A Tea Addict's Journal

A Quintessential Invention

May 11, 2012 · 29 Comments

MadameN and I have co-written a paper and presented it at a local conference on the recent history of tea and tea practices in East Asia, using mostly the Taiwanese/Chinese re-invention of chayi/chadao as an example to illustrate a case where one regional, localized tradition was adopted and re-invented as a national tradition. The full paper, a pretty short affair, is available here, in the tea issue of this quarter’s China Heritage Quarterly. Other things in there might be worth a look too, so please go ahead and take a read.

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29 responses so far ↓

  • Matt // May 11, 2012 at 3:00 am | Reply

    Marshal N,

    Certainly a thought provoking article. The geopolitical rationale for neither country conceding its historical influences from neighboring countries isn’t fully explored. It is not that hard to piece together for someone looking in from the outside. Certainly there is still unspoken feelings between Japan and the other two countries that it colonized.

    Another aspect that you just briefly touched on is how Colonial (Western) tea culture is being assimilated into these three East Asian countries.

    Very very interesting.

    Thanks again,


    • MarshalN // May 14, 2012 at 5:06 am | Reply

      Thanks, it’s a giant feedback loop that people aren’t always aware of.

      • Hektor Konomi // May 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Reply

        Although you touched it briefly, a similar study on the relation of the Japanese and Korean traditions would be equally fascinating.

  • Jakub Tomek // May 11, 2012 at 7:16 am | Reply

    Thank you for the article (and for the link, there were other interesting articles indeed – and I could read the “Rules of Engagement: Surviving the Tea World” a hundred times and still laugh – I know few such “tea masters” and it is really good fun to watch them, how good and refined they feel, being little more than pompous fools).

    To the article on origins of tea – is there really a single “gongfucha” these days, as a national tradition? I thought that the aroma cups are still used mostly on Taiwan, that different places prefer gaiwans/teapots, that there are different techniques of boiling water, etc.; i.e., that there are several different ways of brewing tea evolving (and mingling) in parallel…

    Anyway, it is kind of fun how some of these traditions spread in Europe. For example, many people here thought that having aroma cups when practising gongfu is an axiom and that no “chinese tea ceremony” may happen without them.

    • MarshalN // May 14, 2012 at 5:08 am | Reply

      That’s precisely the issue – people looking in will think of this as a “timeless” “ceremony” when in fact it’s quite new and recently invented/adopted. I don’t think there’s quite a “single” gongfucha – there’s certainly regional variations, but the variations are small, whereas previous differences were very significant.

  • Hobbes // May 14, 2012 at 1:13 am | Reply

    I genuinely had no idea about the dissimilarity between “science” and “arts” papers until following that link. It’s a whole different world out there!



    P.s. When I write papers with my wife (typically on machine learning), she makes me do all the donkey-work with plotting the graphs. At least you get out of that duty. 🙂

  • Nick H // May 16, 2012 at 2:47 am | Reply

    Yep, that all makes sense. Taiwanese love to copy Japanese, and Chinese end up copying Taiwanese to some degree. An expat friend of mine in Taipei was always pointing out to me all the modern Chinese words that are just direct translations from the Japanese.

  • Will // May 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply

    I enjoyed the paper, and it’s great to see something being written about the subject. A few thoughts:

    1) I doubt there’s much literature about this, but I would have been interested to see more discussion about gongfucha in the overseas Chinese communities before the 1970s (maybe you could try and get oral histories from some older folks). As you say, there are many ethnic Chinese, in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, from the Fujian and Chaozhou regions, and of course most people in Taiwan area also originally from Fujian.

    2) My experience has been that, in many areas, ordinary people (i.e., not tea enthusiasts) tend to follow local tea drinking customs — does that match up with what you’ve seen? In other words, it may be that a lot of the actual custom of ordinary people brewing tea this way is still concentrated in areas with a large percentage of people with ancestors in those areas. On the other hand, tea enthusiasts worldwide who like certain types of teas (some, but not all, of which are brewed this way in their area of origin) do tend to brew tea this way now.

    3) One thing you mentioned in discussions online was that brewing pu’er this way is a fairly recent innovation, however, the article doesn’t seem to discuss this fact at all (that traditionally, gongfucha was mostly used for oolongs). I am curious, though I doubt you’ll find much information about it in the literature, if the habit of SE Asians of drinking pu’er, liu an, and liu bao might have something to do with it.

