A Lifetime of Tea: An Insider's Look at Gongfu Cha Culture

Posted by Boyka Mihaylova on

In the previous blog post, we explored a hidden gem in the 22-million megapolis of Shenzhen – a tea house-turned-private museum of a renowned tea person, lover, and collector. Mr. Chen, the president of the Chaoshan Tea Association in Shenzhen, has a lifelong passion for tea and Gongfu Cha culture. With him as our guide, we embarked on a journey through time, discovering antique Gongfu Cha memorabilia, the air of then-times, and the stories hidden behind those objects.

In this blog post, we continue our journey in the Gongfu Cha realm, sipping high-quality almond-flavored Dancong Wulong, diving into the history and present of Gongfu Cha, as well as its representation in the daily life of local Chaozhou people.


Mr. Chen, tell us more about the association you represent. 

While Gongfu Cha culture is centuries old, our association is relatively new. We established it in 2018 here in Shenzhen due to the city's natural proximity to Chaozhou and the large concentration of tea people and tea-related businesses and commerce here in Shenzhen. I'd say this is a good match that helps combine the Chaozhou tradition with the fast pace and modernity of one of the most quickly developing cities in China, that Shenzhen today. The association brings together members who are deeply rooted in Chaoshan's rich tea tradition yet dynamically engaged in Shenzhen's vibrant tea scene.


Gong Fu Cha


What kind of people form the core of the Chaoshan Tea Association?

Our members include national-level tea appraisers, first-class tea art technicians, and national tea evaluators. We're honored to have among us inheritors of Intangible Cultural Heritages like Chaozhou Gongfu tea art and Chaozhou Dancong tea. These people are not just preserving ancient traditions; they transfer and evolve them into the present, adding a scientific approach to the centuries-old, time-honored Gongfu Cha culture and production practices.

This committee isn't just a group of tea professionals; it's a gathering of people with a vision who set the standards of tea evaluation and artistry within the country. We are committed to promoting the art of Gongfu Cha, not just as a beverage but as a living cultural imprint that Chaoshan has to offer to the world. We aim to preserve and carry on the Chaoshan Gongfu Cha legacy and let the global community know and love Chinese tea through Gongfu Cha culture.


There has been a great surge of interest in Gongfu Cha tea culture in recent years within the international tea industry. What lies at the root of this culture? What are its main principles, values, and philosophy?

You know, the beauty of Gongfu Cha lies in its simplicity and ubiquity. It's not just a way of serving and enjoying tea – it's virtually a part of who Chaoshan people are. Gongfu Cha is an integral part of the Chaoshan people's unique lifestyle; it represents and defines them. In every household where Gongfu Cha is a daily ritual, you'll find a tea set, an emblem of this tradition.


gongfu tea set


My mentor had a profound understanding of the values and philosophy of Gongfu Cha. He often spoke about the "seven meanings and one heart" of the Chinese tea ceremony. These "seven meanings" encompass various aspects like tea art, morality, ceremony, sentiment, theory, and guidance. They highlight the harmonious relationship between humans and nature, emphasizing personal growth and inner peace. 

The core of the Chinese tea ceremony, and by extension, Gongfu Cha, is harmony. It's about finding balance and coexistence in everything we do. This philosophy is not just about brewing and enjoying tea; it's about integrating these values into our daily lives. That's the true essence of Gongfu Cha – it's about decency and peaceful harmony – within oneself, within a household, a country, and, therefore, in the world.


How important is tea to the Chaoshan people? What position does tea occupy in their daily life?

In Chaoshan, tea is not just a beverage; it's integrated into the family and society's fabric. Gongfu Cha is pivotal in forming personal and interpersonal relations – between family members and connecting to the outside world, as in welcoming guests at home or being visitors ourselves. The core meaning of Gongfu Cha revolves around two essential notions in Chinese culture: harmony and filial piety. It reflects the Chinese tradition of respecting the elderly and caring for the young.

In Chaozhou, we're taught the importance of tea from a very young age. It reflects our belief that the family is society's most important building block. There is a saying in China, 家和万事兴, "If the family lives in harmony, all affairs will prosper". It all starts within the family. Brewing a cup of Gongfu Cha is a way of showing respect to elders, soothing tensions between family members, and overall instilling harmony in family relations.


It's not just about the tea itself but about sharing a moment together. We also have a common greeting, "有闲来食茶", "Come for tea when you have time". 


In business, too, tea plays a pivotal role. Having a cup of Gongfu Cha during business meetings or daily commercial affairs reflects our approach to profit distribution and balancing each party's interests. It's a belief that there's nothing a good cup of tea can't resolve. The tradition of Gongfu Cha extends beyond just the drink; it's a legacy we've preserved and passed down through the generations.




