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Chinese in this write-up is romanised as hanyu pinyin.
The Chinese tea ceremony or Gōngfū Chá 工夫茶 originates with the Mǐn Nán 閩南 Chinese, which is to say, the southern part of Fujian 福建 province and the Chaozhou 潮州 district of Guangdong 廣東. 《清朝野史大觀·清代述異》稱：「中國講求烹茶，以閩之汀、漳、泉三府，粤之潮州府功夫茶為最。」 "Of the preparation of tea in China, in the districts of Tīng, Zhāng and Quán in Fújiàn and Cháozhōu in Guǎngdōng does the art reach its zenith." On the streets of Chaozhou and in private homes, gongfu cha is the only way to make tea. It is known to the scholar and to the peasant, and it is not considered particularly refined or elegant, nor is it confined to one social class. Unlike the Japanese version, it is about making a good cup of tea and isn't really a ceremony at all.
Gongfu cha uses wulong tea, black tea or pu-er. It is not used to drink green or white tea, when a gàiwǎn 蓋碗 is used instead. Of the two methods, the gaiwan is more ancient, as gongfu cha is known only from the Ming Dynasty.
The description that follows merely represents how I make tea, and how my friends make tea. You will find differences in how it is done in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and from person to person. I am not aware of any 'official' way of making Chinese tea!
茶器 What you need
A basic Chinese tea set (茶器 cháqì) consists of a teapot (茶壺 cháhú) which sits on a 'tea sea' (茶海 cháhǎi). Tea is poured into a
a 'scent cup' (聞香杯 wénxiāngbēi) and then into a teacup (茶杯 chábēi) before drinking.
A tea set should also include a set of tools (茶具 chájù): a scoop (茶勺 chásháo), a pair of tongs (茶夾 chájiá) and a pick (茶雕 chádiāo). The scoop is for measuring out the tea leaves. The tongs are for picking up cups that are too hot to handle. The pick is flat and curved at one end to remove used leaves from the bowl of the pot; it is pointed at the other for removing leaves from the spout.
The tea sea is a wide ceramic basin which collects all the waste water. It has a perforated detachable cover and the teapot sits on the cover. The tea sea should be large enough not to require emptying while you are drinking tea, which means that a one-person tea sea is about a foot wide, but a four-person tea sea may be two-feet in diameter and about half-a-foot high.
Teacups are only large enough for one or two mouthfuls of tea. You should use a teapot that is only large enough to just fill all the teacups with a few drops left over. There is one scent cup for every teacup and each pair occupies its own tray (托盤 tuōpán). The scent cups and teacups carry the same amount of fluid but are shaped differently. The scent cup is usually tall and thin, so as to concentrate the fragance of the tea (same principle as a wine glass). A Chinese teacup is shaped like a traditional English tea cup except with no handle (and is much smaller).
Some optional extras include a jar (茶缸 chágāng) for used tea leaves (and sometimes waste water); a 'lotus leaf' (茶荷 cháhé) for displaying and inspecting used tea leaves; a pitcher (茶鍾 cházhōng) for serving the tea; and a 'cushion' (茶墊 chádiàn) to keep the teapot warm. You will probably also want a tea cloth (茶巾 chájīn) to mop up spills!
No agreement exists over the names of many of these items.
Some people call the pitcher a 'fairness cup' (公道杯 gōngdàobēi). Confusingly, the pitcher is sometimes called the 'tea sea' 茶海 cháhǎi; the tea sea is then called the 'tea pillow' (茶枕 cházhěn) or 'tea board' (茶板 chábǎn).
The teapot is sometimes romantically referred to as the 'tea boat' (variously 茶船 cháchuán or 茶艇 chátǐng, which extends the metaphor of the 'tea sea'). The term 茶船 may also refer to a dish of hot water in which the tea pot is kept warm. The tea cup is also called the 'tasting cup' (品茗杯 pǐnmíngbēi). The scoop can also be called a 'chooser'/'selector' (茶則 cházé). The pick is sometimes also referred to as 茶通 chátōng (which roughly translates as 'a tool for unobstructing a teapot') or 渣匙 zhāchí ('spoon for dregs').