    4) I know it’s difficult to say exactly when the practice started to emerge, but I think it would have been great to have at least a rough idea of the time when gongfucha did start to emerge in the Chaoshan region (and, if there’s any information out there, when it started to spread to Fujian)? At the least, there are some literary references to it in the 1700s, and most of what I’ve seen indicates it may have started even in the late 1600s. http://www.teachat.com/viewtopic.php?p=220791#p220791 / http://teadrunk.org/post/1167/#p1167
    A quick review of the information we do have about the rough time period where gongfucha started to emerge would be helpful to those who don’t already know it. Otherwise, if I read your article not knowing anything about the subject, I might think that the custom developed entirely in the 20th century.

    I agree completely with your fundamental points. But while it’s not as old as some people may think, and may have been concentrated in specific regions, people in certain areas have still likely been practicing this custom for a long time, no? So there’s an element of invention, but maybe also just an element of a custom spreading. As far as brewing oolongs from the Chaoshan area, Fujian, and Taiwan, you could probably make an argument that this is a relatively “authentic” way to brew them, and certainly a way that makes sense for people who enjoy drinking those teas. With pu’er, and other types of teas, that argument maybe doesn’t hold quite as much.

    I do hope someone will undertake some oral histories from older tea drinkers. While of course no one is alive who was around in the 1500s, I would be very interested to hear about tea drinking habits in some of these areas from, say, the early 20th century.

    • MarshalN // May 18, 2012 at 3:18 am | Reply

      1) I think that is probably true, but is very unlikely to manifest in any document of any type. We can make conjectures about how people used to drink tea in SE Asia, but it’ll be just that, conjecture.

      2) No, ordinary people drink their tea grandpa style, regardless of where they are. You’ll have a hard time finding anyone sipping green tea out of gaiwans these days, like they used to do in Jiangnan. Such practices just don’t really exist anymore except in small pockets. When you visit a teahouse in the Jiangnan region, either they serve tea gongfu style, or they give you a glass and you grandpa it.

      3) Liu bao was drunk in big cups with big pots to quench thirst, not for relaxation and enjoyment. As such, I doubt that they used any type of gongfu method to brew. I think puerh and liu’an were used in similar ways. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that this is anything but a recent innovation, but of course to show/prove such a thing is exceedingly difficult so I left it out. You also need to remember that prior to about 1980s or so, puerh and other types of heicha were considered the crappiest of crap. Spending that much time and effort to drink this crap is silly.

      4) That’s beyond the scope of this paper. That might indeed be a worthwhile thing to do, but at the same time it also clutters up the point of the paper, which is the recent transmutation of gongfucha from a regional to a national tea drinking custom/practice. What we do know, however, is that claims by people such as Blofield to say that gongfucha has been around for a thousand years is most definitely an exaggeration – what we do know about the history of tea and teaware simply does not support such a claim at all.

      Given that oolong tea was invented in the 19th century, there’s no good reason to believe that gongfucha as we know it in the latter half of the 20th century was invented before that. Sure, they might have drunk tea using similar wares, but there’s no good reason to think that the method was the same. Judging from your line of inquiry, I think you are falling into the trap of wanting gongfucha to be more “authentic” and older than it actually is, which, of course, proves the point that there’s a good element of romanticization going on.

      • Will // May 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply

        re #2, I meant people drink with local drinking customs, but not necessarily traditional ones. I mean the typical type of tea-in-thermos type drinking that you would see in many areas in China, or casual drinking using a big pot or gaiwan.

        • MarshalN // May 20, 2012 at 1:36 am | Reply

          How is that local when everyone drinks with tea in thermos or giant cups? Do you differentiate by the type of thermos they use?

          • Will // May 22, 2012 at 1:28 am

            Well, for one thing, the type of tea popular in a given area seems to have some variation — whether it’s a green available in that area only, scented tea, or whatever. Of course the thermoses are pretty ubiquitous when you see people in public life; I haven’t done extensive research or travel, but I’d imagine there’s some variation in terms of how people drink tea at home. The type of thermos is obviously a silly example, but the volume of the pot or cup does make some difference.

          • MarshalN // May 22, 2012 at 10:34 am

            I don’t believe such differences exist in any obvious way.

  • Will // May 18, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply

    I am not saying it’s older than it is, or that the practice hasn’t changed. I’m just saying that the basis of what we know as gongfucha probably developed around the 1600s, plus or minus a hundred years or so. This much I think has been fairly well documented, but if you believe otherwise, when do you think the practice came along?

