Chinese Tea Ceremony

Tea was and remains a central piece of Chinese culture.  The way tea culture and tea ceremonies have evolved in Chinese society mirrors the importance of this wonderful beverage, which was first discovered and enjoyed there.  To begin with, tea was cultivated mainly as a herbal medicine and predominantly within temples.  Monks began to use tea for its peaceful and calming effects, as well as a sign of humility and respect for nature.

The Chinese tea ceremony was born out of a  respect for nature and the need for peace, which were integral elements of the religious ceremonies, which evolved from the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

The traditional tea ceremonies were described as he,  meaning peace, jing, meaning quiet, yi meaning enjoyment and zhen, meaning truth.

As time passed, Chinese people began to appreciate the enjoyment of tea and its social value.  Tea ceremonies went from being religious manifestations to becoming social, cultural and traditional events in different celebrations, whether to honor the royal family or to mark important events in people’s lives.

One of the most famous of the various Chinese tea ceremonies is the Gongfu or Kungfu tea ceremony, which is the Chinese traditional tea ceremony.  Oolong tea is generally  served during this ceremony.

The Gongfu tea ceremony has been highly commercialized over the years for tourist entertainment.  Gongfu cha literally translates as making tea with effort.  It represents the ceremonial method of preparing and serving oolong tea as a sign of respect for guests for whom the tea is prepared, as well as humility in nature.

Tea Ceremony History

One of the first written accounts of e tea ceremonies dates back 1200 years ago during the Tang Dynasty. The serving of tea was named cha dao then which means the way of tea.  Attention to tea preparation and serving were the province of Chinese tea connoisseurs, which transformed the way tea was regarded by the Chinese.

Compressed tea, such as pu-erh for instance, or powder teas, lost their popularity and by the end of the 14th century the loose leaf method gained acceptance.  This meant that the rituals of tea ceremonies changed, as did the tools used to prepare them.

The Perfect Chinese Tea Ceremony

When performing a tea ceremony, everything needs to be perfect.  Preparations are exact.  For example, the correct atmosphere must be created, the tea master needs to take time to prepare his or her and the correct tools need to be to hand to ensure that the entire ritual is flawless.

When performing a traditional Chinese tea ceremony there are six important aspects to be taken into account:

Attitude Is Everything:  Chinese people believe that one’s state of mind or attitude can be passed onto others.  Therefore, before performing the tea ceremony, the tea master must be relaxed, focus on the positive aspects of life and be at peace with himself or herself and the universe.  The entire tea ceremony will then be carried out in a calm and relaxed manner.

Tea Selection:  An oolong tea variety is usually used for the traditional tea ceremony.  For the Gongfu tea ceremony, green tea is usually avoided.  The tea variety must be carefully selected in advance, taking into account both physical and spiritual characteristics.  Physical characteristics refer to fragrance, taste and shape, while the spiritual ones refer to the tea’s history, name and origin.

When performing a tea ceremony, everything needs to be perfect.  Preparations are exact.  For example, the correct atmosphere must be created, the tea master needs to take time to prepare his or her and the correct tools need to be to hand to ensure that the entire ritual is flawless.

When performing a traditional Chinese tea ceremony there are six important aspects to be taken into account:

Attitude Is Everything:  Chinese people believe that one’s state of mind or attitude can be passed onto others.  Therefore, before performing the tea ceremony, the tea master must be relaxed, focus on the positive aspects of life and be at peace with himself or herself and the universe.  The entire tea ceremony will then be carried out in a calm and relaxed manner.

Tea Selection:  An oolong tea variety is usually used for the traditional tea ceremony.  For the Gongfu tea ceremony, green tea is usually avoided.  The tea variety must be carefully selected in advance, taking into account both physical and spiritual characteristics.  Physical characteristics refer to fragrance, taste and shape, while the spiritual ones refer to the tea’s history, name and origin.

Water Selection:  A perfect tea must be prepared with perfect water.  The best quality tea leaves prepared with inappropriate water result in the tea tasting bad.  For the traditional Chinese tea ceremony, only the purest and cleanest water is used to ensure not only a perfect tasting beverage, but also a tribute of respect and admiration to mother nature.

Correct Tools:   You cannot prepare the perfect tea without the correct tools.  The correct teaware is needed to ensure the brewing process is right and the atmosphere appropriate.   All items must be both practical and aesthetically pleasing.  Mandatory tools are a Yixing teapot or a porcelain teapot, a tea pitcher or chahai, a brewing tray, a teaspoon, usually three small cups and a tea strainer.

The Ambience:  A peaceful and calm ceremony needs a comfortable, quiet and clean room.  The Chinese often use artwork or  beautiful ceramics to enhance the overall atmosphere.

Perfect Technique: The perfect tea and atmosphere aren’t perfect without a technique to match them. The manner of serving should be relaxed and graceful, reflected mostly through hand movements, facial expressions and the traditional ceremonial clothing.

One Plant—Thousands of Teas!

Believe it or not, all tea is made from one plant, known as Camellia sinensis. It is an evergreen shrub that can grow into a small tree. The Camellia sinensis sinensis sub-species is native to Southeast China.  The plants can live for up to 100 years or more and the leaves are harvested year round. 

Over the centuries, Chinese manufacturers have been able to produce thousands of varieties of tea from this single plant, Camellia sinensis sinensis, each having its own unique flavour. This has been achieved by controlling 4 basic elements:

  • Region where the plant is located; soil and altitude are key factors
  • Time of harvesting the leaves  – early, middle or late in each season
  • Method of harvesting – picking only buds or buds with leaves
  • Processing – withering, rolling, oxidizing, drying and grading

The fifth element that affects the flavour of tea is how it is prepared just before drinking.

One thing that cannot be controlled is the weather and this has a major effect on tea plants and the flavour of the teas they produce.  A tea manufacturer may produce the same type and grade of tea for decades but each year the tea may have a slightly different taste.  Each spring, tea-lovers eagerly await the new picking of Tie Guan Yin (also known as Gun Yam, Iron Buddha, Buddha of Mercy, Chinese Oolong) to sample its fresh and fragrant flavour and aroma and compare it to last year’s pick.