How to do it
Fill the teapot with leaves so it is about a third full. The exact amount varies according to the grade and type of tea and with personal taste. Pour hot water into the pot and immediately pour the water out—you are just 'washing' (沖 chōng) the tea. Use this water to wash all the cups—this heats them up and gets them to the right temperature.
Now you're ready to make tea. Pour hot water into the pot, cover the pot and then pour more water over the pot to 'seal' it. In a well-made pot, this makes it airtight apart from the spout. The tea leaves will start to absorb the water and after about 30 seconds you will see the water at the tip of the spout being sucked into the pot. As soon as this happens, the tea is ready and you should pour it out.
The tea is poured first into the scent cup. The scent cup is then immediately emptied out into the tea cup. A thin film of hot tea is left inside the scent cup and as this evaporates, the fragrance is released and the shape of the scent cup concentrates it. You should sniff the scent cup to appreciate the fragrance of the tea before sipping the tea from the teacup.
詮釋 Making it perfect
The three basics (三要素) of making tea are tea, water, and fire 一茶二水三火.
Gongfu cha was invented primarily for the purpose of preparing of oolong tea. The ideal tea should be the top two leaves and a single leaf bud (一心二葉) bruised and rolled tightly into a ball. When you have finished brewing the tea, you may examine the fully opened leaves. The ideal leaf should be whole, with an oily green appearance: the very tip and edges should be turned red-brown by the oxidation process (traditionally called fermentation, which it is not).
Entire treatise have been written about the water you should use to make tea. Some people say you should not use tap water because it has chlorine in it—I have to say that is nonsense (at least in England and in Singapore). I think that using mineral water is an unnecessary extravagance, but I do agree that distilled water tastes flat.
Tradition pairs famous teas with famous springs. For example, Longjing tea is said to taste best when brewed with water from Hupao Quan 虎跑泉 in Hangzhou. According to the Tea Classic 《茶經》 the best water comes from mountain springs (river water being next best and well water the worst). The five most famous springs in China are: 1. Zhongleng Quan 中冷泉 in Zhenjiang 鎭江; 2. Huishan Quan 惠山泉 in 無錫; 3. Guanyin Quan 觀音泉 in Suzhou; 4. Hupao Quan 虎跑泉 in Hangzhou; 5. Baotu Quan 趵突泉 in Jinan 濟南
Preparation of the water 候水: Water that has been boiled only once is called young water (穉水 or 嫩水), while water that has been boiled three times is called old water (老水). Young water cannot bring out the true flavour of the tea, while old water is flat and tasteless. The best water for brewing tea is neither too young nor too old—twice boiled water is best.
As a rule, the greater the degree of fermentation, the hotter the water should be. So black teas (Assam, Keemun, etc.) should take water that is still boiling; oolong teas (Sanyejin, Dongfangmeiren, etc.), should take water just off the boil (90 to 95 deg C); and green or white teas (Biluochun, Longjing, etc.), water that is quite cool (around 85 deg C). The Chinese judge it by the size of the bubbles: bubbles the size of fish eyes for black tea, bubbles the size of crab eyes for oolong and bubbles the size of prawn eyes for green tea. These are rough guides and you need to experiment.
The best teapots are said to be made from 'purple clay' (紫砂 zǐshā) which comes from Yíxīng 宜興 in China. This fine, porous clay absorbs the aroma of the tea and it is said that after many years, you should be able to make tea just by pouring hot water into the empty teapot! The accretion of the years is manifests as a black coating on the inside of the teapot (茶銹 cháxiù). Glazed teapots look nicer but make insipid tea. Because of the porosity of purple clay, you should keep one teapot for one type of tea. If you try to brew oolong in a teapot that has been used for jasmine, the results are disastrous: every cup of oolong you make will smell of jasmine. Never wash your teapot with soap: doing so ensures that every cup of tea you make from henceforth tastes of soap, and there will be nothing to save the situation except throw the teapot away.