    This means it’s not very old (in the context of Chinese history, or even in the context of tea drinking), but I think it’s still worth recognizing that it’s been around in one form for quite some time. As with any other practice, it changes over time — I would guess that it evolved during those years, both in the areas where it originated, as well as in the overseas Chinese communities where it was practiced. While some people use modern additions like a fair cup or aroma cup, or brew for more than 4 people at a time, or use an electric kettle, I think there are plenty of people who don’t use these “newfangled” refinements. Does that mean they’re practicing gongfucha as it originally was? Probably not, but the same could be said for any number of things.

    I’m probably actually stricter than many in terms of what types of practices I’d consider to be gongfucha (I’d probably say something more general for the way I brew tea most of the time), but I do think it’s one way to drink certain types of oolong teas (which, themselves, probably don’t date back that much further). I’m not trying to say that it’s a more “authentic” or historically correct way to drink tea, but it’s certainly one appropriate way to drink certain types of tea.

    In any event, even if there is a dose of romance or exoticization going on, what are you suggesting? That we should be more historically accurate with our gongfucha? That we should come up with another word entirely for modern “enhancements” to the tradition? While I don’t like hearing about “The Chinese Tea Ceremony” any more than you do, I think there is room for feeling connected to past traditions, while recognizing the ways in which they’ve changed.

    • MarshalN // May 20, 2012 at 1:35 am | Reply

      What is your source for it having developed around 1600? Sorry, I’ve just never encountered anything with any definitive proof of such things. Most of what we have are hearsay type of sources. If you are drinking green tea with this “gongfucha” from 1600, what exactly is the process of brewing? At what point can we call it “gongfucha” and at what point is it just a precursor to what we might recognize as gongfucha? I’m guessing it’s not until the 19th century, at least. “Small” pots from the early to mid Qing are quite large for our idea of gongfucha.

      No, I do not suggest we should be more historically accurate. That’s plain stupid. What I am suggesting is that we should drop the pretense that this is somehow a very old and “traditional” practice, that we drop things like “ancient Chinese tea ceremony” and other such counterproductive nomenclature, and that we recognize that our current tea drinking practice is, in fact, a very new thing. Of course, it owes some things to the past, and that’s all well and good. You wouldn’t call an electric guitar a “traditional” instrument, even though it’s a basic plucked string instrument that traces its origins to way back, would you?

      • Will // May 22, 2012 at 1:21 am | Reply

        The only information from reliable sources I’ve read in English is mentioned in the links above (the Yu Jiao text, the Archaeology of Agriculture articles about gongfu from their tea culture issues), though most other estimates I’ve seen in more casual tea books seem to agree with that general timeframe. If you have other information, or believe that information to be inaccurate, I’d love to read about it — I realize this is an area where you are an expert and I am not. I am going off of what I’ve read, and so far, you haven’t said anything specific as to why you disagree with those authors.

        As far as small pots, I have some books with fairly reliably dated pots (from grave excavations) which should reliably be from late Ming and early / mid Qing which have dimensions on them. Some have heights / widths / diameters that seem fairly small (3-10 cm). I’ll try to send you some scans — a few are already scanned in that article I sent you a while back. Even if the size decreased over time, that seems to play into a theory of some kind of evolution.

        Are you implying that oolong tea wasn’t available during the time period mentioned? I think it’s also hard to nail down an exact date on that, but most guesses I’ve seen suggest also around that time period. While most of the sources on the net are suspect, a couple do mention some early literary references that could pretty easily be checked into, such as Chashuo by Wang Chaotang.

        • MarshalN // May 22, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply

          Care to give me references? I haven’t read everything on the subject and I’m not sure if I’ve read what you’re referring to.

          One issue with grave sites is we don’t know if that’s indeed what people used – that’s never for sure.

          I don’t believe oolong tea as we know it came into existence during the Ming at all – no indication at all, in fact, that this was the case. I haven’t see any concrete evidence that suggests so, at least.

          • Stephane // May 23, 2012 at 1:28 am

            In Teaparker’s Oolong Tea Book (published in year 2004), Teaparker mentions 5 possible origins for Oolong tea. The first mention comes from Mr. Wang Chao Tang’s Cha Shuou (year 1717). He describes tea leaves that are ‘half green, half red’. The world Oolong isn’t written, but the description would be a good fit.

            Then there is the song of Wuyi tea (1751) describing a tea.

