The Chinese term "gongfu" (in its Pinyin transliteration; in Wade-Giles it is "kung-fu") simply means to do something skilfully or with style. As applied to tea drinking, it refers to traditions of preparation, consumption, and appreciation that go back to Luyu in the early Tang dynasty and before. My understanding of Chinese tea comes from the perspective of Japanese tea ceremony so might not be as rich as those readers of a Chinese background.

The Chinese tea ceremony emphasizes the tea, rather than the ceremony -- what the tea tastes like, smells like, and how one tea tastes compared another tea, or how it changes during successive rounds of drinking. Ceremony doesn't mean that each server will perform the actions in the same way; it is not related to religion. Each step is part of a process of sensory exploration and appreciation. And this is what ceremony means: to celebrate.

Many fine teas used in the Chinese tea ceremony are now grown in the mountains of Taiwan at around 4,000 feet. These teas are particularly refined, such as oolong teas which are lightly fermented and red teas that can be moderately to heavily fermented. Many wonderful teas are best when especially fresh; a few are best when aged considerablly, like fine wines.

This style of tea drinking uses small cups to match the small, unglazed clay teapots; each cup is just large enough to hold about two small swallows of tea. These tiny cups are particularly popular in Fujian and Chiujao, in southern coastal China above Canton. In Shanghai and Beijing larger cups are commonly used.

To Brew Tea in the Chinese Style
After heating water to boiling, the teapot is first rinsed with hot water. Using chopsticks or a bamboo tea scoop, fill the teapot to approximately 1/3 full with tea leaves and then pour boiling water into the pot. Hold the teapot over a large bowl, letting the overflow run into the bowl. Give the tea leaves a rinse by filling the pot half full with hot water, then drain the water out immediately, leaving only the soaked tea leaves.

Now fill the pot to the top with more hot water, cover and pour more water over the teapot resting in the tea bowl. Do not allow bubbles to form in the pot. (When mixed with the tea, bubbles form a foam that is not aesthetically pleasing.)

Be sure to not let the tea steep for too long; the first infusion should be steeped for only 30 seconds. In less than a minute, pour the tea into the cups by moving the teapot around in a continual motion over the cups so that they are filled together at the same time. Each cup should taste exactly the same.

After steeping, the tea can be poured into a second teapot or tea pitcher to be served at leisure. More water can be added to the teapot, and up to five infusions typically can be made from the same tea leaves. Be sure to add 10 more seconds for the second brewing and 15 additional seconds thereafter.

Each pot of tea serves three to four rounds and up to five or six, depending on the tea and the server. The goal is that each round taste the same as the first. Creating consistent flavour is where the mastery of the server is seen. However, I prefer to savour the differences that occur with each infusion, the ways in which subtle nuances of the tea that were only in the background before, now stand forth.

The Water
The water used in the tea ceremony is as important as the tea itself. Chlorine and fluoride in tap water should be filtered out as they harm the flavor of the tea. Distilled water makes flat tea and should be avoided. A high mineral content in the water brings out the richness and sweetness of green tea. Black teas taste much better when made with water containing less Volvic. Ideal tea water should have an alkaline pH around 7.9. Actually, Chinese tea literature is full of effusive commentaries on the virtues of obscure and rare water. One need not go so far as to import water melted from the ice of an Andean mountain-top. But most tap water is a bit too rough.

Green teas are ruined by boiling water; the temperature is best around 170-185 degrees F. Oolongs made with underboiled water are more fragrant.


You need a Unicode enabled browser with Chinese fonts installed to see the Chinese in this write-up. You won't lose much if you can't see them.
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').

茶道 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's suggestion)

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.

  1. Use tea from India or Ceylon, not China
  2. Use a teapot, preferably ceramic
  3. Warm the pot over direct heat
  4. Tea should be strong—six spoons of leaves per pot
  5. Let the leaves move around the pot—no bags or strainers
  6. Take the pot to the boiling kettle
  7. Stir or shake the pot
  8. Drink out of a tall, mug-shaped tea cup
  9. Don't add creamy milk
  10. Add milk to the tea, not vice versa
  11. 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.

Brewing Chinese Oolong Tea (乌龙茶道 - wū lóng chá dào, also called 功夫茶 - gōngfu chá)

These instructions are my translation of a fine Chinese tea house's study manual for its employees which is still used today. This is a script for describing the preparation of tie guan yin, one of the finest of the Chinese oolong teas.

Greetings friends and guests! In the etiquette of the ancient Chinese culture, the honored tradition of offering tea to our guests is considered a great virtue. Tea has been part of our cultural heritage for more than 5,000 years. It is said of the Chinese culture that there are seven necessities of life: wood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea. Tea is inseparable from our way of life. Therefore, when we brew tea, we pay strict attention to the guiding principles of the tea art. Today, we will demonstrate for you, our honored guests, the practice of brewing our Tie Guan Yin tea, which comes from Anqi in the Fujian province.

First, I will introduce you all to the Chinese tea set:

  • This is the 茶托 (chá tuō), a kind of saucer for the teacup and the snifter.

  • The 净手毛巾 (jǐng shòu máojīn), a tea towel used for cleaning the bottoms of the teacups and teapots and for absorbing excess water and tea.

  • The 茶荷 (chá hé), a special dish for appreciating the scent and appearance of fine tea.

