A Tea Addict's Journal

How not to brew your tea

April 7, 2011 · 17 Comments

Those of you who frequent teachat have probably seen me post this up already, but in case you haven’t…

The guy, shall we say, takes his time.  The thing that really bothers me about this kind of brewing, and more specifically, this kind of video, is that they give people entirely the wrong impression of how tea is done in China.  Other than set performances at tea fairs, where they might hold tea brewing competition and the participants are expected to come up with elaborate (usually over-elaborate) ways of brewing tea that look artistic, you’ll never see people make tea like this guy does.

More importantly, the way he dresses and sits implies a certain sense of historical tradition, which of course is also entirely bogus.  This is what my friend DougH calls “ceremony envy”, stemming largely from the sense that “well, the Japanese have their elaborate and famous tea ceremony, so we should have one too”.  The need to invent a “ceremony” is, I think, the root cause of this kind of video.  Chinese, however, never brewed tea this way — certainly not like this.  For one, tea brewing was mostly done by servants.  Ever seen those paintings of literati men sitting in their courtyard drinking tea?  In the background there are always a few servant girls or young boys fanning the flame, preparing the tea.  You think they did any of this ceremonial stuff?

This is the other thing about calling this, or any type of gongfu brewing, a “ceremony”.  Ceremony implies a certain amount of performance, and at least in the modern usage of the word, a sense that you do them because you should, not because they’re useful.  This guy’s performance definitely fits the bill — he had a lot of useless movements that really didn’t enhance the tea he was brewing.  In fact, I’d hate to be on the receiving end of this tea — it’s probably nasty.

This is the other thing different about the Japanese tea ceremony versus the Chinese way of brewing tea.  The Japanese ceremony is methodical, slow, and elaborate, but making a good bowl of matcha is a primary goal as well.  The things you do in there — adding the cold water, warming the bowl, etc, all serve a purpose.  The way this guy brewed his tea is rather unique – he’s actually boiling the tea.  In most other videos, however, they brew it normally, except in the time it took them to do all their fancy things, the water, or the tea, has cooled.  I cannot imagine any of these people brewing anything resembling good tea.  I’m pretty sure this guy’s boiling his tea because he read it in some old tea text, except that it’s all out of context.

Chinese tea brewing has always been very practical, and has evolved over time to suit the needs of the way Chinese drink tea – which is to say, whole leaf tea, brewed in hot water.  Chaozhou style brewing, from which modern gongfu tea has evolved, works, because it is not concerned with looking good, but rather tasting good.  For those who want a spiritual experience, it doesn’t have to come in the form of elaborate rituals, dictated by some odd, nonsensical rules.  I think spiritual enlightenment can be found as well in the casual brewing on a day to day basis, but done in a way that concentrates the mind.  Refinement of one’s skill through practice does not require a dictated set of rules that one needs to follow.

And don’t even get me started on the narrator in this video.  She (or whoever wrote that script) needs to be shot.

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17 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // April 8, 2011 at 1:55 am | Reply

    My grandpa style is ceremonial. The method of picking out the leaves from my teeth is done from my left to my right over a sink or garbage can.

    Sometimes I hum.

  • Cinnabar // April 8, 2011 at 11:30 am | Reply

    I interpret these kinds of videos as packaging up the “exoticism of the East” to sell more tea to Westerners, wrought from the legacy of 19th c. colonialism. Marketing of otherness and fabricating cultural relevancy don’t have to be done from the outside. I couldn’t make it through more than a little bit of the videos; I’ve been exposed to more than enough of this kind of thing already, and I have little patience for the particular kind of pseudo-spiritual blather of the narrative.

    I have a somewhat different working definition of “ceremony” than you do, but I could not agree with you more strongly that “gongfu cha” is not a ceremony. I see it as a set of practices and techniques, more like a martial art than anything else, where the focus needs to be always on producing good tea. (I have a post on this very subject that I’ve been working on.)

    Of course I would never say that visual aesthetics have no place in the enjoyment of tea, but they must be integrated successfully into the total experience, without ever sacrificing the tea. Also, paying attention to the aesthetics of the tea experience should not lead to fussiness or overblown theatrics as shown in the videos.

    • MarshalN // April 8, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Reply

      “Of course I would never say that visual aesthetics have no place in the enjoyment of tea, but they must be integrated successfully into the total experience, without ever sacrificing the tea. Also, paying attention to the aesthetics of the tea experience should not lead to fussiness or overblown theatrics as shown in the videos.”


  • gingko // April 8, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Reply

    Yeah I remember having a good laugh watching this last time 😀 But I guess this kind of things exist because they cater to some people’s minds. Some people expect tea to be complicated, exotic and mysterious. If they don’t see these features in tea, they feel disappointed.

  • Andrew // April 8, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Reply

    That’s nothing. Imagine, on Australian TV of all places, someone waving a metal tea pot with a metre-long spout over their shoulders as if it was a sword… That was the traditional Zhe Jiang way of making tea, apparently…

    I suppose, as you mention, the closest the Chinese have to a real ceremony is Chao Zhou gong fu cha, but of course that’s all about making the perfect cup of tea, within constraints, rather than pretence.or theatre. Chinese tea ‘ceremony’ is like the ‘ceremony’ of decanting a bottle of wine; it might look funny, but ultimately it’s just a way of getting at the drink.

    On another nore, again as mentioned, I guess that trying to create tradition out of nothing is a way to try to ‘reconnect’ with Chinese culture, even if tea drinking culture arguably survived and developed to a greater extent in Hong Kong and Taiwan rather than the Mainland. It’s like people who collect old puer cakes instead of collecting wine or some such; you’re trying to buy culture, because it’s a culture you never had.

