After being inundated with Bruce Lee movies in the 1970s and saturated with Kung Fu Panda films and TV series in the 2000s, only a zombie would be numb to the call of the Kung-fu masters. Unless you are a tea aficionado, however, you may not have heard of Kung-fu Tea. (N.B.: Kung-fu is Wade-Giles romanization, gongfu is Hanyu Pinyin.) For those who do know about Kung-fu Tea, even tea specialists among them are divided over both the meaning of the term and the way to write it in Chinese characters. Should it be gōngfu chá 工夫茶 or gōngfu chá 功夫茶? And does the name mean "tea that requires a lot of effort and skill to prepare" or "martial arts tea"?
Before proceeding further, let us examine each of the four different morphemes / characters that are involved:
gōng 工 "worker; work; project; industry; exquisite; fine; a musical notation"
gōng 功 "merit; effort; work; achievement; effect; a term in physics indicating the transfer of energy from one body or system to another"
It is evident that there is some overlap between these two morphosyllables, but not complete identity. In Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), they are phonologically identical, their meanings are similar, and the only difference in the way they are written is that the second adds an element meaning "force, strength, power" to the first. Clearly, gōng 工 and gōng 功 are close cognates, and the structural element added to the second character only reinforces and nuances the basic meaning of the first character. As one might expect, 工 is the older of the two characters, being found on the Oracle Bone Inscriptions (circa 1200 BC) as the pictograph of a tool. Equally to be expected, 功 does not show up in the written record until almost a millennium later, and then only sporadically in inscriptions.
fu 夫 neutral tone morpheme used as the second syllable in the formation of bisyllabic nouns (the same character pronounced in the first and second tones has many other meanings that are apparently unrelated to its morphological function in gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫; the most common such meaning is "fellow" [in the first tone], leading some scholars to opine that the basic etymology of gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 is "work + fellow", but at first glance it seems difficult to accept such an assertion for a number of reasons, including: 1. its neutral tone, 2. the fact that semantically it seems hard to get from "work + fellow" to the earliest known and current meanings of gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫, which I shall discuss below, 3. the fact that the two dozen or so bisyllabic and trisyllabic words ending with 夫 in which the latter transparently means "fellow" all signify some sort of person or agent (see the list at the end of this section), not abstract terms such as gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫; since there are no others of this type, we may not declare that the 夫 of gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 has been sufficiently bleached to function as a highly productive noun suffix like zi 子 ["child"]; superficially, then, it would seem that the -fu of gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 cannot be semantically linked to the 夫 that means "fellow"); read in the second tone, 夫 is a particle in Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) that has several diverse functions, none of which can be linked to the idea of "fellow", which demonstrates that 夫 can represent a number of unrelated morphemes (this is true of of many Chinese characters)
Words formed with 夫 in the sense of "fellow" as the second or third syllable (usually the 夫 in these words is in the first tone; occasionally [particularly for family relationships] it is in the neutral tone; sometimes the same two characters will constitute two different meanings depending upon the variant pronunciations of the characters and whether the 夫 is read in the first or neutral tone; and sometimes there is a difference of opinion among individuals about how the characters should be pronounced and whether 夫 should be in the first or the neutral tone: bìngfū 病夫 ("sick man"), chēfū 車夫 ("carter; cart driver"), mǎchēfū 馬車夫 ("groom; cart driver"), chuánfū 船夫 ("boatman"), dàfū 大夫 ("senior official in ancient China"), dàifu 大夫 ("doctor"), shìdàfū 士大夫 ("literati and officialdom in ancient China", pronounced by some as shìdàifū), qīngdàofū 清道夫 ("scavenger; street cleaner / sweeper"), dúfū 獨夫 ("autocrat; bad ruler forsaken by all"), gàngfū 槓夫 ("professional coffin bearer"), gēngfū 更夫 ("night watchman"), guānfū 鰥夫 ("bachelor or