Ceremony: A Working Definition

What is a Ceremony?

Chinese Tea Ceremony, called Gongfu Cha (功夫茶[1] or 工夫茶), may or may not exist. There are many who would challenge the notion that China has developed a ritualized and formal ceremony akin to that of Japanese Chanoyu or Korean Da-Rye; they may argue that the lack of schools, formal dogma, and lack of titles (such as “tea master”) is a clear enough distinction to claim that there is no ceremonial aspect to a method of brewing tea. Others claim that the contemporary practice of Chinese tea is a modern invention; a set of techniques and rituals plucked out of various contexts and glued together to create a constructed tradition.

Both views are ahistorical and, I will argue, both views are wrong.

The ideal that a ceremony or tradition, once created, must remain unchanged ignores the existence of living arts that evolve with the incubating culture. Chinese tea culture, birthed in the literati tradition of the Tang Dynasty, has maintained an ideology and praxis that lives today; the tea, wares, and techniques have grown and evolved over the last millennia while the goals have remained the same. While Gongfu Cha may be less organized and ritualized, I posit that inherent deficiency is insufficient to claim no ceremony exists.

Ceremony itself remains undefined in the context of tea rituals as those who argue that Chinese Tea Ceremony is not a “ceremony” ascribe Japanese tea Ceremony to the category. Chanoyu[2] is broadly accepted as a “true” ceremony while GongFu Cha is not, while neither fit the formal definition:

Ceremony[3]: formal acts, often fixed and traditional, performed on important social or religious occasions

From the definition, Japanese tea ceremony is arguably formal and probably traditional[4], yet it is certainly not fixed and may be performed on any occasion. Just as Chinese Tea Ceremony has progressed the techniques of its practice in response to the changing societal structures and preferences, Japanese tea ceremony has been in a constant state of change – both are living arts.

It is common in the social sciences to define a common term with special meaning a formal definition within the context of the work. Throughout this book, I will use a working definition[5]of ceremony:

A ceremony is the anthropological ritualization of a goal.

Anthropological means of people and of culture; it is something that arises from a unique milieu, an emergent property of the time and place, which becomes agreed upon by the culture.

Ritualization means that there is a practice or more formally a praxis: ritual defines the means of performing the ceremony. Chinese tea ceremony is recognizable not just because of the flavor of the tea, but the wares and implements that signal its anthropological origin. Ritual, by definition, is more than utility; ritual creates meaning

Goal means that it serves some function. Chinese tea ceremony grew out of the scholarly and literati sub-culture of dynastic China; while the tea and wares changed with the culture, the goal has always been rooted in the ideals of connoisseurship – that the esoteric could be learned and the rarest or finest examples could be collected. Thus, the goal of Chinese tea ceremony has always been to “brew the best possible taste of tea from the leaves and wares available”.

Our working definition shows that the lack of schools, formality, and titles is not itself a negation of the ceremonial nature of Gongfu Cha. This definition is robust, complete, and applicable to Chinese tea culture and particularly the contemporary practice of Chinese tea ceremony. It in fact, matches the meaning of the name we’ve collectively applied to “Gongfu Cha”; gongfu translates as “the skillful way” and cha translates to “tea”. This name[6] refers directly to the back-breaking work of tea harvesting and production experienced by the farmers of China; more romantically, today we hope it harks back to the early days of tea competitions, where farmers, merchants, courtiers, and even the emperor[7]alike would compete in the form of tea ceremony practiced at that time.

Why is tea unique?

There is no debate about the existence of the great beer ceremony or the traditional French Wine Ceremony – those cultures never developed one to speak of. Why do other historically important beverages lack a ceremony while tea developed not one, but three distinct ceremonies[8]?

Wine and beer are served ready-to-drink by consumers. When a consumer purchases a bottle of beer or wine, 300 years ago or today, that product is ready for them to consume[9]. The range of flavors and varieties available in beer and wine have given rise to their own cultures of connoisseurship, but no appreciable ritual for skillful preparation.

Tea is unique in that it requires skill to prepare. A purchase of fine tea does not guarantee a fine flavor; the best tea brewed poorly may yield objectionable results. A pedestrian tea brewed well may reveal appreciable subtlety and nuance. The historical Chinese culture of connoisseurship of the gentlemen-scholars[10]and the skill needed to brew tea, from the boiled tea of Tang written about by Lu Yu and its refinement in the Song, to rise of whole leaf tea[11]in the Ming and its refinement to the present day, created the form of applied technique (or techne) that propagated its transmission through ritualization. The practice of tea has maintained an unbroken philosophical lineage that evolved with the contemporary culture to create the ceremony that we practice today.

Descriptive or Prescriptive?

In any work of practice and reference there is a tension between the descriptive and the prescriptive – a tension between the statements of facts describing “how things are” versus the perspective recommendation of “how they should be”.

In writing this book, I have attempted to balance that tension with a robust description of the tea, including its history and production, with an active debate on the various practices accepted within Gongfu Cha in order to make a prescriptive recommendation on the praxis I teach.

I do not claim that my praxis is correct, only that I have tested it and it works for me. Gongfu Cha is a living art and I am a living practitioner; should I find a superior technique, I would happily adjust my practice.



[1]There is a long discussion to be had on the correct characters for Gongfu Cha; 工夫茶 is historically correct but less common. In either case, the intended meaning is identical and the pronunciation is the same.

[2]Japanese Tea Ceremony

[3]The Cambridge English Dictionary Online

[4]The context for traditional is itself always under debate; Japanese tea ceremony is a reinterpretation and codification of Song Dynasty Chinese Tea Ceremony. Japanese tea ceremony then evolved over the course of 400 years in the culturally self-isolated region of Kyoto. Does that make it traditional?

[5]A working definition may not fully conform by a terms established definition; it is often a term of art to label a term as “in-development”.

[6]The earliest known written record of the term “gongfu cha” is found referenced in citations of the 大漢和辞典 (Dai Kan-Wa jiten The Great Sino-Japanese Dictionary; project started 1917, first edition published 1943) from 1801. An English reference was included in Principles of English Etymology (Volume 1, published 1891): "Congou tea, from Amoy kang-hu (kung fu) tē, lit. ‘work’ or ‘labour’; said to be so called from the labour bestowed on it."

[7]Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty wrote “Treatise on Tea”, a book that detailed brewing techniques and the rules for competition. It is my sincere hope that this book can claim to follow in that tradition.

[8]Chinese, Japanese, and Korean – more if one separates Chanoyu and Sencha-do; potentially yet more again if one separates the Buddhist Korean Ceremony from the historically revivalist tea-rites.

[9]Ignoring here the potential for warm beer in need of refrigeration or sediment wine in need of decanting; in both cases, the point stands. Refrigeration and decanting take little to no skill.

[10]The educated literati class; a group of educated men that formed the high-society of dynastic China from the Tang to ROC.

[11]Song Dynasty compressed cake tea, called Wax Tea (蜡茶, La Cha), existed contemporaneously with whole leaf tea throughout China. Many histories overstate the dominance of one or the other. Wax tea from Northern Park was the imperial tribute tea from the Song to the Ming (a period of 600 years) and production was always limited. Whole leaf tea was the more common method of consumption outside of the imperial court and wealthy government officials in regions that produced cake tea; a certain segment of conservative literati were the most resistant to change and didn’t fully convert to drinking loose leaf tea until the early 1600, with the introduction of Oolong. Other literati were happy to be at the vanguard, and quickly adopted new preferences - particularly those in regions producing whole leaf tea.