Gongfu Cha: Method or Madness?

Hello tea world – remember me?

I recently read the article A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts by Lawrence Zhang (a few years late to the party), and was struck by the claim that Chinese Tea Ceremony is a contemporary constructed culture of foreign influence.

I’ll preface this post with the note that I have no animosity to the author and see this as an academic debate – and debate I shall.

TL;DR – the cliff notes version.

The author (Lawrence Zhang’s) versus my claims:

  1. LZ claim: Chinese tea ceremony (Gongfu Cha) is not a ceremony.
    My claim: Chinese tea ceremony (Gongfu Cha) is a ceremony

  2. LZ claim: Chinese tea ceremony, Chaozhou Gongfu, and Gongfu Cha are all synonyms.
    My claim: Chinese tea ceremony is the set of codified practices, or praxis, of tea in China dating to at least the Tang dynasty. Gongfu Cha is a new name (from at least 1801 CE) for the contemporary Chinese tea ceremony. Chaozhou Gongfu is a trans-regional practical technique for brewing high roast mainland oolongs encompassed within Gongfu Cha.

  3. LZ claim: Teahouses were, at one time, places for gambling and prostitution.
    My claim: …. that is not a teahouse!

  4. LZ claim: Chinese tea ceremony is a constructed tradition of foreign influence.
    My claim: Chinese tea ceremony is a living art which has changed and evolved with the culture of China.

In effect, to say that I disagree with the central thesis of the paper would be an understatement; China is the birthplace of tea, Chinese culture incubated the practice of tea since the Tang, and the living tradition of tea ceremony survives to the present day – having evolved alongside the tea, wares, and preferences of the practitioners.

At some level, perhaps, it may not matter if we consider the contemporary practice of Gongfu Cha a modern constructed tradition or an unbroken historical practice – we agree that the practice of tea has changed, sometimes quickly and sometimes radically, over time. Those changes have been in response to economic, social, political, and cultural impacts that have effected China and the world; if any change is enough to render a tradition “new”, then the tea ceremony we practice today is undoubtedly modern.

Finally, if the article was meant merely as a critique of the corporate marketing undertaken by companies such as TenRen, with pseudo-dynastic “ceremonies” and aggrandizing claims, than I will gladly rescind all points below and agree whole heartedly with the article; I have taken the claims within the article at face value as applied to all Chinese tea tradition and have responded thusly.

In the point-by-point refutation below, I examine each claim in turn and respond where my interpretation of the facts differ. My refutations follow the order of the quotes in the article, so you can easily follow along.

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Quarantine Fever Dreams and Grandiose Delusions

TL;DR: I have a new website and book! Please join me at teatechnique.org

Way back in 2012, I mentioned on this blog that I was writing a book… (see post HERE).  With COVID-19 and the resulting quarantine, that book expanded into a series – and I have completed the first book. After careful consideration and with the support of my editorial team, we have decided to serialize the publication on a member’s only forum to host discussion and debate on each chapter.

It is thus with great joy and trepidation that I announce the founding of a new organization for the Chinese Tea community: teatechnique.org

Joy because this project is at once the best work on Chinese Tea Ceremony I have produced and a world of difference from the posts that appear here, on Cult of Quality.

Trepidation because any new organization lacks members and impact – I actively fear that you, dear reader, won’t join and that Tea Technique will never match the educational impact of the (now defunct) Tea Institute at Penn State.

 

The Book

The first book in the series, “An Introduction to the Art and Science of Chinese Tea Ceremony: On Theory, Meta Theory, and Culture”, examines the cultural forces that shaped tea ceremony , the contemporary forces that threaten its future, and a recommendation for the progression of the praxis.

This book, and the following books in the series, are written for advanced-intermediate to intermediately-advance level practitioners of Chinese Tea Ceremony (and thus not suitable for any “tea masters”); it is not an introductory text, a how-to manual, or a review of specific teas and wares. Nor is it a reference text to be consulted with specific questions. Instead, the series aims to be an education for those who already know how to select and brew tea; it is a text written to help advanced practitioners progress their personal knowledge and technique.

