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.

“Nor is it really a “ceremony,” for the practice of using very small cups and small teapots, and infusing the leaves repeatedly, is only a means to drink tea in a specific way. Although there have been recent attempts to infuse this practice with symbolic meaning, it remains a means to an end, not an end in itself.”

Problem 1: To claim that the consumption of tea is a means to an end lacking in symbolic meaning, specific skills, or ritualistically achieved goals is to ignore the thousand year of philosophical prose, poetry, and aesthetic developments attributed to the leaf. Contemporary consumers within either the gentlemen-scholar tradition or on the spiritual path may, and often do, find meaning in the methods and practices applied in brewing tea. The “ceremony” of Chinese tea is not in the performance of brewing but the application of skill to brew the best flavors from the leaves one has; in the literati tradition dating back to Lu Yu, the practice of tea has always been focused on the connoisseurship and skill of the practitioner (The Rise of Tea Culture in China: The Invention of the Individual by Bret Hinsch, Chapter 4): “[Lu Yu]… helped to establish tea as a beverage for the connoisseur, describing varieties of tea plants, growing techniques, and even sources of water; taken together, these descriptions resulted in a product whose subtleties could be critiqued and enjoyed.” (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Volume 77, Number 2, December 2017, pg. 495)

Yuan Mei (1716 – 1797), the famed Qing Dynasty gastronome, wrote in his book on food, Suiyuan shidan (The Menu of the Sui Garden), of his time in the Wuyi Mountains, where tea was brewed in pots that held no more than one ounce of water and drunk from cups “no bigger than a walnut”…

Gongfucha is in fact a custom that originated in Fujian and Guangdong provinces of coastal southeast China, and is most heavily identified with the region of Chaozhou located at the border of these two provinces. It was one among many regional forms of tea consumption in China.”

Problem 2: Chaozhou Gongfu cha is a trans-regional high-level technique encompassed within the broader Chinese tea tradition. To claim that Chaozhou methods are representative of all gongfucha is ahistorical and incorrect; Chaozhou methods of brewing roasted tea in small pots with high leaf to water ratio is a technique that developed in response to the regionally available and preferred teas. Alternative methods in-line with the literati tradition of personal skill and connoisseurship coexisted both in and around Chaozhou and across China; for example: Qianlong (reigned 1735 to 1796) is known to have consumed LongJing tea out of a gaiwan at Hugong Temple near Hangzhou (Steven Owyoung, A Story of the Qianlong Emperor and Jade Spring, First Spring Under Heaven). Chaozhou was no more the central or exclusive domain of tea ceremony then than it is today.

Lin Yutang (1895 – 1976) wrote in his book The Importance of Living, published in 1937, that “brewing tea in the Gongfu style was generally unknown in northern China – something done by connoisseurs and not generally served among shopkeepers”

Gongfucha, therefore, can be seen as one variation of the totality of Chinese tea tradition, but hardly as a representative or dominant tradition. …

The puzzler, therefore, is when did Weng Huidong’s canonical gongfucha evolve from being identified as a solely regional custom practiced by a small number of people in a well-defined geographic area to something that is seen nationwide, often without reference to its provincial roots?

Problem 3: Yuan Mei, the authors own source cited earlier in the article, in his book published in 1792 described small-pot Chaouzhou tea practices in Wuyi. Wuyi is over 9 hours away from Chaozhou by car today (on a highway) – a direct refutation to its description as “provincial” and the claim that it was only practiced regionally. The presence of the practice from Chaozhou to Wuyi shows that it was already trans-regional before the modern era.

Problem 4: The author presents a narrow and cloistered definition of ceremony, referring only to the strict codification of Chaozhou Gongfu Cha (versus the broader Chinese tea tradition); if this paper were only a semantic debate on the definition of ceremony, it may be admissible to prefer an alternative word versus the expansive definition. To respond to the article at face value: The ideal that a ceremony or tradition, once created, must remain unchanged ignores the existence of living arts that evolve with the incubating culture. Chinese tea culture, birthed in the literati tradition of the Tang Dynasty, has maintained an ideology and praxis that lives today; the tea, wares, and techniques have grown and evolved over the last millennia while the goals have remained the same.

