the States, I had limited knowledge of tea.  Although, I like tea and I’ve always been fascinated with the different kinds of tea – it’s just never been the most popular drink on my list.  But one thing I’ve always been intrigued by is the Chinese tea ceremony, called Gongfu Cha or Kungfu Tea!

I must admit that the Chinese tea culture puzzled me at first, but I guess that’s because I hadn’t yet experienced tea the way Chinese do — but after living in China, my eyes have been opened up in a way I never expected. 

My First Time in a Chinese Tea Shop

When we moved to China to teach English for a year, I knew that I really wanted to check out one of the local tea shops.  I mean, they are literally on every corner, across the street…and sometimes next door to each other!  I was a little intimidated to go by myself for the first time, because I had no idea what to do and I don’t speak Chinese.

So I was thrilled when Josh’s boss and our friend, Gigi, offered to take me to her tea shop because she had to buy some tea for an upcoming festival.

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A tea table in a local Chinese tea shop – sampling various tea and chatting with the owners while picking out our purchases.

It’s funny, of the hundreds of tea shops in our neighborhood, Gigi said she always goes to this one.  She’s been going there for years, and has gotten to know the owner over that time.  I’ve learned that the Chinese are extremely loyal, and traditional like that.

Chinese Tea Shops are not the same as tea houses.

The shops focus on selling the tea, and stock endless varieties.  So there are tins, boxes, and many other containers everywhere — as well as cups, pots, filters, etc.  In contrast, Tea Houses are meant to be gathering places for people to drink tea, socialize, and maybe even have small bites to eat.

Many of the local tea shops we have seen around China look quite crowded with merchandise inside, and may seem a bit unorganized.  Cut while it may look like a “hoarder’s” kind of place – I assure you they are legit establishments with super friendly workers who are happy to drink and chat about tea.

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There is always a tea table for tasting inside a tea shop, and usually, you can taste lots of tea for FREE.  During my first visit with Gigi, they walked around showing me the different kinds, explaining the differences and letting me smell them, before choosing the kind we wanted to taste.

Then we sat down at the table for well over an hour just chatting, and pouring tea.  Of course, we all bought tea too.  But this is when it dawned on me that this is what’s all about.  Just sitting, relaxing, and talking…and while sipping on some tea.

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Wrapping up our tea purchases on the bicycle to take it back home.

Meet “Dong” – He Collects Everything…and Tea!

After my experience at a tea shop, I was hooked.  Josh wasn’t really feeling my enthusiasm for tea, although he wasn’t opposed either.  He just hadn’t experienced it yet.

Lucky for us, we would soon stumble across a new friend, “Dong,” at his tea shop / collectible store on Shamian Island here in Guangzhou.  We were exploring this picturesque island on a beautiful day, and we were brought to his shop by what else…a Geocache!

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Having tea with Dong in his collectibles shop on Shamian Island in Guangzhou

After finding the cache and taking some pics, we began to do some shopping and talk with Dong.  Of course we all began talking about tea, and so Dong invited us to sit at his little tea table and have a pot with him.  Little did we know that this would be one of the most interesting and informative pots of tea we would have in China.

Chinese Tea Culture – it’s Like Fine Wine

While Dong is Chinese, his English is quite good.  So we were lucky to have him fill us in on tea culture in China.  One of the first things Dong told us was that the Chinese love to just sit together and have a cup of tea.  They will talk for hours over one cup, and it’s really like “the good life” for them.  It’s also tradition to make a pot of tea after dinner, because it helps with digestion (better than coffee).

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An unwrapped “teacake” in China – dried, hardened and fermented. These aged cakes can be quite valuable and displayed like wine. But you must use a sharp tool to chisel the tea out before brewing.

We also learned that tea, like wine, actually gets better with age!  While there are endless different kinds of tea, there are also different ways of storing them.  Some people get the traditional “tea cakes” — which are a type of fermented and compact dried tea.

Tea cakes are popular in China and people collect them and display them…just like bottles of wine!  They are labeled with the name, date, area where it came from and even the mountain!  Because all these things have a great impact on the quality and the taste.  True tea connoisseurs will know!

