I was drawn to gong fu brewing by the beauty of the Yixing (pronounced: ee-shing) teapots used to brew tea in that style. You might also come across the term kung fu which is also a correct, Westernized form of the term. Either one simply means "skillful," but kung fu tends to conjure up images of martial arts and 70s TV shows for me, so I'll stick with the less familiar translation.
I'll also begin with the disclaimer that I am by no means a tea master, or an Yixing expert, but I have done a lot of research over the past five years and think I can do a bit to inform, enlighten, and hopefully demystify the subject for those who are interested in entering this addicting world.
So let us begin with the pot. Yixing teapots are made from an iron-rich clay mined near the city of Yixing, in China's Jiangsu Provence. Known as zisha, or purple clay, it comes in a variety of colors and is uniquely suited to the making of teapots.
Tea has been drunk in China since at least 2700 B.C., but it was brewed in huge pots over a fire until the Ming Dynasty. (1) Tradition has it that the Yixing teapot came into being "by the rather fortuitous meeting of three people in a temple. In the eighth year of the Zhengde era (1506-1521), of the Ming dynasty, Wu Yishan, a scholar from Yixing who was trained in the Confucian classics, chose the calm of a local Buddhist temple to prepare for the palace examination. On his side he had a young domestic called Gong Chun. In the same Jinsha temple, one of the monks had learned the craft of making teapots by repeated contacts with the local potters. This must have been very convenient for the Buddhist monks who drank tea to strengthen themselves during their meditations.
"In his spare time Gong Chun, sometimes also referred to as Gong Gongchun, secretly observed the monk while he was creating his teapots. Not only did he observe the monk; he studied after him, using the monk’s leftover clay to make his own teapots. Gong Chun’s teapots were so original that he created his own style. A style that has been inspiring potters ever since. Today “Gong Chun Teapots” are still manufactured and very appreciated. The oldest preserved zisha teapot happens to be attributed to Gong Chun. It can be admired at the National Museum of China in Beijing. It is made in the form of a tree knob: probably made after a knob from a real gingko tree from the Jinsha temple. Teapots in the shape of a tree knob is what is meant by “Gong Chun Teapots.” From "Chinese Tea Annals" (2)
Aside from their aesthetic value, Yixing teapots are considered excellent brewing vessels due to several factors, including their mineral composition, which makes for a clay that holds heat well, and their porosity, which allows them to absorb the flavor of a given tea and season to that type. There are different colors of Yixing clay: brown, black, yellow, brown, red, blue, and green.
Let me take a moment here to address some of the "facts" surrounding these pots. They do hold heat well, so well that the handle stays perfectly cool; and they do take on flavors, because they are unglazed and porous. However, the commonly held belief that if you use them long enough, they will take on so much flavor that they can brew tea without using any leaves seems to be a myth. The advice to leave used leaves in the pot, and to pour tea over the pot often and not wash it will only result in a dirty pot, according to modern tea master Lim Kean Siew (3). Siew also questions whether different colors of clay are suited to particular types of tea, and tends to dismiss the idea. (4)
Finding a good pot: There's far too much to buying a pot for me to include here, so I will stick to basics.
1. You get what you pay for. You'll find lots of cute inexpensive pots in most Chinatowns. Walk into a typical souvenir store and there will be a whole table of them in all kinds of alluring shapes—animals, Buddhas, plants, and the like. The same goes for eBay. That's the kind of pot most of us start with—and soon set aside. Chances are they smell a bit moldy or earthy, and when you tap the edge of the lid against the pot (gently!) it makes a dull sound, rather than a bright metallic ringing, like a little bell. Not a good pot. Cheap pots also tend to have thick walls and feel clunky in the hand.
2. Yixing teapots are hand-formed, not made on a wheel or cast in a mold. There should be tool marks inside, showing this. Sometimes you can even see the artist's fingerprints. This is a good thing.