 

On Writing

The Simple Retreat by Wang Meng ca. 1370

The Simple Retreat by Wang Meng ca. 1370

I began anew at this daunting task in late February of 2020, when COVID-19 and quarantine upended my professional life. Restricted to my Manhattan apartment, staring out at an empty New York City, and often alone in my tea room… I began to write. My dedication to tea may have wavered in the years of distraction between the decline of the Institute and the writing of this book; I may have focused on other worldly pursuits. Yet, like those scholars of the past who retreated from the city to their mountain huts, all I needed was some time and space.

Writing, especially in the early days of the pandemic, felt ebullient; I still find myself, finishing a section (of the next book) and having grandiose delusions that this may be my Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – that I may be the Isaac Newton of tea, toiling alone in a pandemic to make history.

Now, in announcing the time and form of publication, my excitement has been replaced by fear. Fear, for I know my delusions of grandeur are not to be. Whatever await me on the journey, I know that the path is long, the challenges will be steep, and the okapis are all well-hidden. Only two things are certain; firstly, that I will be consuming a lot of tea, and secondly, that I will not be alone – this book would not exist without the loving help and support of my editorial team: Pat Penny, Ryan Ahn, and Zongjun Li (all, I may add, former Executive Directors of the Tea Institute in the order of historical succession).


The Publication

This series will be published on a subscriber-only website, with a forum dedicated to each section – allowing for cultivated discussion and debate amongst members.

It was a difficult decision to start a new organization. In weighing the benefits of publishing online versus a printed book, we found that the ability to discuss, debate, and interact with subscribers far outweighed the prestige of traditional publication.

Sections will be published approximately weekly, and subscribers will have access to a few other benefits of membership.

 

Join Us

This is a grand experiment – a way of regrouping the educational mission and vision for the future of the praxis of Gongfu Cha. The book is written – now all it needs are readers.

 

www.teatechnique.org

– Jason Cohen
From Quarantine in NYC
March 10, 2021

 

On Glory and Failure

Every village has its idiot, and yesterday – that was me.

I traveled to the small Javanese Sultanate of Yogyakarta to spend a weekend away from Jakarta, after working on a new product there the week before. What was I expecting to find in a small Javanese Sultanate? No idea! A few people said it was beautiful and that I should go, so taking the advice of a few locals, I went.

After an 8 hour train ride through the mountains of interior Java, I arrived late my first night and chowed down on the local fried rice cooked street-side over a wood burning stove.

The next day, bright and early, I decided to rent a motorcycle. I’ve ridden before all over Nepal and Taiwan (multiple times! and I’ve been saved more than once!), so I figured, how hard could this be?

It was actually really easy going at first. The roads are in much better shape than Nepal (it’s a legitimate question, in Nepal, if you can count a slow moving river bed as a road…) and the drivers are much less aggressive than Taiwan. That is actually one of the strangest things about driving in Indonesia – the traffic is quite heavy, but there’s no aggression to it at all.

I rode about two hours out to Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist temple, considered the largest in the world. I rode through roads cutting across rice fields and tropical forests. I rode as if the wind carried me, birds flying alongside me, farmers shouting “hello mister” to the odd feigner on a motorcycle in rural Java.

2018-02-10 14.50.13

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2017 Summer in Japan and Korea: Onggi Ceramics with Master Anshi Sung

You might remember Anshii Sung, the Onggi Master, from this Guest post way back in 2012

Anshi Sung and Mr Hong

Anshi Sung makes his own clay, hand throws all of his pieces on a kick wheel, and wood fires them in a 250 year old climbing kiln built by the Jesuits.  His work is some of the highest quality ceramic I’ve used and he truly elevates functional onngi pieces into an art-form.

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