Difficult History: Gong Fu Cha Isn’t the One True Chinese Tea Practice

Okay, so this is the one that I’ve been the most hesitant to write, not only because I think it might upset some self-avowed “teaheads,” but also because I pride myself on my use of good sources, and frankly, I can’t actually read many of the primary sources that I would really, really like to in this case. But I have phenomenal respect for Lawrence Zhang and his excellent article that is the main source for this post (also cited below with the one primary source I found in English). So here we go.

The concept of gongfucha as “The Chinese Tea Ceremony” is a product of political turmoil and erases the complexity and variety of culture in the country of China. And it isn’t the only way to make tea “in the Chinese style” or the pinnacle of tea brewing practice. There are not only other ways to make tea, there are other Chinese ways of making tea. And the way Westerners talk about gongfucha sometimes borders on fetishization (and it can even erase other, non-Chinese ways of making tea).

First of all, it’s important to understand that gongfucha is not an “ancient Chinese tea ceremony.” It’s not ancient, and until the 20th century it was largely unknown outside of a small area in the southeast of what we now call the country of China. Brewing loose tea leaves was not common practice among the noble class in Imperial China until the Ming Dynasty (the 14th-17th century), but loose leaf brewing may have become popular in the 14th or 15th century in the regions where the practices that influenced gongfucha originated. And while the 14th and 15th centuries are before tea came to Europe, it isn’t really “ancient.”

And then there is the fact that this practice was simply a regional method, unknown outside of the region it was practiced, until the late 18th century, when famed Qing dynasty poet and gastronome Yuan Mei published his Suiyuan Shidan in which he described the tea practice of the monks in the Wuyi mountains. And even then, he didn’t use the phrase “gong fu cha” to describe it. That came later.

Even in the 20th century, gongfucha was not a common style of tea in China. In 1937, Fuijian native Lin Yutang describes a method of steeping tea that sounds remarkably similar to modern-day gongfucha and then comments that this is “a strict description of preparing a special kind of tea…in my native province [of Fujian], an art generally unknown in North China.” The first dedicated writing on gongfucha comes in 1957 when Weng Huidong publishes his documentation of this process.

So why is this regional practice, largely unknown until the 20th century now considered “The Chinese tea ceremony” outside of China? Well, that comes from its association with the Han Chinese who fled to the island of Taiwan in the 1970s. You can read the details in Zhang’s paper, but basically, the Han Chinese who opposed the Communist Party in mainland China set about developing formal cultural arts that they felt connected them authentically to their mainland heritage.

And yet, when we practice gongfucha in the States or in Europe, there is very little acknowledgement of this history of displacement and political turmoil. We simply see it as a fancy art that makes us feel connected to another culture. And while it’s not a problem to share in a culture that has been shared with us, it is important to recognize that viewing gongfucha as the only authentically Chinese way to make tea is not only a product of deeply complicated politics, but also simply untrue. I’ve spoken before about how many people in China drink their tea in a way that Zhang dubbed “grandpa style” after the older men he saw drink this way. I personally saw that my Chinese friends in grad school drank their tea this way — loose leaves in a mug, often with a cover to keep it warm as it just steeped untimed, refilled with hot water as needed. Even in the famed Pu’erh-producing regions of Yunnan province, this is a common way to drink tea.

Finally, by focusing on gongfucha as the “true tea,” we are erasing other country’s tea practices (which is ironic, considering that Japanese tea practice directly influenced the framing of gongfucha as “the Chinese tea ceremony”), which can have deep roots in their resistance of colonialism. I have seen someone in a tea group ask for a way to make masala chai using gongfucha methods because he wanted to make it “better.” But this implies that the cultural tradition of boiling tea with milk and spices that makes masala chai masala chai is somehow inferior to our perception of what makes tea preparation “correct.” Gongfucha is not the only way to make tea (it’s not even the only Chinese way of making tea) and it is not the “best” way to make tea. And treating it as such, especially as a Westerner without a firm understanding of its complex history and modern origins, turns appreciation into fetishization.

So enjoy your gongfu tea practice. Collect your teaware. Tell receptive friends about it. But don’t treat it like it is somehow on top of a false hierarchy of cultural practices. And recognize that gongfucha, as we practice it, is not an ancient practice.

Sources:

“A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts,” by Lawrence Zhang: http://www.marshaln.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/GFC1601_06_Zhang-3.pdf

The Importance of Living, by Lin Yutang (pub. 1937)

2 thoughts on “Difficult History: Gong Fu Cha Isn’t the One True Chinese Tea Practice

  1. I have only been learning about gongfu cha for a few months now, but this tendency of westerners to not only fetishize gongfu cha but also position themselves as authorities on Chinese tea culture is SO apparent. I wonder if it stems from the British attitude of insisting there’s a “proper” way to do tea. I think insisting on having a “right” way or a “true” way is a big problem, especially when the diversity of tea culture is part of what makes it so wonderful.

    It’s funny how often people will refer to tea in general as an “ancient Chinese tradition” when no one ever says that about wine, which has a much longer history.

    Also I cannot wrap my mind around someone trying to make masala chai gongfu style hahaha.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another very good source:
    Jinghong Zhang, “A Transnational Flow of the Art of Tea: The Paradox of Cultural Authenticity in Taiwan,” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 2017.
    Also,
    Scott Writer, “Feeling Your Way: The Cultivated Aesthetic in Taiwanese Tea Art” China Heritage Quarterly March 2012.

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