Where does traditional Gongfu Cha culture stand today?

Tea has always been a recognizable Chinese symbol for the rest of the world. I'm glad to see that its role as a cultural ambassador has evolved and spread even further in modern times. In 2008, Gongfu Cha became one of China's intangible cultural heritage projects. On May 21st every year, International Tea Day has become a global celebration by appointment of the United Nations global organization. That, indeed, was a big moment for us. In 2022, Chaozhou Gongfu Cha was included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Gongfu Cha incarnates our national hospitality, and just last year, when General Secretary Xi met with French President Macron, they enjoyed a cup of Gongfu tea together. Tea, in this way, has become a bridge between countries, a way to connect and discuss important global matters. It's a symbol of peace and unity. That's the real power of tea in the world today.


What do you think is the main contribution of Chinese tea culture to benefit people?

Chinese Gongfu tea culture, you know, it's more than just about the tea itself. It's about the impact it has on people, on society, and even on global relations.


Firstly, let's talk about health benefits. Gongfu tea, especially from Chaozhou, is not just refreshing; it's a mood enhancer. It wakes you up, yes, but it also soothes your mind and brings a sense of joy. It's almost like meditation in a cup, helping you cultivate inner peace and character.

Then there's the art of brewing and serving Gongfu tea. We often use three cups arranged in the 'pin' (品) formation, symbolizing the importance of moral character. It's a philosophy, really. When you sit down for tea, it's not just about tasting; it's about building friendships, understanding, and mutual growth. It's a powerful way for people to connect.

Economically, tea is vital for China. It's one of our key agricultural exports. The tea industry, from cultivation to sales, sustains many livelihoods here and contributes significantly to our national economy.

And then there's a broader, global impact. In China, tea has always been about hospitality and diplomacy. Gongfu tea plays a significant role in international relations, serving as a bridge between cultures. It's amazing to think that something as simple as tea can foster understanding and peace on a global scale. That's where the true power of Gongfu Cha lies – it's a diplomatic tool, a cultural ambassador, and a harbinger of peace.


Mr. Chen, what is your personal story with tea?

I am from Chaoshan (Jieyang), Guangdong Province. Since I was a small child, my parents started teaching me about Gongfu Cha and tea culture. My father was the principal of a village primary school, and my mother was also a teacher. Our family conditions were relatively good, so I often had tea. In Chaozhou, tea is sometimes called 茶米 – "chami", literally "tea rice". Back then, I didn't quite grasp the meaning of it – what does this "chami" really mean? Later, when I grew up, I realized that it implies that tea is as important as the rice and grains we eat. It is part of our lives as Chaozhou people, representing the soil and water that raised us.

Then, there is the influence of my grandfather after he returned from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Every day, he would ask me to help him prepare the charcoal stove and boil water to make Gongfu Cha. It wasn't until around 2000 that I entered the tea industry, passing on the precious heritage, passed down by my grandfather and parents. I have studied tea at the Pu'er Tea College of Yunnan Agricultural University, South China Agricultural Industry, Tea Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hunan Agricultural University, Sichuan Agricultural University, and Wuyishan Tea College of Fujian Province.

Since 2018, I've been involved in the creation of some meaningful projects and events, like the Gongfu Tea Art Inheritance Class, the International Gongfu Tea Brewing Competition, and the International Tea Forum. These events aren't just about showcasing our tea culture; they're about nurturing the future Gongfu Cha ambassadors and leading the Gongfu Cha inheritance into the new era.

In 2020, I had the privilege of learning from one of the provincial inheritors of Chaozhou Gongfu Tea Art. Under his mentorship, my understanding of Gongfu Tea deepened. It's a complete system that encompasses spirituality, etiquette, brewing techniques, and evaluation. Learning to taste and evaluate tea isn't easy. It takes professional guidance and lots of practice to appreciate different teas' appearance, aroma, soup color, taste, and leaf base.

I've realized that Gongfu brewing is broader than just Chaozhou Dancong tea or other domestic teas like Fujian tea, green tea, or Pu'er. It's also perfect for international varieties like Taiwan's Dongding Oolong or black teas from India and Sri Lanka. It's been a long journey in tea culture for me, and I'm still learning every day.

 Having worked in the tea industry for over 20 years, I see Chaozhou Gongfu Tea as more than just a beverage for us Chaoshan people. It's our story, our spiritual pillar, and a symbol of our diligence and hard work. It represents the nostalgia overseas Chaoshan people feel for their homeland and the essence of our filial piety culture. It's about family harmony, which is central to our way of life.

There's something special about sharing a cup of tea. It brings joy, comfort, and a sense of connection. So, whenever you have the time, join us for a cup of Gongfu Tea. It's not just a drink; it's a celebration of life.