Education: Teaching and Learning About Tea

A Beginner’s Guide to Gongfu Cha
 For about a week I’ve been wanting to write an entry that would act as an introduction to the concept of “Gongfu Cha” (工夫茶), sometimes called the Chinese Tea Ceremony.  I guess I was looking for inspiration, but just yesterday, I believe I found it.

As a student of tea for almost a full decade now, I’ve had many teachers and have come to learn many tea traditions.  Yesterday I met with my Chinese tea teacher David Wong, my “Gongfu Cha Master”, to enjoy some tea and talk about some of the upcoming events he will be hosting in his scholar studio in San Francisco.  What I wasn’t ready for was an audience.

In true teacher fashion, David wanted to show all that he had taught me to the collected crowd.  A tea was selected and the appropriate teaware was used.  However, having been caught by surprise, I managed to brew the tea so strong that not only David, but the entirety of the guests were sent puckering.  But what went wrong and how does this have anything to do with understanding what “Gongfu Cha” means?

The literal translation of “Gongfu Cha” is not Chinese Tea Ceremony but, instead, is more akin to the meaning found in what the West knows as Kungfu (or Chinese Martial Arts).  Gongfu Cha (工夫茶) and Kungfu (工夫) both contain the same characters, the only difference is that the former contains “茶”, the Chinese character of tea.  Why the similarity and what does Gongfu/Kungfu mean?

The most basic understanding of 工夫 is “skill and challenge”, or more specifically, “a skill acquired by being challenged”.  In Kungfu martial arts, one learns how to survive in violent situations by sparring, getting acquainted and accustomed to using weapons, and by learning how to efficiently and effectively react to violence.  In Gongfu Cha, the practitioner learns how to properly make tea by learning the fundamentals of traditional Chinese tea and tea production, the various teawares, and how to brew tea under any conditions.  The “goal” you might say is to make the best cup of tea by using the knowledge/skill you’ve acquired through brewing tea in the past.  Having a teacher/tea master guide you through the “classical” approach to tea is vital for understanding Gongfu Cha in the same way that one needs a teacher/trainer to properly learn Kungfu.

This “introduction” is just a brief foray into many more discussions on Gongfu Cha that I intend to have on this blog.  However, it does give a sense of why I “failed” to correctly make tea for my teacher and his guests yesterday.  I “failed” because I was both nervous and out of practice (with the particular Oolong tea I had to make that day).  The combined forces managed to cloud my intuition, something students and masters of Gongfu Cha must rely upon if they are to make a delicious cup of tea.  Needless to say, I was justly “chastised” by my teacher and promptly reminded of what particular aspects of my tea brewing were incorrect.  A student is always a student, and a teacher always a teacher!


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