3. True Yixing pots are made by a wide variety of artisans, from apprentices to master craftspeople, and the prices range accordingly, from $40-50 for the low end but perfectly nice ones, to thousands of dollars.
4. All pots bear an artist's chop mark on the bottom; good pots should also have a small chop mark inside the lid, and sometimes even on the handle, although knock offs may have this, as well. Good pots will also sometimes be hand-signed, and might come with certificates of authenticity, although I wouldn't always trust those, since they're easy to fake and they are in Chinese, so how can you tell?
5. Fit, finish, and pour. Regardless of price, the lid should fit well (not so tight that it grates when you take it off) and sit flush. The ultimate test is this: Fill the pot with water, put on the lid, and start pouring. If, when you cover the air hole in the lid knob with a fingertip, the water stops, that's a perfect fit and perhaps one of the best tests of a pot's quality of workmanship. It's very handy, too, when pouring. Surface finishes vary greatly. Some good pots are burnished to be very smooth and shiny. Some cheap pots are rubbed with beeswax to be very smooth and shiny. Some pots have an orange skin or matte finish. Some cheap pots are soaked in tea to give them a fake patina and shilled as "antiques." Be wary, especially if the price seems too good. Real antiques cost thousands. As for pour, like any good pot, they should pour smoothly, leave no water in the pot, and shouldn't dribble.
6. Style. There is seemingly endless variety in Yixing teapots, and it is important to find one that you like and will enjoy using! One interesting thing about Chinese culture is that mimicry isn't considered a bad thing. Classics are considered worthy of emulation and you may be able to find a pot in the style you like at a price you can afford if you hunt long enough. But it should appeal to you. The "fateful encounter of the eyes," as Lam Kam Chuen puts it. (5)
7. Size. Contrary to popular belief, Yixing pots come in all sizes, from tiny to 40 ounces or more. But the most commonly seen ones are a cup or less in capacity and that's the size I recommend if you are making tea mainly for yourself and a few friends. The reason is that the basis of gong fu brewing is concentration; a high ratio of leaves to water. Typically, you fill your pot a third to half full of dry tea leaves before adding water. Of course, you don't have to fill a huge pot, either, just keep the ratio, so the choice is yours. Personally, I find that a pot full to the brim holds heat well, but others feel that a larger pot allows the leaves more room to unfurl. It's really up to you.
8. Through books, museums, and the internet, you can look at thousands of pots and begin to learn what styles are out there, and what to look for in a good pot. Check out as many really expensive, genuine ones as you can so you know what "really good" looks like. If possible, buy in person so you can handle before you buy, but if not, do business with someone who will let you return a pot if it doesn't speak to you once you have it in hand. Beauty and personal aesthetics are part of the joy of Yixing pots.
Seasoning your new pot. There is a lot of dispute about this. Many sources advise boiling the pot for some period of time, and soaking it in the kind of tea you plan to brew in it. According to Master Siew, this is unnecessary. I have done it both ways and from my own experience, agree with Master Siew. My advice is to clean the new pot well with clear warm water (NEVER EVER USE SOAP ON AN YIXING POT!!!) and a brush or your fingers to remove any clay dust, rinse it well with boiling water, then make and discard a few pots of less expensive tea to "flavor" the pot and leech out any lingering clay flavor. This has worked well for me.
Cleaning your Yixing pot. Allow me to repeat: NEVER EVER USE SOAP ON AN YIXING POT!!! And that includes putting it in the dishwasher. Remove the leaves, rinse the pot very well, dry with a clean towel and set the pot and lid upside down to dry thoroughly before you put it away, as they can get moldy if put away damp.
BASIC GONG FU BREWING: Once you have a pot, here's how to use it.
There are all sorts of wonderful accoutrements and rituals that go along with gong fu brewing. There are many books on the subject, and you can find lots of clips on YouTube demonstrating them, so I won't try to describe them here. The following is a bare bones, unfancy, basic but authentic method for making good tea in the gong fu style.