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We had no idea of any of this – so we found this conversation with Dong incredibly interesting.

In fact, the older a tea is, the darker it becomes — and the flavor will change over time with the age.  It’s fascinating to us to think of tea this way, just like wine.  And the prices are like wine too, with aged tea from prized mountains going for crazy amounts of money.

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Dong pouring us some tea in his shop in Guangzhou

Throughout Chinese history, tea has been seen as one of the seven daily necessities; accompanied by firewood, oil, vinegar, soy sauce, and of course rice.  So basically, everyone makes tea — from the city, to the rural countryside.  Young and old, they all drink tea.

Tea is also a symbol to welcome visitors into your home, in fact, traditionally visitors are expected to sit down and have tea while talking.  Standing is not seen as polite.

How to Make Chinese Tea

Informal Tea Setting

The process, and equipment, used for making tea can be a little different depending on the situation and the region in China. For informal and casual settings, like in a big restaurant, it is acceptable to just have a big pot of hot water with the leaves in it.  As you drink it, it is just filled with more hot water.

Very simple, and not exciting.

Even though the informal process is quite is simple, there is still a bit of tradition involved.  Firstly, if you want to refill your cup with tea, it is customary that you offer to fill everyone else’s cups at the table first!  Being a hierarchical society, you should ask to fill the eldest or highest level person at the table first.

Only AFTER you have filled everyone’s cup, then you may fill your own.

But for us, it’s the formal tea making process that we find truly fascinating!

The Chinese Tea Ceremony – Gongfu Cha (Kungfu Tea)

Formal Tea Making

Gongfu cha literally means “making tea with effort / skill” — and that it is.  In many settings, from formal situations to people’s homes, this traditional Chinese tea ceremony is very popular in China.  In involves using a small teapot, which really doesn’t hold much tea.  This is part of the “effort” involved because each pot will only serve a few sips of tea into tiny cups.  Then you make another pot.  Over and over again.

Clay pots are preferred because it is said that the little holes in the clay help to brew the tea better than the smooth surface of ceramic.  But of course, you can use ceramic too.  The overall idea is that the small size enhances the taste of the tea, and is also good for looks.

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Tea set out to dry in the sun

Around different parts of China, the Chinese tea ceremony might be a little different, and they may use slightly different tools too.  For example, when we were visiting Dong, he was making a fermented oolong tea — and so he was also using a small filter to keep the bigger tea leaves out of our small cups.  But filters are not always used.  In other formal situations, they may use a large kind of tweezers to pick up the small tea cups for rinsing.

Depending on where you are, there may also be a beautiful tea table!  Some are simple, while others are massive works of art carved out of wood and various materials.  The purpose of these tables is to collect and drain the water that is spilled around the cups and over the table – a ritual we’ll talk more about later.

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A local tea house setting

After being here in China, Josh and I would love nothing more than to bring one of these big, beautiful tables back to the states to have tea in our backyard one day…but one can only imagine the cost to ship one of those!

The Gongfu Cha Process Explained (Briefly)

We’ve outlined the simplified version of this tea making process, as most people don’t go the lengths that the “tea masters” will.  But if you are interested in checking out the complete details, click here read the full Gongfu Cha ceremonial process.

Step 1:  Wake Up the Tea

For the formal Kungfu tea process, we usually don’t see them using tea pots but rather a gaiwan — which is a sort of bowl (bigger than the tea cups) with a lid and a saucer.  After putting your new tea leaves into the gaiwan, you must “wake them up” by pouring nearly boiling water over them.  You don’t want it to be boiling too hot, especially for green teas, which are more delicate than oolong or black teas.

Try your best to cover all the tea and swirl it for a few moments, then pour it out using the lid as a sort of strainer.  This is where using a tea table comes in handy.  Often times they pour it out right on the table to wash it, as well as freshly rinsing all of the small tea cups (sometimes there is also a tea cup rinsing ceremony with hot water first – before waking up the tea).