    Hey, Mr MashalN, ever thought of making a video like that, but with real Chao Zhou gong fu? Just for fun, or even as an antidote to the video above.

    Andrew (long time reader)

    • MarshalN // April 9, 2011 at 12:53 am | Reply

      There are those long spout pots, usually made at restaurants because it makes it easier for the waiter to pour tea for customers. Can’t really say it’s the traditional way though, and I’ve most often seen them at hotpot places.

      You’re quite right that people do use it as a way to connect with culture. It’s important to keep in mind though that it’s not as if tea drinking just died in China and revived in the 80s — people always had tea. Much of the modern day usage of gongfu tea as a Chinese “ceremony” on any level really is influenced by the Japanese via the Taiwanese in the 70s.

      I do have thoughts about making a video on gongfu tea brewing, but am always missing the right equipment. Now that I got my pewter tray, I can do it, when I get all of the right pieces together!

      Thanks for reading.

    • gingko // April 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Reply

      The long spout teapot is traditional in Sichuan, not Zhejiang. It’s an authentic tradition, and a person has to go through years of training to be able to do something like that. So I think it’s more respectable than the puerh video.

      I used to think the pretty girls group tea ceremony (for example 6-8 in a row, all making the same moves throughout the procedure) was what I dislike the most. But I think this video broke the record :-p

      • Hobbes // April 12, 2011 at 3:21 am | Reply

        The long-necked kettles suddenly look entirely practical and ordinary when sitting in a Sichuan teahouse. I spent a lovely few weeks in Chengdu, in various tea-gardens in some of the temples, and in teahouses; the serving staff wielded their long kettles with dexterity and the nonchalance of people just going about their daily business. When you are circulating through a busy tea-garden of some 50 people or so, ensuring that everyone’s gaiwan is full (Chengdu brewing style being to brew and drink from a larger gaiwan), the long-necked kettle is really the only option. It looks entirely organic and natural.

        Of course, away from the “real” tea-houses and tea-gardens, back in the main tourist street, there are street shows in which the long-necked kettle is used for exhibition and other silliness.

        If I had to settle anywhere in China, it would probably be Chengdu. It feels like the Mediterranean of China, but with the most teahouses per capita.



  • Su Ming Ng // April 10, 2011 at 8:57 am | Reply

    How not to brew a pot of tea is right. What a load of bull !

  • John Grebe // April 11, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply

    I have never heard of roasting puerh before brewing it, does that have any functional benefit? Or is that more of along the lines of the fancy show of how we need to dry off this slightly damp tea before we can brew it in how water type BS.

  • drobble // April 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply

    We should, however, remember that if that guy really likes this way of brewing and is dedicated to it, he might have one hell of a time with his tea sessions. The steps aren’t necessary, sure, but it really isn’t anyones privilege to judge other people’s brewing. It’s impossible to even guess the taste from a video, and taste is by far not the only thing that constitutes an enjoyable tea session. The tea school that thrives for simple ‘traditional’ gongfu, is based on the same kind of tradition-kicks that ceremonialism is, in the end, I think.

    What I find odd though, is calling pu’erh ‘The Queen of Teas’. I’ve always though pu’erh as a masculine type of tea!

    • MarshalN // April 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Reply

      I agree, to a certain extent, but videos like this convey entirely the wrong idea about how normal people brew tea, and there’s a heavy dose of exoticism thrown in. You probably can’t find one in a million even in China who brew tea this way, so this is very much an outlier that is very far from the norm. Also, given the narration in the background that is full of false and misinformation, it makes it harder to take this video very seriously.

  • Dénes // April 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Reply

    Takeno Joo’s Admonitions for His Disciples
    3. Do not speak critically of the tea gatherings of others.

    Your tea is not better as his tea. You can learn allways in your life.
    I think you and the other comments all misunderstood the boiling and roasting “style” in this video.
    You don’t like this movements or those style. On right, but you write a post about it???

    I red all your posts including many mistakes, erroneous notes and never mentioned to others as bad example, but respected your efforts on your way of tea.

    So continue to learn!

    All my best wishes

    • MarshalN // April 14, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Reply

      Thanks for your comment. I must say that I disagree — form follows function in any tea ceremony, and in this case, it is not true. I know he’s trying to recreate an older style of making tea, but to use puerh for this purpose, a cooked tea at that, is already problematic. My point is about the exoticizing and orientalist views of how tea should be made, therefore less about these two videos in particular (although it’s an egregious example of that) but more about the spirit of such videos in general.

      As for you point about mistakes, I’m always happy to remedy any errors I commit. At the same time, I would appreciate it if you let us know more about your great learning in tea. After all, very few people read Hungarian. It seems you resell much of YSLLC and others’ tea and wares, at least on the Chinese side. Perhaps you have some great insight to share?

      Hope you have some nice tea.

  • Camelia // June 30, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Reply

    borderline snobbish post…
    A little more respect for all things maybe in order?

    • MarshalN // June 30, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Reply

      On the contrary, I believe there are times when the “mystical” and “ceremonial” things get out of hand and takes the unsuspecting viewer in the entirely wrong direction when it comes to making good Chinese tea. Someone who knows nothing of Chinese tea brewing methods might see this video and think “oh, so this is how it’s done!” That’s not right, and the misinformation (of which there are many in the video if you listen carefully) is downright irresponsible.

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