The practice of these new tea art houses contrasted sharply with traditional teahouses in Taiwan, which were often associated with gambling, smoking and prostitution

Problem 5: look… I don’t know how else to explain this, but if a tea house is selling tricks[1], the focus isn’t on the tea and it isn’t a tea house. I don’t care what you call it – in Nevada they call the brothels a “bunny ranch” but it doesn’t have anything to do with pasture raised rabbits. In NYC China Town, many of the dim sum houses were at one point fronts for gambling dens or brothels, but again – they weren’t using the dumplings as poker chips. The existence of front companies, whether tea houses or dim sum houses, says nothing about the culture or tradition of tea or dim sum.

Chinese tea drinking customs, in contrast, were largely utilitarian. The various regional customs of tea drinking were all means to an end; they deliver the drink to the drinker, without much pomp and circumstance, albeit in different and unique ways. In the Jiangnan region… [green tea is] usually brewed in large cups or tall glasses and sipped as needed. In the imperial capital of Beijing and other northern regions… [jasmine] is made crudely in large pots and drunk as a weak drink.

Problem 6: This section confuses common custom with the literati gentleman-scholar tea tradition; the practice of tea ceremony has always been a minority method of preparation and consumption compared to the utilitarian consumption method favored in each province or region. Furthermore, when examining the practices of the literati across China, not just in Chaozhou, we find that many, including a number of emperors (for example, Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong), used medium to small sized tea pots. The practice was not regionally constrained: “[In the Ming Dynasty]… the literati and officials classes were becoming connoisseurs of tea and Alcohol. Especially popular was the fashion of brewing loose leaf tea, and the tea connoisseurs were very particular about teapots and tea cups. For teapots the Ming Chinese propounded the maxims of ‘small is precious,’ and ‘the fragrance should not disperse, the taste should not linger.’ The tea-drinking fad [sic] was highly popular both in the country and in the city, and greatly increased the demand for stoneware and porcelain. The upper classes now sought out not only fine cuisine and fine tastes, but also fine pots, which in turn resulted in improvements to the quality of the wares.”  (Li, Zhiyan, Virginia Bower, and Li He. 2010. Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period Through the Qing Dynasty. Page 388).

… the article nevertheless reveals the central claim by proprietors of the new tea art houses that they were recovering a lost tradition by means of emphasizing the pureness of tea drinking as an activity… it was a pursuit in itself, and the reference to Japanese Chado, perhaps the most revered among various tea traditions, is a powerful reminder that among Chinese there was simply no comparable case; Chinese tea drinking practices lacked the aesthetic rigor of the Japanese tea ceremony…

Problem 7: This argument confuses the superficial practice of each ceremony with its goals. Neither Japanese Chanoyu nor Chinese gongfucha has a goal of looking pretty; the focus of Japanese tea ceremony is the creation of an experience (Ichi-go ichi-e, 一期一会, “one time, one meeting”) not on the tea itself. The focus of Chinese Tea Ceremony is on the connoisseurship of the tea and skill of the practitioner. Comparing them is akin to saying that the flavor of coffee isn’t as pretty as French wine labels – something is wrong with the comparison.

In 1981, in association with the Kuomintang government, a number of new tea arts practitioners and tea company owners formed the Republic of China Tea Arts Association. The primary mandate of the association was to “revive Chinese tea arts culture, promote Chinese tea drinking techniques, raise the standard of living, encourage international exchange, and leverage the economic benefits of the tea industry.

It is interesting to see the word “revive” used in association with tea arts, since tea arts itself was such a new idea, and “Chinese tea arts culture” was a neologism at best.

Problem 8: the author is using a government phrase to bolster a nonsensical argument – “revive Chinese tea arts culture” could easily refer to linked Taiwanese industries such as ceramics or tea agriculture; claiming that tea in Taiwan was a revivalist movement because the word “revive” appeared in a government program is like assuming that China is communist because the ruling party is called the “communist party”– its superficially correct but obviously wrong.