The tea master may also pour the tea over significant items on the table, like a Buddha statue or lucky frog (again, all about tradition – and superstitions!).

Step 2:  Steep the Tea for a Short Time

When you are ready to brew the tea, you will pour more water into the tea and steep it again.  But it should only be steeped for a very short time, maybe 5 – 10 seconds.  It’s not necessary to steep it for longer than that.

If serving many people, the tea may be brewed a couple times to fill another small pot before filling all the tea cups.  It is customary to wait to drink your tea until everyone has been served, and traditionally, after the oldest or highest level person drinks their tea.  Tea cups are small, allowing for only a few sips – or one big drink.

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A tea master pouring us tea at a local tea house in the countryside near Guangzhou, China

Step 3:  Repeating the Ritual

What we enjoy about the true tea making process is how much tradition and ritual seem to be involved.  After pouring us our cups of tea, we would sip it and talk for a while.  Then they would repeat.

You can actually continue to reuse the same pot of leaves many times — in a home, you can use it all day long!  In fact, they say that it takes many rounds of making tea for the leaves to fully open up with the true flavor.  So repeating the process many times will actually make the tea taste even better.

Tap to Say “Thank You” When Tea is Poured

Regardless if it is a formal or informal setting after tea has been poured into your cup, it is customary to tap your index and middle finger on the table as a way of saying “thank you.”  This is a wonderful little tradition that we love, because sometimes you are busy talking with people (or eating and have a mouth full of food), but you still want to show your gratitude for pouring the tea.  So to us, we find this simple gesture to be quite thoughtful and polite!

This practice of finger tapping is commonly used in the south of China, and specifically in the Cantonese region (where we have been living here in Guangzhou).  Sometimes it is even accompanied by a “Xie Xie” (thank you).   In other parts of China, it is only acceptable to use this method if you are engaged in conversation or eating, and cannot verbally say thank you.  Otherwise, you really should just say thank you.


Other Chinese Tea Customs

Tea is very important in China, and it is tied to the local culture in a variety of important customs too.

A Sign of Respect

Respect is very important in hierarchical societies, like China.  While there are many ways to show this respect, tea is just one of them.  Traditionally, younger people show their respect to older people by offering cups of tea — just like serving them first at the table.  Also, inviting elders to restaurants for traditional tea is a typical holiday activity.

Family Gatherings

Tea is also a very important part of family gatherings.  When children are older and leave home, it is important that they return to visit the family and drink tea.  It is also customary to get together at restaurants to drink team and visit with each other.  Coming together over a cup of tea really is a family tradition.

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The Sichuan way of pouring water for tea involves great skill – and length! (he is across a big table!)


Another aspect of Chinese culture that I find fascinating are Chinese weddings.  While we don’t have time to go into all the traditions here, one ritual that is quite important during the ceremony is for the bride and groom to kneel in front of their parents and offer them tea.  It is a way to show their gratitude for raising them and to say thank you for everything they have given them.  Sometimes they will also serve their spouses parents, to show the coming together of the families.

Tea is also involved in apologies, like offering tea or inviting someone to tea.  But most importantly, tea is an important way to show gratitude and respect to others.

We Finally “Get It” – And Love to Make Tea in Our Apartment!

After having these experiences at the tea shops, restaurants with our Chinese friends, and even on a later visit to an amazing tea house, we feel like we actually get the whole Chinese tea culture.  We no longer feel like an outsider, confused as to what is happening or what we should do.  We now understand the Chinese tea ceremony, and how it fits with the culture.  We know what to do and how to act — and most importantly, we have really learned to LOVE and APPRECIATE tea and the process – Gongfu Cha!

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Enjoying Gongfu Cha in our apartment – with our new tea set in China!

We even purchased a Chinese tea set here for our apartment, and love to sit and make tea together.  It’s actually a wonderful thing that we are really going to miss.  However, these traditions will not be forgotten when we leave China.  We both fully intend to have a Chinese tea set up at our home in the future back in the States, and we look forward to long afternoons and evenings of Gongfu Cha together; enjoying the good life and reminiscing about our days living in China.

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