widower; an old, wifeless man"), wèihūnfū 未婚夫 ("fiancé"), huǒfū 火夫 ("1. stoker; fireman, 2. mess cook"), jiānfū 姦夫 ("adulterer"), jiǎofū 腳夫 ("porter"), jiàofu 轎夫 ("sedan chair bearer"), lǎofū 老夫 ("an old fellow [like me]"), mǎfū 馬夫 "groom; cart driver"), nóngfū 農夫 ("farmer"), nuòfū 懦夫 ("coward; craven; weakling"), pǐfū 匹夫 ("1. an ordinary man, 2. an ignorant person"), pīnfū 姘夫 ("adulterer"), qiānfū 千夫 ("numerous people"), qiánfū 前夫 ("former husband; ex-husband"), qiànfū 縴夫 ("boat tracker"), qiáofū 樵夫 ("woodcutter; woodman"), qíngfū 情夫 ("lover"), tiāofū 挑夫 ("porter"), túfū 屠夫 ("1. butcher; 2. [fig.] ruthless ruler"), wǔfū 武夫 (1. "man of prowess"; 2. a warrior; a military man"), zhàngfū 丈夫 ("man"), cf. zhàngfu 丈夫 ("husband") and dàzhàngfu 大丈夫 ("a true man; a real man"), gūfu 姑夫 ("the husband of one's father's sister; uncle"), jiěfu 姐夫 ("brother-in-law; elder sister's husband"), mèifu 妹夫 ("brother-in-law; younger sister's husband"), yífu 姨夫 ("uncle; the husband of one's maternal aunt")
chá 茶 "tea" — for an elaborate philological and phonological study of this word and the character used to write it, see Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, The True History of Tea, Appendix C (since this appendix is written in double columns of nearly microscopic print, I recommend that you enlarge the pages by at least 150% before attempting to read them)
Now, for the two different words that are created from the first three morphemes listed above and that modify chá 茶 ("tea") in the competing forms gōngfu chá 工夫茶 and gōngfu chá 功夫茶:
gōngfu 工夫 "time (expended on some task); workmanship; skill gained through long effort and application of prolonged practice"
gōngfu 功夫 workmanship; skill; art or craft; a type of martial art or skill
It is obvious that the two sinographic forms of gōngfu are very closely linked, though the second has among its various senses the specific meaning of a type of martial art, a meaning that is not shared by the first. It makes sense that the enlarged character with the element for "force, strength, power" would be used for this specialized meaning rather than the original character, which is more abstract in implication.
N.B.: Neither of these terms indicate a person or agent, as do all of the other words formed with 夫 as the second or third syllable, except for the next two expressions formed by attaching 工夫 after an adjective.
There are two trisyllabic terms that incorporate gōngfu: xiángōngfu 閒工夫 ("spare time; leisure") and yìnggōngfu 硬功夫 ("great proficiency; masterly skill"). Different people write the last two characters in these expressions differently according to their personal preference, but there is an overwhelming statistical tendency in favor of the forms using -功-: “閒功夫" 1,410,000 ghits (Google hits), “閒工夫" 171,000 ghits, “硬功夫" 1,240,000 ghits, "硬工夫" 61,000 ghits.
In attempting to resolve the conflict over whether gōngfu chá 工夫茶 or gōngfu chá 功夫茶 is the "correct" form, let us first look at their frequency of occurrence. "工夫茶" yields 152,000 ghits, while "功夫茶" yields 1,920,000 ghits. ("工夫" by itself yields 903,000 ghits, while "功夫" yields 1,900,000 ghits.) This means that both forms are widely used, but that most people think the correct (or at least preferred) form is the latter one (功夫茶) by a ratio of more than 12 to 1.
Should we just let it rest at this rather impressive statistical judgement and accept that 功夫茶 is the "correct" form? Unfortunately, we can do no such thing, since the Chinese version of Wikipedia says the opposite (that 工夫茶 is the correct form, while 功夫茶 is technically a miswriting), and I've heard numerous Kung-fu tea "purists" make the same assertion. Perhaps, as the English version of Wikipedia states, the reason for this insistence is because advocates of the 工夫 form of the word believe the etymology of gongfu chá to imply "making tea with efforts" [sic], and they further hold that 工夫 is more reflective of that meaning than 功夫 (this would — in the current popular consciousness — yield "martial arts tea," which doesn't make altogether good sense, at least not for tea esthetes). Aaron, of DeRen Tea, is one such expert.
Aaron holds that this style of tea preparation began in the area around Teochew (Chaozhou) and Swatow (Shantou) in the province of Canton (Guangdong). He further maintains that the word for Kung-fu Tea was originally written 工夫茶 in that seminal area and that, when this style of tea moved outward into other topolectal areas, the word came to be written as 功夫茶 through confusion with the name of the martial art, which was far more popular than the more esoteric style of tea preparation from the Teochew-Swatow area.