These new practitioners had to search for something unique and distinctively Chinese. The only possible candidate suitable for this new tea arts was Chaozhou’s gongfucha. …

There is also a more immediate reason why gongfucha became the basis for the emerging tea arts movement. Taiwan has strong links with the Chaozhou region specifically and Fujian and Guangdong provinces more generally. Many Taiwanese are from the area of Chaozhou, and the typical method of brewing tea in Taiwan is from the same tradition as that used in Chaozhou area.

Problem 9: I believe these statements to be in contradiction; there is nothing strange or surprising about individuals from a region bringing their techniques or traditions with them when moving. The Fujianese brought their tea brewing and tea processing traditions from the mainland and adapted them to the tea’s available in Taiwan; for example, this can be seen with Muzha Tie Guan Yin, which is roasted and a good fit for Chaozhou methods. The practice and use of Chaozhou methods has more to do with the type of tea being grown than any overarching conspiracy to promote a new adopted foreign practice retrofit for nation building….

The most striking parallel to senchado in the tea arts movement is the newfound interest in the spatial arrangement of teaware and control of the movement of the physical body in relation to these wares. The introduction of the chaxi, or tea setting, into the Chinese tea tradition formalizes a previously unimportant part of the tea drinking experience. … Moreover, with the introduction of chaxi came the formalization of the rules for movement. Prior to the 1970s, when discussing gongfucha, no one had ever talked about how one should move or place items.

Problem 10: I have never seen or heard of strict prescriptions of movement within Chinese tea ceremony or chaxi. Even allowing for a few bad examples, the majority of upper-level chaxi aligned teachers and practitioners do not follow any strictly prescribed movements, and the existence of bad examples does not negate the existence of the Chinese tea tradition. I agree with the author that such prescriptions are later additions, not in line with Chinese tea culture, and plausibly of foreign import inspired by Chanoyu or Senchado.

Problem 11: Taiwan was a colony of Japan for ~50 and many of the educated were schooled in both Japanese and Chinese arts and culture; chaxi is a syncretic tradition unique to Taiwan that arose from the mix of the two cultures on the island. Yet, importantly, chaxi is not itself tea ceremony. It is a meta-theory on top of tea ceremony aimed at the phenominist approach.

The most obvious is the Taiwanese modification in the creation of the new tea practice, from a technical standpoint, is the introduction of an aroma cup (wenxiangbei) elongated in shape and intended to accentuate the smell of the tea.

Problem 12: wenxiang bei are a distinct development from chaxi. Wenxiang bei were developed, as the author admits in a footnote, to accentuate the aroma of Taiwanese high mountain oolong; the development of a new ware is not evidence of 1) the lack of a Chinese tea ceremony 2) the foreign influence of Japan (where wenxiang bei were not developed and are not used) or 3) that the entire practice is of modern construction – there is nothing in Chinese tea ceremony that prevents innovation.

In a manual for new tea drinkers published in 2002, Cai described what by then was an accepted norm for tea brewing, which he called the “small pot tea method” (xiaohu chafa) a new name for basically the same practice as gongfucha. Cai explicated detailed instructions on each step to be taken, even down to how to hold the teapot and how high to raise it when pouring (Cai 2002: 142-46). Some of these movements had a practical rationale behind them, but others were for nothing more than visual beauty. …

Another striking feature of Cai’s work is that by 2002 when this manual was published, the nomenclature of this new custom, so recently invented, had already been changed. …

… local scholar Chen Xiangbai tried to link up Chaozhou’s gongfucha with Chinas historical precedents, going so far as to assert in a series of books that China has always had Gongfucha, and it only migrated from the central plains to Chaozhou during the Qing Dynasty….

Problem 13: I’m not going to debate every crazy thing anyone has ever written about tea or tea ceremony; lots of disinformation and ahistorical practices exist and have found individuals willing to practice or promote them. The existence of bad information is not proof of the articles main thesis: that 1) Chinese tea ceremony does not exist and 2) contemporary Chinese tea practices stem from foreign influence. Also, as I’ve already written, there are no prescribed movements in either Chinese tea ceremony or the meta-theory of Chaxi – misinformation is bad but not a mark against correct information on the same topic.

