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Re-discovering Gong Fu Cha: Expectations vs Reality

Posted by Misha Gulko on

We just returned from a journey through several renowned tea regions in China, including Chaozhou, Dehua, Jianyang, Wuyi, Hangzhou, and Yixing. During our travels, we had the privilege of mingling with locals, tea producers, teachers of tea art, and pottery artists, all of whom have a deep connection to tea. While drinking unimaginable amounts of tea with them, we were fortunate to observe their interactions with tea and gain insight from our conversations and direct experience.  

As many Westerners do, we embarked on this trip with certain preconceived notions about these legendary tea places and their tea traditions. However, what we experienced often diverged from our expectations. In this blog post, I want to share my preconceived perceptions and juxtapose them with my actual experiences. So, join me as I recount our adventures and observations.


General observations

• Gong Fu Cha is an elitist practice. 

Many of us consciously or subconsciously perceive Gong Fu Cha as an elitist practice that requires good taste (pun intended), open-mindedness, natural curiosity, leisurely time, and certain income to be spent on high-quality teas. 

In China, there are many amazingly decorated and arranged tea houses, akin to teahouses for literati of the past. There, Gong Fu Cha is regarded as one of the art forms.

Tea Houses in China


However, in tea-producing regions, tea and Gong Fu Cha are as egalitarian as it gets. For locals, brewing tea in the Gong Fu style is as natural as drinking water, eating, or riding a bicycle. People make tea everywhere—at home, at work, on sidewalks, and when visiting friends and family. It’s an essential part of daily life, seamlessly integrated into their routines.


Local in Chaozhou drinking tea


• A place for practicing Gong Fu Cha should not be polluted with strong odors. 

As mentioned above, most people don't "practice" Gong Fu Cha. They just live their lives with tea and Gong Fu Cha being a part of their lives. In Guangdong, they say that 70% of the blood in their veins is tea. And we believe them:)

So, one of the unpleasant discoveries (or rather memory-refresher) that we had is that in China, tea goes hand-in-hand with cigarettes. If Jim Jarmusch had made his film in China, he would've called it "Tea and Cigarettes". Men smoke. Men smoke and drink tea. Tea masters, potters, tea shop owners, their guests, tea connoisseurs – everyone (and their father) holds a cigarette in their mouth. And it's ok. It doesn't bother them. It bothered us, though. One time, we stayed in a tea-themed hotel where each room had its dedicated tea space, and it was perfect except for one detail – the walls and everything in the room smelled like nicotine. 


Tea and Cigarettes


• Tea practice requires precision and adherence to rules. 

We already discussed this topic in our previous blog post. Still, here it is in a nutshell: in China, folks don't bother with weighing tea (though I have to say, tea often comes pre-packaged, in 8g individual bags), with temperature-controlled kettles or, god forbid, counting seconds for each steeping. They are eye-balling their tea, using boiling water or, if necessary, waiting a few minutes for the water to cool off a bit, and decanting when they feel like it's time.  



• Chaozhou teapots

We love Chaozhou teapots. We love the clay, its look and feel, and its effect on Dan Cong oolongs. In Chaozhou, in tea-dedicated shops, you'll see Chaozhou clay teapots all over. 

But you will not see them being used on the streets. You won't see locals brewing and drinking tea using one of these red-clay beauties. Instead, they'll be using a simple white porcelain gaiwan. It's just easier this way. And with tea flowing pretty much 24/7, convenience matters. Chaozhou teapots are reserved for fancy tea houses, tea-art presentations, and visitors from other provinces. 


Chaozhou stoves and kettles

When meeting with inheritors of intangible cultural heritage (yes, it's an actual title in China) or teachers of tea art, they will tell you there are 21 steps in Chaozhou Gong Fu Cha. Among these steps is lighting up olive-pit coal in a Chaozhou stove to boil water in a clay kettle. But in reality, the real coal is for display and special occasions, while in everyday practice, people (including the inheritors) use electric heating plates of alcohol burners.


Chaozhou Stove & Kettle


In Chaozhou, tea-to-water ratio is higher than in other places.

Well, I can't deny or concur with this notion, and not because I think that in Chaozhou they don't put enough tea in their gaiwans, but because it seems that folks in other regions are not too stingy either!



