A Journey Through a Collector's Gongfu Tea Sanctuary

Posted by Boyka Mihaylova on

A tea journey anywhere in Guangdong would not be complete without a visit dedicated to Gongfu tea culture and practice. Lucky for us, the 22-million megapolis of Shenzhen is not just near Chaozhou, the cradle of Gongfu tea - and aromatic Dancong Wulong. Many Chaozhou people moved there in the last four decades, making Shenzhen their new home. They have carried their culture and customs with them, establishing some of the most vibrant Gongfu tea communities in China and beyond. Currently, there are several tea associations, as well as a great number of tea companies and tea spaces originating from Chaozhou. They are engaged in the production and trade with Chaozhou-grown tea. At the same time, they promote and develop the Gongfu tea culture, shaping its new face and serving as a bridge between past and present times.


At first glance, it may seem as if culture and tradition do not feel in place in this enormous glass and concrete urban jungle in Shenzhen. Yet, a closer look reveals how deeply Gongfu tea culture has caught root in what is often referred to as the Chinese Silicon Valley. One of the most renowned tea hubs in Shenzhen features numerous displays of traditional Gongfu tea sets and a dedicated space for a permanent exhibition of old-time Chaozhou tea culture. The president of the Shenzhen-based company that stands behind every tea expo in China is a Chaozhou-born man. These examples provide a glimpse of the constant effort to blend tradition and modernity in an ever-changing national identity that remains rooted in history.


While in Shenzhen, we were lucky to meet with a notable figure in the Gongfu tea world, the president of the Chaoshan Tea Association in Shenzhen. Mr. Chen is a tea person who runs their own tea company and is a long-time collector of Gongfu tea culture artifacts and memorabilia. In an effort to preserve and pass on the legacy of his Chaoshan predecessors, he has turned his tea space into a private museum dedicated to Gongfu tea culture.


"Only those who respect their national culture will be respected by the world."


These words by Yang Weixin, a local Chaoshan writer, remain as accurate to the Chaoshan people today as they have always been. Indeed, for Chaoshan-born people, Gongfu tea is more than a beverage and a custom. It is a kind of identity woven into their DNA. "Gongfu tea culture is not just something to be discussed. Rather, it shines through every aspect of the daily lives of local people", says Mr. Chen.


The notion of Gongfu is at the heart of Gongfu tea and culture. It refers to "doing with skill" or "putting the right effort into doing something". 


The broad and narrow meaning of Gongfu tea and culture

Chaozhou Gongfu Tea stands at the heart of modern Chinese tea practices. More than just a beverage, it is a living embodiment of Chinese tea culture. In a narrow sense, it refers to the art of making tea with skill. However, Gongfu tea is a blend of tea-related cultural customs, artistic expression, ceremonial grace, and a deep-rooted philosophy that transfers from tea to life and vice versa. Over centuries, it has flourished, continuously evolving into a vibrant part of Chinese life.


gongfu tea table


For Chinese people worldwide, Gongfu tea is a slice of home, a way to connect with their roots and kindred spirits. Its universal appeal lies in its ability to bring people together, transcending mere geography.

"We like to joke that Chaoshan people have tea in their veins instead of blood", says Mr. Chen playfully. Indeed, there is a popular belief that Chaoshan people drink more tea than water. From early morning when they get out of bed till late at night before falling asleep, tea is the ultimate companion on the table – as well as on the move. It is present in every aspect of people's lives – whether working, resting, meeting friends and guests, or spending time alone. For Chaoshan people, Gongfu Tea is not just about drinking tea; it's about the exchange of ideas, emotions, and cultural values over a cup. "There is a saying that even when fighting over something, Chaoshan people would first sit down to have a cup of tea. Once tea drinking is over, often the reason for quarreling has already disappeared. So it's really a way of bringing people together", adds Mr. Chen.

Mr. Chen has been involved with tea for as long as he can remember. During that time, he learned Gongfu Tea culture from one of the most prominent figures in the Chaoshan tea world. He has also started collecting Gongfu tea and culture-related artifacts. That is an effort not only to preserve and pass down to future generations the essence of this rich culture but also to share it with the outside world.


Legacy in every sip: the meaning behind Gongfu tea artifacts

Mr Chen's collection is indeed huge. The cozy tea space where he meets us has become a private museum in an effort to accommodate all the objects he has acquired. "There is no space to put out all of the stuff I have, so periodically, I have to rotate what's on display", he shares. Still, more space is needed. Mr. Chen's teapot collection accounts for several hundred pieces. "And those are the ones that I use more often", he adds jokingly.


We wander among the glass-protected cupboards filled with precious specimens. An inlaid porcelain teapot draws our attention. "This is a Chaozhou-produced teapot destined for export", explains Mr. Chen. Chaozhou people normally use clay or porcelain teapots for their tea. The exquisite, gilded patterns were not common even then and were predominantly produced for export. "Today, these are very rare and hard to find", he adds. We marvel at the fine craft, including metal fittings, a gold-plated lid top and handle, and beautifully crafted, bright-colored porcelain inlays that form a flower pattern. Silver filigree along the upper rim of the teapot body and the lid put the final touch on this precious collectible. We marvel at it before turning to the next object – a pair of wooden Jian Zhan cups. They testify to the lively cultural exchange between Fujian and Guangdong provinces. It's interesting, though, that local people preferred wood to porcelain. "It was also a matter of available means", says Mr. Chen. "Many local people were not so well off they could afford to purchase the more expensive porcelain cups, so they went for wooden ones instead." We also investigate other Jian Zhan cups, made from clay with a unique glaze, quite different from the porcelain glazed cups we're accustomed to seeing and using these days.  


gong fu cha


"Gongfu tea culture has acquired a more frugal aspect in Chaozhou. It is not about how well off you are", explains Mr. Chen. "Every family, rich or poor, will have some tea to sip and treat guests over a visit." You know the famous saying about the seven daily necessities in China – firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea. Well, in Chaozhou, they are in reverse order, where tea comes first. So when you ask about the seven necessities in Chaozhou, they will start with tea, and everything else comes behind", he smiles.


jianzhan tea cup


It is true that, unlike other provinces, Chaozhou's teaware tradition has never emphasized the expensive materials for the fabrication process. One of the signature local tea tools, the Tea Can, or Cha Guan (茶罐), is made predominantly of tin. That also goes for the Tea Tray or Cha Pan (茶盘). There are two distinctive kinds of local Cha Pan in Chaozhou. One has a shape that varies between a rectangle, a hexagon, or a drum-like cylinder. Like the Tea Can, it is also made almost entirely of tin. The other is a round-shaped flat cylinder made of clay. Both serve to accommodate the teacups during the tea-making. The spilled water flows to the Tea Tray's inner part through holes on the surface. The movable lid accommodates the discarded leaves once the brew is over. It also serves as a storage space for the cups when not in use.


tea tray


Mr. Chen's space has a hefty collection of Cha Pan. We notice a couple of rarities among the displayed objects, including a copper tea tray and a curiously designed double tea tray. "Copper was more expensive, so this has belonged to a well of the family", he explains. The dual design is a rarity and is hard to find today. It might refer to the idea that good things come in pairs. A pair also has a good meaning in Chinese thought as a symbol of unity and harmony.


That's it for today! Stay tuned for the second part of our visit to Mr. Chen's teahouse, where we get to discover more Gongfu tea treasures and talk about the meaning and impact of Gongfu tea culture in today's modern society while tasting some excellent Dancong Wulong tea from Chaozhou!