The Idea of Authenticitea

Drinking for an Oolong Time
Drinking for an Oolong Time

Get it? Puns aside, I was inspired by the recent interview Shunan Teng of Tea Drunk had with Big Coffee Newsroom. She makes really good points about how tea is viewed in America and how these perceptions, alongside an over-emphasis on Chinese cultural traditions can isolate or detract people from tea if they don’t know or understand them <see reference 1>. The first thing that came to my mind when I read this is that ‘otherness’ comes in when contextualising tea within cultures beyond America, such as Chinese, British and so forth. This is not bad per se since obviously, these cultures can intersect and so often do but sometimes, notions of what is the ‘proper way’ to make and enjoy tea can creep its head within tea circles through such comparisons. Again, while this can be harmless in concept, it doesn’t help much with tea education as it emphasises rigid ideas of tradition and authenticity. I suspect one of the main reasons behind this may come down to the differing stances on the way Chinese tea should be brewed. To break this down, I will focus an enduring topic on two of the most dominant brewing styles for Chinese tea, “Gongfu Brewing vs. Western Brewing”, by taking a step (albeit brief) into Chinese tea within the context of both historical and contemporary China alongside tea in a global context.

“Gongfu Brewing vs. Western Brewing”

You’ve probably heard of this before or come across a variation of it at some point. While these sort of topics are quite insightful and can be fun, they can sometimes give the narrow impression that the people of China only do 功夫茶 [gongfu cha/gung1 fu1 caa4] or 工夫茶 [gongfu cha/gung1 fu1 caa4] and whatever country or culture lies in “The West” only does “Western Brewing”. Additionally, it can lead to the idea that to brew Chinese Tea “properly”, it is to be done in the 功夫茶 or 工夫茶 way. If I type “Chinese Tea” on Youtube (without logging in), a lot of the results that come up often demonstrate variations of 功夫茶 with some focusing on Chinese tea itself and then the odd “losing weight” video coming into the works <see reference 2>. While yes, the internet is not the only resource for tea information, it is amongst the most accessible, especially in pandemic times. This again, can feed into the aforementioned idea alongside the notion that to do it differently is more in lines with “The West”. Even the Chinese characters of this method has been debated at some point on Chinese language internet though it seems the confusion of which characters to use mostly come down to the dialects of Chinese. The characters “工夫茶” is attributed to the name of a specific tea within the Qing dynasty, a method originating in Chaozhou or how its called in the Chaozhou dialect within the Chaoshan region in places like Chaozhou whereas when talking about the art and service of brewing tea , 功夫茶 is used more widely <see references 3 and 4>. Also for clarity, the pronunciations that I include for Chinese characters are Pinyin for Mandarin and Jyutping for Cantonese mainly because I am more familiar with these dialects and frankly, I don’t know the Chaozhou dialect or anyone who does. This also means that going forward, I will still use the more widely used 功夫茶 when talking about the “Gongfu Brewing” method but I will use 工夫茶 when appropriate.

But back to the main point: those who have looked into 功夫茶 will know this idea is only true to an extent. I say it’s partially true because yes, 功夫茶 is practised within China but it’s not and has not been the only way considering the conception of 工夫茶. To recall my visit to the Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong, the Ming Dynasty of China saw the rise of steeping tea with a low leaf-high water ratio and longer steeping times which we may recognise in our modern context, more in line with “Western Brewing”:

Photo taken at Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong in October 2020.

Those who are familiar with the timeline of Chinese Dynasties, Ming precedes Qing which was when 工夫茶 originated <for a source, see reference 5>:

Photo taken at Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong in October 2020.

To look beyond these binaries, there are many other ways of brewing tea in China that are perhaps not so well-known or readily accessible within English Language resources as I will show below:

Photos Taken at Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong, October 2020.

While yes, the prevalence of brewing styles, customs and traditions may be more widespread than others due to having more coverage that is readily accessible to people online, these recordings (if brief) prove “Gongfu Brewing vs. Western Brewing” topic provides a limited understanding of the cultural contexts behind these brewing methods. However, this is not to say “Western Brewing” or “Steeped Tea” (though it literally translates as “Tea Making Method” from the Chinese characters provided) or 泡茶法 [paocha fa/paau3 caa4 faat3] originated in China but rather, its practise was and is not limited to “The West” as the topic may seem to suggest. Concurrently, given “Steeped Tea” is older than “Gongfu Brewing”, it’s possible that it might be the more dominant method in China overall. If I am to call on personal experience, my relatives from Mainland China and within Hong Kong do look at me like an idiot with a Gaiwan as they use French Presses to brew their tea. But of course, their methods can’t speak for all of China and its Special Administrative Regions, but they do show that while the international tea community may see 功夫茶 as the most-utilised brewing method in China, the actual practises within these regions are quite diverse and as tea becomes increasingly global, shall continue to diversify.