The crazier the patterns on Jianzhan teacups, the more valuable they are.

Jian Zhan teacups can be produced in electric or gas kilns, where the temperature and baking process are well-controlled. Or, they can be baked in wood-fired kilns, where the cost of firing is high, a lot is up to chance, breakage is high, and results are unpredictable. This makes wood-fired pieces more unique, sought-after, and more expensive.  

So, when cups come out of a kiln, it's easy to tell which one is what: cups with bright and colorful patterns are electric-fired, while cups with a much more "conservative" and "simple" look are wood-fired.

By the way, here is a trick how to tell a good-quality Jian Zhan teaware from a low-quality one:  

One of the reasons Jian Zhan teaware is sought after is because clay from Jianyang is high in iron (much like ZiSha clay from Yixing), which makes water (and tea) softer and sweeter. If you pour the same tea into a porcelain cup and into a Jianzhan cup and taste them side-by-side, you will clearly feel the difference.

So, take a small magnet (the magnet itself has to be very light) and stick it to the side of the teaware you want to test. If it holds, the clay is high in iron, just as it is supposed to be.


Jianzhan Magnet Test



Yan Yun. The "Rock Rhyme" of Yancha – Cliff Tea.

No one we spoke to, including tea masters and local inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, could explain to us what Yan Yun actually is. And it's not because they don't know, but rather because clear definitions don't play the same role in their culture as in ours.


Wuyi Shan. Zheng Yan


However, from what I understand, one of the main aspects of Yan Yun is the terroir where tea grows. All other aspects of the Wuyi Rock tea, such as minerality, sweetness, complexity, etc., come secondary and are derived from the terroir.


Sweet, fruity, mineral Yancha.

To our immense surprise, lots of Wuyi teas, whether made for sale or for local consumption, whether from the core producing areas or from slightly outside, whether made by small family-operated factories or by well-revered producers – lots of local teas are burnt! They are simply overly roasted, leaving little to no chance for any other taste notes. Moreover, locals don't seem bothered by it or even notice it. This left us absolutely perplexed. Having said that, there are, of course, real tea-gems in this sea of burnt potential.


Drinking Yancha


Hangzhou (West Lake)

Terroir rules

We had a chance to compare high-quality Long Jing from Shi Feng – the core production area, to high-quality Long Jing from slightly outside of the core area and high-quality Long Jing from really far from the core area, and I'll be honest with you – though the price varies significantly, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference at a blind tasting. All of the said Long Jing teas were excellent.



The great Yellow Dragon Mountain

When discussing clay from the three original mountains of Yixing (Huang Long Shan (Ben Shan), Zhao Zhuang, and Xiao Mei Yao), I always imagined grand, high mountains standing strong and tall. To my surprise, the Yellow Dragon Mountain is really not so tall or grand, to say the least. If you don't believe me, below is my photo to illustrate it.


Huang Long Mountain

This is it. All of it. The "Yellow Dragon" Mountain:)


However, despite its moderate height and looks (or maybe even because of them), the clay from the "original mountains" is superior to the "modern" clays from Yixing. ZiSha Ores from the original mountains lie close to or even at the surface, so they get naturally weathered. While modern ore deposits hide deeper down the ground, and the ore must be weathered manually for many years, to become high-quality clay.


The excellent heat retention properties of ZiSha

Despite the common misconception, according to three different yixing pottery artists with great experience, the heat retention properties of ZiSha, including ZiNi, are mediocre. In this regard, ZiSha is not any better than average clay. Though ZhuNi's heat retention properties are a bit better than ZiNi's or DuanNi's.


Tea and Cigarettes, Anyone?

Reflecting on our journey through China's tea heartlands made me realize that from the streets of Chaozhou to the potters' studios in Yixing, tea is more than a refined ritual – it is everyday life, with all its quirks and imperfections.

Gong Fu Cha is not a meticulous science. It's more about the feel, the flow, and sometimes even a bit of cigarette smoke. We saw how people brew tea everywhere, in the most unassuming places, and with a relaxed ease that's truly inspiring.

Our time with tea masters, artists, and everyday tea drinkers taught us that while traditions and techniques matter, the heart of tea culture lies in its simplicity and accessibility.