Here’s a book that claims you need to burn sandalwood incense, listen to Guzheng, and narrate your actions in order to preform Chaozhou Gongfu. Bad information is everywhere!
Here’s a book that claims you need to burn sandalwood incense, listen to Guzheng, and narrate your actions in order to preform Chaozhou Gongfu. Bad information is everywhere!

The Ten Ren Group, the largest chain stores of tea sellers in Taiwan, invested heavily in the Mainland market, and has become the most important player in the China tea market. … Customers who visit Ten Fu (Ten Ren Tea’s mainland China affiliate) can expect to sample teas brewed in the tea arts style by the sales women before they buy…

Whereas previously there were many different local traditions of tea drinking, nowadays it is possible to find teashops large and small throughout China serving tea using largely similar teaware, with the same method of brewing the same leaves repeatedly and drinking from the small cups that are characteristics of gongfucha.

Problem 14: The author references the growth of TenRen/TenFu as a tea chain and its standardization of brewing practice across its stores as an example of a constructed tradition – yet it is not; the spread of a regional practice throughout a willing market by a corporate entity is an example of commodification; in the united states, no one talks about Starbucks spreading the invented tradition of Frappuccinos – this is an example of the commoditization of coffee and coffee culture. Perhaps a better example: no one considers Domino’s pizza to be spreading an invented tradition of “American pizza” (or claim that any one regional style of pizza is the only true pizza and actually of foreign Italian influence) – dominos and all the other pizza chains are an example of commodification (in need of another example: Uno Pizza selling Chicago Deep Dish pizza outside of Chicago is also commodification, not the invented tradition of deep dish in New York).

By claiming that Chaozhou’s gongfucha tradition has always been the center of Chinese tea culture, the authors ignore historical inconveniences such as how to reconcile whisked powdered tea, the dominant trend from the Tang to the Yuan dynasties (roughly ninth to fifteenth centuries), with the small cup, small pot method found in Chaozhou. … The overall tenor of such studies is that the contemporary tea arts practice is merely an extension of an older form of tea from earlier times, rather than a new form that was invented in the latter half of the twentieth century based on a regional custom. In addition to papering over the obvious problems in the claim to historical authenticity, these narratives also ignore the role of foreign influences on the development of tea arts.

Problem 15: Again, the methods and techniques associated with Chaozhou gongfu are a trans-regional practice well-encompassed in the broader Chinese tea tradition; the idea that a tradition developed within China, by Chinese people, and spread across multiple regions (Chaozhou to Wuyi) internally during the late 1700’s is somehow foreign is wrong. To claim it is “foreign” when it both arose within China and was incubated within Chinese culture (both on the mainland and in Taiwan) is fallacious. Even if it could be argued that Taiwan had foreign Japanese influences from the colonial period (which it certainly did), Taiwan in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution saw itself as the maintainer of traditional Chinese Culture. The fact that many individuals from that region brought their tea tradition with them to Taiwan and continued the development and practice of their tradition with the availability of new teas (such as Taiwanese high mountain oolong) or the recreation of their preferred teas (such as Muzha Tie Guan Yin) is also not evidence of foreign influence as Taiwan is part of China (according to both governments) and mostly populated by ethnically and culturally Chinese people.

Problem 16: Again, the idea that the Chinese tea tradition needs to remain unchanged throughout time to be historical is an insular view that ignores the existence of living arts with consistent goals and evolving technique. No one seriously argues that the development of espresso broke the coffee tradition in Europe – just as the evidence does not support that the development path of boiled tea to whisked tea to whole leaf tea broke the tradition of Chinese tea. In the literati tradition, the goal of Chinese tea ceremony has always been “brew good tea”; the development of new methods and techniques is aligned with that goal and has always been a part of Chinese tea (including the adoption of Chaozhou methods for specific teas – no one uses Chaozhou methods for LongJing, as a counter example).

