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Gong Fu Cha of the Western Mind vs Calligraphy of Tea Brewing

Posted by Misha Gulko on

We recently returned from a trip to China, where we had the opportunity to meet some truly remarkable people. Among them were Tea Masters (when I say "Tea Masters", I refer to those who produce teas); teachers of Tea Art, who impart the nuanced practices of tea preparation and appreciation; pottery artists, whose craftsmanship is integral to the Gong Fu Cha experience; and many others deeply connected to the world of tea. This journey took us to some of China's most significant tea regions, places where the essence of Gong Fu Cha is alive and thriving.

Our journey led us to Chaozhou, the birthplace of Gong Fu Cha and the home of the renowned Dan Cong Oolongs. We explored the Wuyi Mountains, a place steeped in history and the unique terroir that gives its Cliff Teas their distinct rhyme and flavor. Hangzhou, an ancient capital, welcomed us with its refined tea houses and elegant green teas, offering a glimpse into a sophisticated tea culture that has evolved over centuries. And finally, Yixing, the revered center of Gong Fu Cha pottery, where the artistry of teapot-making reaches its pinnacle. 


Chaozhou & Wuyi


This journey was a transformative experience for me. The opportunity to share tea with these individuals, engage in conversations, and observe their tea rituals was a profound learning experience. Each interaction was a revelation, unveiling the depth and richness of tea culture in China. The practices and philosophies I encountered have reshaped my understanding of Gong Fu Cha and the broader world of tea.

I feel compelled to share my thoughts and impressions from this trip while they are still fresh in my mind and heart. In this blog post, I want to touch on one of the lessons that left a lasting impact on me. I want to share my observation on the contrasts between the Western and Eastern approaches to Gong Fu Cha by comparing Chinese tea practices' intuitive, flowing nature to the more structured and rule-bound methods often favored in the West.


Gong Fu Cha Of The Western Mind

In the West, it seems that we have reinvented Gong Fu Cha to suit our preferences and understanding. Our approach often reflects our desire for precision and control, traits deeply rooted in our culture. We like things to be binary — clear answers, right or wrong, correct or incorrect. We know that to achieve good results, we have to raise it by 5 degrees or lower by 7 degrees down and to the left. We want to be able to control things and replicate the results. This mindset extends to our tea practices, where achieving the perfect cup is often seen as a science rather than an art.

Our version of Gong Fu Cha is all about setting parameters.

We measure the water's temperature with precision, weigh the tea leaves to the fraction of gram, and time the brewing process down to the second. This structured and systematic approach is intended to produce consistent results.

By carefully controlling these variables, we strive to ensure that every cup of tea we brew meets our standards of perfection.

In this method, guidelines and techniques are paramount. We want to replicate our successes and avoid failures, so we strictly follow instructions. If a brewing instruction on the packaging suggests a water temperature of 80 degrees Celsius, we try to ensure it is precisely 80 degrees, not a degree higher or lower. If the recommended steeping time is 10 seconds, we set a timer and decant the teapot the moment it goes off. This meticulous attention to detail is our way of mastering the art of tea. 

While the Western approach to Gong Fu Cha has its merits, providing consistency and reliability, it can also be limiting. It can transform tea brewing into a mechanical process, potentially stripping away some of the spontaneity and personal touch that makes each steeping unique. The focus on precision can sometimes overshadow the sensory experience, reducing the practice to a series of steps rather than a mindful ritual.

In the next chapter, I want to uncover the more fluid and intuitive Eastern approach, where tea brewing becomes a more holistic and mindful approach to tea preparation, an art form akin to calligraphy.


Gong Fu Cha Is Like Calligraphy

In the East, the approach to tea (Gong Fu Cha) is intuitive and ingrained in daily life. Brewing and drinking tea is not a hobby or a passion; it's as natural as drinking water, eating food, or riding a bicycle. Folks brew tea everywhere — at home, work, sidewalks, and while visiting friends and family. It's an integral part of life, seamlessly woven into the fabric of daily routines. 


People doing Gong Fu Cha on streets of Chao Zhou


Chinese Gong Fu Cha can be likened to calligraphy. It's masterful in its flow and effortlessness. You won't see people weighing tea leaves, timing their steepings, or using kettles with temperature-control settings.

Instead, they brew tea by instinct and intuition, adjusting on the go, depending on the taste and the feel of the moment. This approach allows for a more personal and flexible experience, where each brew can be slightly different and tailored to the present circumstances.

If you keep pushing and inquire about the specifics, they might reluctantly share that there are rules and guidelines one should follow. However, upon closer observation, you'll find that these rules are pretty flexible. The focus is more on the experience and the connection with the tea rather than rigid adherence to strict protocols. This bendable nature of the rules allows for creativity and personal expression in the tea-making process. 


Brewing Tea Gong Fu Style at work


In this way, brewing tea in China becomes an art form, much like calligraphy. Both require practice and understanding of the basic principles, but true mastery comes from an intuitive, almost subconscious flow. Skillful tea brewer, like the calligrapher, adjusts to the nuances of each session. This adaptability and responsiveness make Gong Fu Cha so captivating and unique.


Explore Tea And Trust Your Intuition

Many years ago, before GPS systems became commonplace, I had a job that required navigating through the maze of the unfamiliar borough of NYC. It was stressful at first, but I quickly learned to find my way without relying on a street atlas. This sense of direction and confidence faded as soon as I got my first GPS. Relying on the device made my mind lazy, and soon I couldn't navigate without it.

In the same way, if we continuously depend on auxiliary devices like scales, timers, and temperature-controlled kettles, we risk losing our natural feel and understanding of tea. It's essential to develop an intuitive grasp of the tea-making process. This intuition comes from brewing countless cups of tea, observing the results, and learning from them. As you get to know and understand different teas, you learn how they will respond to various brewing techniques. You build a relationship with the tea, trusting your instincts more and more.

To truly master the art of Gong Fu Cha, you must be willing to experiment and occasionally "spoil" a few grams of tea. This process of trial and error is invaluable. Over time, you'll develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of tea. You'll learn to adjust on the fly, making subtle changes based on the tea's character and your own preferences. 

Of course, there are times when precision is necessary. I will use scales when evaluating new teas for our shop to ensure consistency and quality. When comparing teas side-by-side, I count the seconds of each brew to maintain fairness in comparison. However, outside of these specific instances, I prefer Gong Fu Cha that is more like calligraphy — effortless and flowing.