            Latest in 1855, mentions of ‘half oxidized tea’ appear in 2 books.

            The exact date isn’t known, but Teaparker sides more on the 18th century as the start of Oolong production.

          • MarshalN // May 23, 2012 at 2:15 am

            Right, and I think there’s no doubt as to the fact that oolong was invented probably sometime during the Qing. The question is when, and more importantly, how widespread. I have seen the song of Wuyi before, and I think it does describe the process of gongfucha in a loose way. Having said that, it’s still unclear as to the size of the wares they used, and also how they appreciated their drinks.

          • Will // May 24, 2012 at 5:23 pm

            Quoting from a reference in one of the posts I linked above; the quote is from Appreciation of Zisha Teapots 《砂壶匯赏》ISBN 9628477782 (the translation is from the book’s English translation of a Chinese language article. This, and the other MAI Foundation book have some early pots dated to late Qing and early Ming Dynasty with fairly small volumes — perhaps not, say, 50ml, but I would guess < 150-200 ml, based on the measurements. The same article claims that "small pots" (they don't cite a specific volume) date back to late Ming):

            The congou [read gongfu] was first described in Yu Jiao’s (1751-?) book Miscellanea of Chaoshan and Jiaxing [note:this refers to 俞蛟《梦厂杂著·潮嘉风月》] in Qing Dynasty.
            Accordingly, scholars think thought [sic] that “About in the Wanli Period (1573-1679) of the Ming Dynasty, the congou ceremony of Chaoshan had its basic conditions to be formed and began to emerge. Step by step it was finalized at that period”.(11)

            footnote 11 is a translation of a quote from the Chinese publication “Archeology of Agriculture” (農業考古), in special issue (6) on Chinese tea culture, from 1993 p 144. Many footnotes in the article I mentioned above come from various issues of this publication (issue 2, 6, 19, etc. — you probably have more access to these than I do) . I have a couple of the articles — if you haven’t read them, I can re-send what I have. These articles themselves have footnotes and references to the actual primary sources they drew from, though of course I haven’t read them personally.

            Looks like
            should have some pointers to other sources. It also mentions the Yu Jiao work mentioned above (in the late 18th century) as being one of the first written references to the custom.

            In any event, regardless of the exact time period, I think it is relevant to your topic when the custom began to emerge. Can we agree that oolong tea and gongfucha probably came about within, say, 100 years of each other? I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that gongfucha is an appropriate, dare I say, “traditional”, (for that type of tea) way to brew oolongs, even if it is not as old as other methods of tea brewing, since the two emerged around the same time, and in the same regions.

            Customs don’t emerge overnight. I think the interesting thing is not whether the cups or pots were quite as small as they are today, but when the basic brewing techniques we associate with gongfucha today (including smaller brewing vessels, increased volume of tea leaf to water, etc.) started to emerge, and when that name started to be used for the practice, whether or not the practice of that time was exactly the same as today (one assumes that the latter came somewhat after the former).

            If anything, the fact that the custom evolved kind of belies your point that the early evolution was slow and later evolution quick.

            Articles can be wrong — my point is not that I trust the limited information at my disposal blindly, but that I’d like to see more in-depth analysis of when and why these customs started to emerge, or why the commonly stated time period is bogus, before concluding that it is a fabricated “tradition”.

  • ZiCheng // May 19, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Reply


    Do you know how old the practice of aging puerh is?

    • MarshalN // May 20, 2012 at 1:27 am | Reply

      Good question – not sure. It seems clear it’s always been somewhat aged, but it’s not clear if it was intentional aging or incidental.

      • ZiCheng // May 20, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Reply

        Thanks. I remember watching a documentary (I think on CCTV) about how puerh was discovered to taste better after its journey from Yiwu to Beijing. Aging tea for several months hardly compares to aging tea as it’s understood today, however. I don’t know how reliable the documentary is though, although I guess it’s quite plausible that puerh was drunk in its un-aged form at some point, and that aging was discovered sometime along the way.

  • Curated Sample #1: Roasted tieguanyin | A Tea Addict's Journal // September 26, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply

    […] For some of you, this might be some of the highest roasted teas you’ve ever tried, since teas like this is not routinely sold in the West outside of a few outlets. Most tieguanyin you encounter these days tend to be closer to the raw tea you see here, and even roasted ones are quite a bit lighter than even the 15 hours version here. Such teas are quite popular in Southeast Asia and is the traditional teas used for the Chaozhou gongfucha. […]

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