The idea that the current Chinese tea practice based largely on gongfucha is merely an extension of a historical tradition that traces its roots all the way back to Lu Yu bears all the characteristics of an “invented tradition,” as expounded by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983). If we examine the text of the Classic of Tea we will see that the tea described in that text bears little resemblance to what we consider tea now.

Problem 17: The use of the term “constructed tradition” refers to a confluence of social forces, whether political, commerce, religious, or other, that collectively coalesce adopted practices into a new unified ritual or ceremony with claims to a history of practice. Constructed traditions undoubtedly exist, and are frequently tools of the organizations that invent them. On the other hand, all human rituals and ceremonies were at some point constructed: Sen No Rikyu codified Japanese tea ceremony, the Catholic Church codified mass, the British government codified the opening of parliament, and Amram bar Sheshna codified the Siddur (the Jewish prayer book). The issue here is in the frame of reference: is Chinese tea ceremony of modern construction or is it a natural evolution of Lu Yu’s codification incubated by the Chinese literati culture – I posit that it is the later, that evolution is a necessary feature of a living art, and that the contemporary practice is not a revival or reinterpretation of Chaozhou gongfu but a syncretic tradition of techniques for a continued and unified goal of brewing good tea.

I’m sure this post will generate some agreement and controversy, so be sure to post your love letters and hate mail in the comments.



[1] sex

Migrated Comments

David Campbell

Jason, this is a inadequate “refutation” at best. You cite a couple of secondary sources but what primary research have you undertaken? Zhang has been studying the transnational influences on tea for his entire academic career (he is a professor of history at HKCU) and has done the primary research. I find it interesting that the cultural anthropologist from Kunming University, Zhang Jinghong has published a paper (A Transnational Flow of the Art of Tea: The Paradox of Cultural Authenticity in Taiwan, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 2017) that makes many of the same points as Lawrence Zhang.

[A sentence containing political content has been redacted from this comment by the moderator]

Speaking of Taiwan, you mention high mountain teas – but these teas did not exist before the 1980s. As to Muzha Tie Guan Yin, this tea did not see the light until about 1916 – this was during the period of Japanese occupation and the island definitely was not part of China.

Jason's Reply

Happy to discuss, though your comment does not lend itself to constructive debate…

First, my credentials are trivially available with a Google search; make of them what you will, but my points stand on their own merit.

Secondly, If you’d like to debate my points, I’ve very purposely made each of them easy to reply to: numbered topics/points, direct quotes from the article, and citations where necessary; respectful disagreement on a public forum is a public good and I’d love to be part of more of it – lets discuss any specific point where you believe I am mistaken or where you disagree with my interpretation.

Of the points you do make, I’ve replied below:

> You cite a couple of secondary sources but what primary research have you undertaken?
I cite the same primary source material as Zhang; my reading and interpretation of the source materials differ, and I present as much.

> Zhang has been studying the transnational influences on tea for his entire academic career (he is a professor of history at HKCU) and has done the primary research.
This is an appeal to authority and I obviously do not find it convincing. Many researchers in many fields have published many papers that were knowably wrong when published or proven wrong later.
History is a field of interpretation where scholars can draw different conclusions from the same source material – and behold, here we do: in this refutation, I read the same source material, draw from other secondary sources, and construct an argument for a different conclusions.

> A Transnational Flow of the Art of Tea: The Paradox of Cultural Authenticity in Taiwan, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 2017
This is a fine paper; it’s general argument is that Taiwan has developed a unique tea culture from the syncretic tradition of Chinese, Japanese, and local cultures which includes the new practice of tea performances.
It is unclear from the article if Tea Performance is synonymous with ChaXi, but in either case, I am in general agreement with the articles theses. I state as much in Problem 11, and repeat again that ChaXi is not Chinese Tea Ceremony. Thus, this paper makes a much more narrow argument than Lawrence Zhang makes in his paper.

As for your final paragraph, I am not sure what you are debating; neither of those dates are in obvious conflict with anything I wrote.

If we are to continue this, perhaps we should discuss specific points of fact and interpretation?

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