Yet there's no easy way to determine readily and reliably a regional preference for either one or the other of these forms. See, for example, Hanyu da cidian (HDC) (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), 2.766b, where it is clear that, already in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), both gōngfu chá 工夫茶 and gōngfu chá 功夫茶 were being used to refer to the type of tea preparation in question. Moreover, this most likely was before gōngfu 功夫 had acquired the meaning of "martial arts" (see below, where a finer grained analysis will tip the balance in favor of 工夫茶 and Chaozhou as the original sinographic form and place of gōngfu chá).
Even if we side with the purists who insist that the correct sinographic written form of the term pronounced gōngfu chá is 工夫茶, what then are we to make of the fact that more than a dozen times as many people who write Chinese prefer the form 功夫茶 over 工夫茶? Are those who write 功夫茶 making a mistake every time they do so? I think I know how most readers of Language Log will respond to that question.
In English, gōngfu — as the name for a type of tea preparation — takes a somewhat strange twist of its own, one in which it ends up being spelled congou:
"A grade of Chinese black tea, obtained from the fifth and largest leaf gathered from a shoot tip of a tea plant."
[Chinese (Amoy) kong hu (te), elaborately prepared (tea), corresponding to Chinese (Mandarin) gōngfu (chá), from gōngfu, worksmanship; see kung fu.]
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
If you Google on congou (also spelled congu, congo, cangou, etc.) (search for all of these names with or without "tea"), you will find that — not long after Europeans came in contact with the expression gōngfu chá ("gongfu tea") — they started applying it to a wide variety of different types of teas.
Here's the entry for congou from the OED:
Forms: Also congo, kongo.
Etymology: < Chinese kung-fu work, and workman, kung-fu-ch‘a apparently tea on which work or labour is expended. The omission of the f is the foreigner's corruption (Prof. Legge)
A kind of black tea imported from China.
1725 London Gaz. No. 6376/3, Next Week will be sold, a large Parcel of Bohee, with some Congou and Green Tea.
a1816 R. B. Sheridan School for Scandal (rev. ed.) v. i, in Wks. (1821) II. 126 Congou tea, avadavats, and Indian crackers.
1845 B. Disraeli Sybil III. vi. viii. 235 A-swelling the receipt of customs by the consumption of Congo!
1875 F. W. Pavy Food & Dietetics (ed. 2) 349 The chief varieties of black tea, arranged in [an upward order of excellence] are Bohea, Oolong, Congou, Campoi, etc.
For those who can read Chinese, here are some entries from 19th-century Chinese texts (the first two are from the famous Chinese-English dictionary of Robert Morrison [1782-1834]) dealing with British references to gōngfu chá:
It is significant that, in every single case, gōngfu chá is written as 工夫茶, not 功夫茶.
Again, for those who can read Chinese, a broader search for gōngfu chá in several large data bases came up empty, except for the gigantic Guoxue baodian 國學寶典 (guoxue.com) and a couple of others that I will utilize below. Tellingly, even in the Guoxue baodian, there are only 11 entries: aside from one dating to 1801 they are all from the latter part of the Qing period (1644-1911) or the early Republican period (1912-), i.e., late; except for one (the first below) they are all written as 工夫茶, not 功夫茶; and many of them come from books talking about foreign travels.
1 instance of 功夫茶
The large Scripta Sinica database has five Qing (i.e., late imperial) references to gōngfu chá 工夫茶, but no premodern references to gōngfu chá 功夫茶. The references to gōngfu chá 工夫茶 are in the following works: Guītián suǒ jì 歸田瑣記 (1844) (3 occurrences) — linked to Fujian; Qīng bài lèi chāo 清稗類鈔 (1916, but relating events and affairs of the late Qing period) — linked to Jiangnan (South China), especially Amoy (Xiamen) and elsewhere in Fujian; Yí fēn wén jì 夷氛聞記 (ca. 1822) — linked to the Canton region.
So much for Kung-fu Tea. What about Kung-fu as a martial arts term? It seems that we are on no surer footing here than we are with Kung-fu Tea in striving to clarify its origins. As Josh Capitanio, who has practiced and studied Chinese martial arts for many years, wrote to me recently, "Regarding 'Kong-fu' as a term for martial arts, I always had the impression that it was a southern Chinese colloquialism that made it into popular nomenclature much in the same way that 'General Tso's Chicken' has become a worldwide phenomenon."