  • The 茶道组 (chá dào zǔ), a set of utensils used for measuring out the tea leaves, comprised of seven purple sandalwood utensils.

  • The 公道杯 (gōng dào bēi), a kind of pitcher used for serving the tea.

  • The 滤网 (lǜ wǎng), a filtered funnel used to filter the dregs from the tea.

  • The 紫砂壶 (zǐ shā hú), a teapot made from the famous Jiangsu yíxīng purple clay, sometimes also called 孟臣 (mèng chén) or 大彬 (dà bīn), this special teapot absorbs the flavors it holds.

  • The 闻香杯 (wén xiāng bēi), also called 殴杯 (ōu bēi), is a snifter used for appreciating the fragrance of the tea. It is said that half of the value of quality teas lies in its fragrance.

  • The 品茗杯 (pǐn míng bēi), also called 若琛 (ruò chēn), is used to sip and savor the tea.

Each step in the process of 功夫茶 (gōngfu chá) has a traditional four-character name. Four-character names and phrases are of great significance in Chinese culture.

  1. The first step in the process is 温壶烫杯 (wēn hú tàng bēi), "warming the pot and heating the cups". This entails filling the pot with boiling water and draining it. It is important for the cups and the pot to be kept warm during the process of brewing the tea because it enriches and enhances the fragrances emitted by the tea.

  2. The second step is called 鉴赏佳茗 (jiàn shǎng jiā míng), which means "appreciate excellent tea". Today, we have selected Tie Guan Yin tea from the western plain of Anqi village in the Fujian province.

  3. The third step is called 乌龙入宫 (wū lóng rù gōng), which means "The Black Dragon Enters the Palace". This is because oolong tea, of which Tie Guan Yin is one kind, means "black dragon" tea. In the gōngfu chá process of brewing the tea, the amount of tea used is of the utmost importance. Depending on the leaves, pot, and other factors, it is common to fill the pot 1/2 to 2/3 of the way full with leaves.

  4. The fourth step is 悬壶高冲 (xuán hú gāo chōng), "rinsing from an elevated pot". We make use of the washing force of falling water to cleanse and rinse the leaves in the pot.

  5. The fifth step is 春风拂面 (chūn fēng fú miàn), meaning "the spring wind brushes the surface". We brush the froth from the mouth of the teapot to keep the tea clear.

  6. Step six is called 重洗仙颜 (chóng xǐ xiān yán), which means, "bathe the immortal twince". In order to make the temperature inside and outside of the pot the same, we let the tea steep for a while longer.

  7. Next is "A row of clouds, running water" 行云流水 (háng yún líu shǔi), the seventh step. It is customary that we do not drink this first pot of tea, as its use is primarily to wash impurities from the leaves and to allow them to completely open.

  8. Step eight is called 回旋低斟 (húi xuán dī zhēn), or 再注清泉 (zài zhù qīng xuán). The first name "pouring again from a low height" refers to an important principle, 高冲低斟 (gāo chōng dī zhēn), which means "high to rinse, low to pour". Pouring from a height will flush and cleanse the leaves, but now we pour from a low height as we do not wish to force too much flavor from the leaves at once.

  9. The next step, 殴杯沐淋 (ōu bēi mù lìn), is "bathing the snifter cup". We fill the snifter with tea which will later end up in the drinking cup. It is commonly said, "One tea leaf contains a thousand elements of ancient culture, a pot of tea holds ten thousand." When brewing tea, we pay extreme attention to the art of the process.

  10. Step ten is called 游山玩水 (yóu shān wán shǔi), "walk in the mountains and play in the river". The tea server cleans excess water from the bottom of the pot.

    The tea aficionado takes account of five great elements of the tea service: Use tea of renown from a place of renown, use excellent water from an excellent spring, employ a beautiful and well-crafted tea set, work in surroundings of sweet aromas and great beauty, and serve the tea at an auspicious and appropriate time.

  11. Step eleven, 龙凤呈祥 (lóng fěng chéng xiáng), "The dragon and phoenix in auspicious union". The tea drinking cup is balanced on the snifter and carefully inverted, in part symbolizing the balance between husband and wife, as well as a kind of ritual prayer for the wellbeing, happiness and success of your guests.

  12. The twelfth step is referred to as, 鲤鱼翻身 (lǐ yú fān shēn), "the carp turns over". The scent cup and the drinking cup are now inverted so that the scent cup is on top.

  13. Finally, the thirteenth step, 敬奉香茗 (jǐng fěng xiāng míng) — "respecfully receive the fragrant tea". The entirety of this process is divided into two parts, smelling and drinking. With three fingers, lightly lift the snifter and as the tea runs into the drinking glass, observe the color. Lift the snifter to your nose and taking the warm, rich aroma that remains inside. Afterward, use the thumb and forefinger to lift the teacup, using the edge of the middle finger to support and padding for the bottom of the cup. Because the Chinese character ("pin" 品) is made of three of the character for mouth ("kou" 口), the drinking of the tea also has three mouthfuls. The first is a small sip, the second a larger drink, the third, taking in the aftertaste. At first, the tea might seem a bit bitter, but after a short time, it acquires a certain sweetness, don't you find?



  1. 溢壶茶. 《初级授课稿》. Private internal publication, no copyright.

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