You will need an Yixing teapot, of course. My favorite for oolongs is a small one, about 5 oz. You will also need: dry tea leaves; hot, high quality water; a tea boat (catch basin); and a cup or cups large enough to pour off all the tea at once.
The tea: Traditionally, Yixing pots are used to brew oolong, Ti Guan Yin, sek (black), and pu ehr teas. Remember: Dedicate each teapot to a particular type of tea, even to a particular subtype, such as raw pu ehrs or honey oolongs. This is, of course, a very good justification for buying more Yixing teapots. I don't know how other teas lend themselves to gong fu brewing. However, you could always use one of the larger pots like a regular teapot, with the standard 1 teaspoon/cup ratio of leaves to water.
Water: The water should be the best you can get, but not reverse osmosis filtered, which flattens the flavor. If your tap water tastes funky, then it will make funky-tasting tea. If you have a lot of lime scale, that will build up and eventually ruin your pot.
Water temperature: Oolongs and Ti Guan Yins are infused with 160F-195F water, depending on the individual tea. Pu ehrs are infused with water just off the boil. (6)
Tea Boat: Catch basins can be large bowls made of china or Yixing clay, but you can also use any low, shallow vessel that will hold the pot, with room for spill over. I use a 6x9" baking pan for everyday brewing. Not elegant, but it does the job.
Preparing the pot: Warm the pot by filling it with the heated water and pouring hot water over it, then emptying the pot into the catch basin. Next, add the leaves. If using leaves that are tightly twisted into nuggets, fill the pot about a quarter to a scant third full. If the leaves are loosely twisted, fill about half way.
Brewing: Fill the pot with hot water to overflowing, put on the lid, and pour hot water over the pot. Wait just long enough for the water to evaporate from the sides of the pot, then do a taste test. Sometimes this is enough time. Sometimes you need longer. You have to experiment with each tea to see what time they want. But I wouldn't give that first steep more than twenty or thirty seconds. Pour off all the tea and enjoy!
Note: Some experts recommend pouring off the first steeping of a Ti Quan Yin after a few seconds and discarding it, treating it as a rinse—"foot water"— to get rid of any dust or impurities. Other experts point out that if you're using an expensive, high quality tea, that shouldn't be an issue and you're wasting some expensive and perfectly good tea. Others of the "pour off" school of thought call it "waking the leaves." I waffle back and forth between the two, but am leaning toward not wasting that first batch. If you are using the full tea set, with fragrance cups, drinking cups, and pitcher, you can use that first water to rinse and warm them. **The exception to this is pu ehrs. Because they are so tightly packed in the way they are made, a rinse to soften and open them can be useful. (7)
One of the beauties of gong fu brewing fine teas is that they last for multiple short infusions, sometimes up to a dozen. I often start a pot at mid morning and am still sipping when I finish up my work around five. It's arguably the most economical way to drink tea, and certainly one of the most elegant, especially if you take on the full ceremony and regalia.
So, you might ask, where to start looking for a good Yixing pot? Many online tea vendors carry them in their tea ware section (check out our list of vendors. Many of them do.). Some tea stores often do these days, as well. I'm sure there are some legitimate sellers on eBay, but there's also a lot of junk and it's difficult to tell the difference. You also have to watch out for exorbitant shipping costs for reasonably priced pots there. That's a big red flag.
And good tea? What better place than Teaviews to find the best recommendations?
Good luck with your search, and may you have that "fateful encounter of the eyes"!
(1) Lim Kean Siew, The Beauty of Chinese Yixing Teapots & The Finer Art of Tea Drinking, Singapore: Times Media Private Limited, 2001. pg 16.
(3) Siew, pg. 34.
(4) Siew, pp. 32-34.
(5)Lam Kam Chuen, The Way of Tea: The Sublime Art of Oriental Tea Drinking, Hauppauge, NY: Barron's, 2002. Pg. 81.
(6) Heiss and Heiss, The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2007. Pp. 263-264.
(7) Siew, pg. 34.
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