Josh went on to refer me to a short passage addressing the issue in a Foreword to Kang Gewu's book entitled Zhongguo wushu shiyong daquan (Chinese Martial Arts Complete Practical Reference), by one Xu Cai, who discusses some of the different terms used for wǔshù 武術 (the umbrella term for "martial arts"). To summarize his views on gōngfu 功夫, Xu writes that:
To conclude this blog, I will briefly lay out the historical evolution of the two closely linked terms, gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫. My comments here are based chiefly on:
1. HDC, 2.766ab and 2.952ab
2. searches of large data bases such as CHANT (CHinese ANcient Texts)
3. these two articles:
a. Shen Jun 沈俊, "'Gongfu' yu 'gongfu" "工夫" 與 “功夫” (On "gongfu" and "gongfu"), in Cishu yanjiu 辭書研究 (Research on Reference Works), 1980.4: 168-170.
b. Lou Guanjun 樓觀偉, "Ye tan 'gongfu' yu 'gongfu'" 也談"工夫" 與 “功 夫” (A Further Discussion of "gongfu" and "gongfu"), in Cishu yanjiu 辭書研究 (Research on Reference Works), 1981.4: 143-145.
The earliest occurrences of gōngfū 工夫 go back to the Jin period (266-316) when it had the meaning of "laborer". It is obvious that this earliest usage of gōngfū 工夫 can be explained etymologically as consisting simply of the basic meanings of the two constituent morphemes: "work" + "fellow". It is essential to observe, however, that here 工夫 must be read as gōngfū, not gōngfu.
The next stage in the development of gōngfu 工夫 was to extend the notion of laborer to embrace the meanings of "effort" and especially "time" expended during work, since laborers were hired and paid on the basis of how many hours, days, or weeks they were on a job. There are instances of this meaning in the writings of the great Taoist practitioner, Baopu Zi 抱 樸子 (The Master Who Embraces Simplicity; 283-343). It is clear that, by this stage, the force of the second element in the term, -fu 夫, had already been weakened so that it no longer conveyed the notion of "fellow" at all. On the other hand, the connotation of the first element, gōng- 工, still survived in the notion of "amount of time expended on labor / work".
By the Tang period (618-906), the semantic range of gōngfu 工夫 was further extended to include the notion of "skill" or "knack". This is a logical extension from the original meaning, since laborers were valued for their ability and experience. It also acquired a more abstract indication of time in general than it had during earlier periods, when it meant, as we have seen, time expended in work.
Among Song period (960-1279) neo-Confucians, gōngfu 工夫 was employed to indicate accumulated cultivation of the heart-mind.
During the late Ming period (1368-1644), gōngfu 工夫 could additionally refer simply to a job.
While the extended meanings of gōngfu 工夫 are still in use, the original denotation of "laborer" long ago dropped out of existence.
I thought that I had finished with gōngfu 工夫, but just before posting this blog, I realized that something rather odd transpired to this term when it was borrowed into Japanese. Phonologically speaking, what happens is doubly odd, because gōng 工 in other Japanese polysyllabic terms, of which there are dozens, is normally pronounced kō, but in the Japanese rendering of 工夫, it is pronounced kō or ku. At the same time, there are two different readings of 工夫 in Japanese with two very different meanings: kufū and kōfu. The latter means "coolie, workman, laborer," which is the earliest meaning in Chinese. The former, however, goes beyond even the latest derivations in Chinese, signifying "device, invention, scheme, means" (definitions are from Andrew Nathaniel Nelson's The Modern Reader's Japanese=English Character Dictionary).
So much for gōngfū 工夫. Now what may be said of gōngfū 功夫? Unsurprisingly (since this was the time of the rapid polysyllabicization of the Sinitic lexicon), gōngfū 功夫 begins to appear around the same time as gōngfū 工夫, viz., the 3rd c. AD or slightly earlier. Note, moreover, that at this stage gōngfū 功夫 means exactly the same thing as gōngfū 工夫 (i.e., "laborer") and that both are pronounced as gōngfū in MSM, not gōngfu. Although the two forms appear in roughly equal measure during the earliest period of their existence, gōngfū 功夫 soon comes to be seen more often than gōngfū 工夫.
