Gongfu Tea Ceremony Celebrates Culture and History

By: Kaytlin Thornton | Contributor

Photo by: Andrew Bryant | Photographer

On Thursday, Feb. 17, the Students Interested in Chinese Culture hosted a Gongfu Tea Ceremony Demonstration, presented by Dr. Kevin Tsai. 

The event aimed to help those attending understand that even the simple act of making tea holds deep connections to things like identity, culture and history, as well as to give an opportunity for attendees to experience the tea for themselves. To do this, Dr. Tsai gave a small lecture on the subject before demonstrating the process by making oolong tea for sampling. 

Gongfu Cha in Mandarin, or Kuang-hu Tê in Taiwanese, translates to “tea with effort” or “tea with skill.” This refers to the process of making the tea, as it is very specific and it takes time and effort to perfect the art. Typically, it involves a higher leaf-to-water ratio, as well as smaller serving vessels than Western-style brewing. The tradition comes from Fujian region in China and Taiwan, and up until about 30 years ago, remained unknown to the majority of Chinese people. 

Taiwan experienced an economic boom in the 1960s-80s. During this time the art of making tea evolved, taking a lot of influences from the Japanese tea ceremony. It became a unique product of Taiwan’s own national identity. Taiwan exported this new process to China in the late 1980s, and eventually, China adopted it as its own national tea culture. From then on, gongfu tea became known as the “Chinese tea ceremony”

“One thing I wanted to convey was the cultural complexity of something as simple as tea,” said Tsai. Gongfu tea ceremony is a traditional art that holds deep meaning within the cultures that it originated. 

The process is very intricate, involving heating and rinsing the teapot and cups with hot water. The actual brewing is very quick and takes place in less than a minute. The brewed tea is poured into little aroma cups that are used for enjoying the fragrance of the tea. The drinking cups are then placed evenly over the aroma cups before they are both flipped in one fluid motion. At this point, the tea can be served.

While the demonstration served as a learning experience to those attending, due to the classroom setting and COVID precautions, it was difficult to recreate the proper environment. Tsai spoke of it being very different from the way he would normally make tea at home.

“The demo was really a teaching event for me,” said Tsai. “So that meant I had to be focused on explaining things to the audience rather than focusing on the experience of tea. So, the biggest difference for me is that I couldn’t fully be with the tea. That meant not fully inhabiting one’s own presence. I messed up the first batch because my attention was divided, though people still liked the tea. But an even bigger difference? I didn’t even get to drink any tea the first few rounds!”

Despite this though, Tsai found the turnout and response very pleasing. The event reached full capacity. There were even a few long-time tea drinkers present. Many learned to experience tea in a new way.

“Afterwards someone in the class told me that she was still recovering her senses of smell and taste after COVID, and having to savor each sip helped,” said Tsai. “I felt privileged to be a part of her healing through tea.”