The Current Presence of Tea Globally

It’s easy to provide a list of the different ways tea can be brewed such as Masala Chai of India, Frisian Tea of East Frisia, Boba of Taiwan (which also has a history of 功夫茶 and 工夫茶), etc. However, I think talking about how the beverage positions itself globally overall is more relevant to this article.

So… “good” tea likes to compare itself to wine while tea that finds itself on the streets can sometimes be referred to as “for the masses”. My knee-jerk reaction to this is: why you acting so bougie? I understand that historically, tea was reserved for emperors, royalty or the “upper echelons of society” before it became more accessible but still, can we take the pretentiousness out of it? I do acknowledge that I myself can come across as a “tea snob” when looking at my own tea setups which probably contribute to the idea of “fancy tea”. Heck, I even dedicated a piece to 茶氣 and how it can be helpful in tasting tea. However, when advocating a perspective on one method, I don’t see the need to diss other methods of brewing tea or the leaves (or teabags) used. There is also no need to tell people off if they don’t do it in a way you (or whoever taught you) consider to be “correct” based on variables like leaf-water ratio, their equipment (or lack of) or how some may incorporate practises that may have originated outside of tea. To peddle back to 功夫茶, there are variations depending on the region <see reference 6>. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I do believe there is a need to keep an open mind when learning about different methods and variations of brewing tea. In a similar sense to how languages may find various dialects within themselves with some having a more extensive histories than others, the same can be applied to tea as discussed earlier above as it finds itself growing and being consumed in well-established tea regions such as Japan, India and Sri Lanka alongside lesser-known regions for tea such as Africa and Georgia <see references 7 and 8>.

As another point of comparison, tea likes to pit itself against coffee. While I do laugh at the fun within tea vs. coffee jokes, a lot of coffee shops do provide tea, including large chain establishments earlier in the 2010s <see reference 9>. Simultaneously, the consumption of coffee is catching up even in places which are known to have a long love for tea such as the UK <see reference 10>. In fact, coffee beans are growing in the Yunnan Province, which has one of the longest histories with tea <see references 11-12>. But the presence of tea in coffee shops suggests that as societies become increasingly fast-paced, the time one can dedicate to brewing tea may become shorter as it finds itself in paper coffee cups. This is what the topic of “Gongfu Brewing vs. Western Brewing”, particularly from those who advocate for “Gongfu Brewing” seem to ignore. While yes, one infusion in 功夫茶 tends to be shorter than “Western Brewing”, the overall duration of preparing tea in this method is longer since the conventional knowledge is that a good tea can go for long sessions and of course… no one is going to buy bad tea (or at least not again if they already have). While it could be suggested that you can divide these infusions throughout the day if necessary. For example: infusions 1-3 in the morning, 4-8 during your break at work, 9+ when you get back home, but it’s a bit cumbersome no? Another workaround for 功夫茶 could be having half a session in the morning and the other half in the evening, but this may not bode well for someone who is sensitive to caffeine. Perhaps the most sensible solution if you wanted to do 功夫茶 is to drink teas that aren’t what you may call “marathon runners” but that poses a limitation that “Western Brewing” or “Steeped Tea” doesn’t have. So for someone who needs to consider things like rush hour before reaching for their tea stash, “Western Brewing” might be better.

So What Of It?

Do we start using “Steeped Brewing” or 泡茶法 instead of “Western Brewing”? Should we start opening more tea shops instead of relying on coffee shops to do the job for tea on the go? Should we stop likening tea to wine? Should we drink more Boba?

To be honest, I don’t really know since I’m not interested in telling people how to call something even if I do like to provide perspectives on how to do something. I also don’t think this article will have a particularly large impact, if any at all, on the way people perceive, brew and drink tea. This is mainly because this article focuses on Chinese Tea which only counts for a proportion of the tea out there (even if it is the biggest) <see reference 13>. However, I do hope that whoever comes across this article will consider the information provided here before telling someone off for not brewing tea “the right way”.

But that’s my two pence, what’s yours?

References:

  1. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/WgVGtJKlpL6ohx5cNms1eA (in Chinese but has a English Option)
  2. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Chinese+tea (accessed 01/02/2021 and you must be signed off)
  3. https://kknews.cc/culture/v9x9rry.html (in Chinese)
  4. http://m.ishuocha.com/show-152-18092.html (in Chinese)
  5. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/timelines/china_timeline.htm
  6. https://www.kyarazen.com/articles/tea/page/2/
  7. https://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/17/africa/africa-tea-traditions/index.html
  8. https://www.rferl.org/a/the-revival-of-georgias-tea-industry/30230293.html
  9. https://stories.starbucks.com/stories/2012/starbucks-announces-agreement-to-acquire-teavana-to-globally-transform-tea/
  10. https://www.ukteaacademy.co.uk/images/UKTAwhitepaper.pdf
  11. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/global/2019-06/17/content_37481352.htm
  12. https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/the-tea-forests-of-yunnan
  13. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4480e.pdf

Photos: Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong taken in October 2020.

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