In Japanese culture, I’ve noticed, “tea” really can be taken as a capital-c Ceremonial Event — the Japanese Tea Ceremony demonstrations given twice a month at the Seattle Art Museum, often before crowded rooms, or to smaller groups by special appointment, are my best case in point.

But in southern Fujian province, like most of China, the tea ceremony isn’t historically so much a ceremony as it is a method. Lately, though, it seems to be turning into a bit of a fashion in this region as well.

Back in the post “Hell Freezes Over (And Other Cultural Changes Afoot in China),” I alluded to the fact that folks in Fujian’s Jinjiang area, between Quanzhou to the north and Xiamen to the south, are even making the art of brewing tea a competitive social event, replacing some of the older social habits in practice when men get together to talk business:

So if men aren’t offering each other cigarettes and drinking themselves into silly stupors with bai jiu when getting together at one another’s home or sitting down to talk business, then just what are they doing?

The answer contains a new twist on an old theme: around here, they’re now into seeing who makes the best pot of tea. And I don’t mean just putting the kettle on and pouring it out. There’s a skill to it, and a great deal of competitive pride, and all this seems to have revitalized the tea culture here in southeast Fujian province in a way that’s quite surprising to me. They’re even showing up at each other’s homes or businesses with their own tea, which formerly would have been unthinkably rude, and with small portable tea sets.

The method of making tea in this region is referred to as Gong Fu Cha (功夫茶), or if you prefer, the “Kung Fu Tea Ceremony.”

What the novice will notice first in this “Way of Tea” is how small the teapots and teacups are. The first time I was served Gong Fu Cha style tea, I felt like we were using little girls’ dolly-size make-believe tea party cups and pots. They’re that small and dainty. Not like in Chengdu, where your manly tea cup is nearly larger than your rice bowl.

But in the Gong Fu Cha “ceremony,” it’s about quality–aroma and taste–not quantity, something that took me quite some time to appreciate. Put another way, Gong Fu Cha is about tasting, not drinking. In any case, I’ll attempt to describe this method in this, my

Lao Wai’s Illustrated Primer of Gong Fu Cha

Before starting up the tea brewing, make sure you’ve got all the necessary tools of the trade–at a minimum, that probably means a drip tray, a teapot, a tea pitcher, tea cups, and the tea itself. Let’s take a look:

Instead of big bags or containers of loose leaf tea, the locals now go for these small containers with airtight individual serving pouches. These small canisters contain perhaps 10-12 packets, each with enough tea for one small pot and between a few and several brewings each:

You’ll also need a drip tray to catch the spills and overflows. Most driptrays in everyday use are plastic, with a catch-pan that slides out to be emptied, but you can splurge on fancy ones carved from rare wood if you like, decorating them with all sorts of little ceremonial tea knick-knacks:

Then comes the teaware proper. In addition to the small teacups on the left and right, here we see the brewing pot (many of which lack a handle, as pictured), the tea strainer, and the tea pitcher:

Next, on the left, we see that some fancier driptrays have hoses that drain into two-level receptacles: Trash goes on top, overflow water and tea is piped into a secondary bucket below. As shown on the right, you’ll also need a method of boiling water. This year, everyone seemed to be using this particular model from Japan:

And by the way, just as a cultural aside, teacups aren’t typically taken away for a good sudsy washing between uses, just “sterilized” by either dipping them in boiled water or pouring boiling water over them:

And in case you’re wondering: Yes, I have been served teacups with remnants of lipstick on them before.

Next, put the tea in the brewing pot, and fill it to the brim with just-boiled water:

I’ve noticed two approaches to the next step. Some people quickly drain off this water as soon as they’ve poured it, in order to “rinse” the tea leaves, then refill immediately to start brewing. Others use the pot lid to “scrape” any foam or bubbles that appear from the top of the brew:

In either case, many tea brewers then use the pot lid to gently “press” the tea leaves, perhaps helping to release better flavors.

I like my tea a bit stronger, but most folks let it steep for less than a minute.

After this, you again have two choices.

If you aren’t using an intermediary tea pitcher (and are more likely brewing in an Yixing style pot with a spout), you will have moved the tea cups into a bunch in the middle of the drip tray, and then will pour the tea out over the tea cups, circling over the cups a few times, so that they’re all gradually filled at about the same pace–meaning that they’ll all end up at about the same strength. If you were to fill one cup first, then move to the next, the first-poured cups would be too weak, the last ones too strong.

If you are using a tea pitcher, you’ll instead pour the entire brew into the pitcher, using the lid to hold the leaves back, so that the tea mixes to an even strength before you pour it into the cups. Note the strainer placed into the pitcher to catch any stray bits of leaf or stem:

Now pour out into the cups:

If you’re feeling all fancy, use one of these contraptions to move the tea in front of your guests:

Last step: Enjoy!

In case that was all too remedial for you, try this Wikipedia entry, which takes a more linear approach to Chinese tea ceremonies. This one adds a few more details.