A Bit About Gongfu

In Pursuit of Tea has an excellent article on drinking tea in the Gongfu style and another good one on tea preparation using a gaiwan. I have not purchased anything from their site for a while, but one of the nicest teas I’ve risked ordering through mail order – a crooked horse oolong – was purchased from them. Their site has a respectable amount of useful information on it also.

Gongfu Table

The real danger of getting seriously involved in specific preparations and techniques for tea service is the rate at which cabinets will fill with new teaware: cups, pots, tools, gaiwans, tea trays, aroma cups. I could go on. I love all of the specificity of the right vessels and utensils for the right teas, but I might need my own teahouse soon, with rows of shelves to house and organize more effectively!

A particularly curious item found on many traditional Chinese tea tables is pictured in the lower right part of the photograph of the table above. This one is in the form of a foot with two spiders on the top. These objects are used to invite good luck to the server and drinkers. As part of the tea ceremony, they frequently have tea poured over them, allowing them to mature and acquire a nice patina just like well-used and broken-in yixing pots. The clay on this one is a little coarser than most zisha clay I have seen, so I am not certain what variety of clay it is made of. It has an intentionally loose piece on the inside so that it rattles when shaken. I have been so far unable to find a lot of information about these interesting objects, although I have seen a lot of them in tea shops. They are often made in the form of money frogs or people, and sometimes mythological creatures. I do not know what their name is in Chinese, which inhibits finding out more about them online or even finding sources for purchasing them online.

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5 Comments

  1. Yes, going gongfu tends to make one rather obsessive about finding new pots, cups, tools, etc. for the sake of collection. But really, the bare minimum requires only a small porcelain tea pot (100 – 200ml) or a gaiwan…and everything else can be improvised. Here is a thought:

    Teapot – get one made from porcelain so that it can be used for many types of tea without mixing flavors (purists think Yixing pot should be dedicated to a tea or one type of tea).

    Fairness cup — no need…just pour straight into the cups.

    Cups – you can use smallish coffee cups that you already have at home…or a mug.

    Tea tray – you can just use a soup plate to place the teapot inside…something that can capture the excess water.

    Waste bowl — just use a largish soup bowl to dump the excess water from the tea tray

    Toothpick — to unclog the spout of the pot, if needed.

    Stove and kettle — I think most homes have these already.

    Oh yeah, and of course, you need some Chinese tea.

    It’s not going to be the most elegant set-up, but hey…the goal is to brew a tea well. Everything else is, well, vanity, including that Buddha’s foot thingy.

  2. Thank you. Yours are excellent suggestions for a more practical approach to brewing gongfu style tea. I would hope that people would be interested enough in brewing good tasting Chinese teas that they would not be inhibited by the cost of expensive tea accessories.

    I’m not very good at compromising such things myself, but I’m more compulsively specific than most people. Call it vanity if you will, but I really like the artistry and variance of the appropriate and specific vessels and tools themselves, and their role in specific tea rituals from many different regions and cultural traditions. Part of the enjoyment of tea for me is visual, conceptual and tactile. This is not to say that the taste is not of paramount importance, of course. All of the fluff and decoration is wasted if the leaves are undeserving of their treatment.

  3. “Call it vanity if you will, but I really like the artistry and variance of the appropriate and specific vessels and tools themselves, and their role in specific tea rituals from many different regions and cultural traditions. Part of the enjoyment of tea for me is visual, conceptual and tactile. ”

    Absolutely in agreement there. Well put. That’s why I’ve spent too much on tea accessories these past years. 🙂 I’m just saying that barring such accessories, one can still try to emulate the gongfu brewing process by making use of the things that we already have at home to get a good cuppa. (I’m not saying that a good cup of tea can only be gotten with gongfu style brewing).

  4. The interesting thing you’re talking about, are zisha clay sculptures, probably formed in moulds and mass-produced. They add quirkiness to tea enjoyment. I have seen fat Buddhas, money frogs, phallic emblems, etc. They come in all kinds of sizes, shades and types. They’re just called “tea toys” in Chinese. They really don’t have any useful function. But they just add to the curiosity of drinking tea.

  5. Thank you for the clarification that they are called “tea toys” in Chinese. Some of them are really silly, like the peeing little boys, but I like the more symbolic and mythical figure ones.