As you pour tea from the pot, the tea starts off lighter and then becomes darker as the pot empties. This means that if you fill the cups up in turn, then the first cup will be weaker than the last. Bad idea. You should arrange all the scent cups in a row on the top of the tea sea; as you pour the tea, run the teapot back and forth across the entire row of cups. When done skilfully, this is called 'The dragonfly alighting on water' (蜻蜓點水 qīngtíng diánshuǐ). If this skill is beyond you, then you need a pitcher.
Empty the pot out into the pitcher and then use the pitcher to pour the tea into the scent cups. If you have no pitcher, then take the first cup poured for yourself (the blander, weaker tea) and serve the subsequent cups to your guests (the stronger, more flavourful tea). The perfect tea cup should contain one mouthful of tea.
No matter what grade of leaves you use, there will always be tea dust coming out of the pot when you pour. When using a pitcher, try to pour the tea so that the dust remains in the pitcher, then empty the last few drops plus dust into the tea sea. If you are not using a pitcher, then there is no way to avoid getting tea dust into your teacup. Do not drink the bitter tea dust at the bottom of the cup; instead, empty it into the tea sea before filling the cup again with more tea.
The first fragrance you get from the scent cup is called the 'first fragrance' (杯底香 bēidǐxiāng). When the scent cup has cooled to room temperature, the scent changes and is called the 'cold fragrance' (冷香 lěngxiāng). Not every tea has a cold fragrance.
The Chinese will happily use one set of tea leaves for multiple infusions (a habit the English find very disturbing, and the Scots less so). The number of infusions you can get from one set of leaves varies enormously. With Dōngfāngměirén 東方美人, probably no more than four is possible before the fragrance disappears and the taste becomes unpleasant. With Gāoshānchá 高山茶 I've made up to seven infusions with no loss of taste or fragrance. In general, Taiwanese teas will survive fewer infusions than tea from mainland China, but Taiwanese tea tends to have a stronger fragrance. A less reliable rule is that the more lightly fermented a tea, the more infusions you can get out of it (Pu-erh 普洱 is an important exception).
I think most people will wash the tea leaves before infusing them and many teas benefit from this: oolong and gunpowder tea leaves are curled up and the hot water opens them, allowing them to release their fragrance. The washing also removes any impurities and the wax or oils which coat some teas. But there are definitely some teas that suffer from being washed; in particular, I do not believe that Dongfangmeiren should be washed because this dramatically weakens its fragrance and reduces the number of drinkable infusions you get from this tea.
Contrary to what George Orwell might say, most Chinese teas are not meant to be bitter. Oolong tea in particular is sweet. If the tea is bitter, then you have done something wrong. The most usual problems are: 1. the water is too hot, or 2. you've left the tea to steep too long. Again, Pu-Erh is an exception.
As DMan says, Chinese Tea is not about the tea: it is about the company, the food and the conversation. It is most definitely not about the tea.
A footnote on George Orwell & tea:
(Posted here at Gritchka
George Orwell considered tea one of the "mainstays of civilization". He created his golden rules for making a good cup of tea in post-war Britain.
- Use tea from India or Ceylon, not China
- Use a teapot, preferably ceramic
- Warm the pot over direct heat
- Tea should be strong—six spoons of leaves per pot
- Let the leaves move around the pot—no bags or strainers
- Take the pot to the boiling kettle
- Stir or shake the pot
- Drink out of a tall, mug-shaped tea cup
- Don't add creamy milk
- Add milk to the tea, not vice versa
- No sugar!
Orwell also said, "Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter." It goes without saying that Orwell preferred indian tea which is notoriously bitter.
Where would I be without 淑燕?
Thanks to Tongpoo for his exceedingly useful list of unicodes for pinyin.