It is worth interjecting here that gōngfū 功夫 has a disproportionately large number of occurrences in Buddhist texts. This is a good indication that it entered the lexicon through the vernacular realm. See Victor H. Mair, "Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular: The Making of National Languages,” Journal of Asian Studies, 53.3 (August, 1994), 707-751.
By the Tang era, gōngfu 功夫 had acquired the meanings of "effort" and especially "time" expended during work, making it parallel to but a bit later than gōngfū 工夫 in this respect. It was also during this period that, the same as gōngfū 工夫, gōngfu 功夫 took on the sense of "time" in general. Like gōngfū 工夫, gōngfu 功夫 also came to possess the notion of "skill" or "knack" during this period.
Up to this point, it appears that gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 were basically evolving new meanings in tandem with each other, such that they were more or less, yet not completely, interchangeable, since gōngfū 工夫 seems to have absorbed a few more rather specialized senses after the Tang period. It is in the modern period, however, that gōngfu 功夫 acquires one more highly specialized and important meaning, and that is "martial art". A crucial piece of evidence for this development may be found in a quotation from the People's Daily of July 31, 1984: "Yě yǒu huà Zhōngguó ‘gōngfu’ de“ 也有畫中國”功夫“的 ("There are also those who draw Chinese 'gōngfu'"). It would seem from the fact that "gōngfu" appears within quotes that — as late as 1984 — it is being considered by the editors of the People's Daily as some sort of neologism or regionalism.
So how did gōngfu 功夫 come to acquire the sense of "martial arts", especially one in which sharp blows and kicks are directed at vulnerable points on the body of an opponent? It is actually not such a great leap from pneuma / breath control and other types of Buddho-Taoist psychophysical exercises and discipline to "martial art". One can well imagine a disciple watching his master mow down a dozen menacing opponents with his extraordinary skill acquired through rigorous control of the qì (ch'i; Gk. pneuma, Skt. prāṇa, Heb. rouah; vital energy / air / breath / spirit), i.e., qìgōng 氣功). After the dust settles on this eye-popping display of sang-froid and combative prowess, and as the master composes himself to sup a cuppa, the awestruck disciple exclaims, "Master, you possess supreme, unparalleled gōngfu 功 夫!!!" After a few centuries of such adulatory ejaculations, it would be natural for gōngfu 功夫 to take on the latest sense that it has acquired, viz., "martial art".
The above paragraphs present the overall evolution of gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 from their beginnings to the present day. There may be some differences in detail, but this is roughly the trajectory of the etymology of these two important words in the modern MSM lexicon.
To summarize: gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 both started out around the 3rd c. AD referring to laborers, corvée or otherwise. During the ensuing centuries, they acquired increasingly abstract meanings: effort, time expended at work, skill, knack, mental discipline, job. As they evolved, their second syllable lost its overt tonality, becoming neutral. For the most part — up to the late 20th century — gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 were basically (but not entirely) interchangeable, though with gōngfu 工夫 being used more for mental or abstract phenomena and gōngfu 功夫 stressing physical aspects. It was only late in the life of gōngfu 工夫 and gōngfu 功夫 that the latter took on the meaning of "martial art," apparently beginning in the region of Canton. Following on the coattails of the Bruce Lee Kung-fu craze and the public infatuation with martial arts novels, the notion of gōngfu 功夫 as a designation for martial arts explosively spread outward from the Cantonese-speaking regions of China to envelop the whole nation. This is by no means to assert that there were no martial arts in China before gōngfu 功夫 acquired this meaning. Quite the contrary, martial arts have a long and distinguished history in China, but they went by other names (this already overly long blog is not the place to embark upon a consideration of their history or nomenclature).
So what does all of this have to tell us about the controversy over the meaning and proper sinographic orthography of gōngfu chá (Kung-fu / Gongfu tea)? First of all, before the second half of the 20th century, it is very unlikely that gōngfu chá could have meant "martial arts tea" simply because neither gōngfu 工夫 nor gōngfu 功夫 had the meaning of "martial art" when the idea and practice of gōngfu chá originated in the 18th century (at the latest). As to whether 工夫茶 or 功夫茶 is the proper sinographic form of gōngfu chá, there can be no question that the latter form is now considered correct by the overwhelming majority of those who write with Chinese characters. There also can be little doubt that, when people started to make gōngfu chá, nobody was thinking of it as "martial arts tea". Moreover, when they first started to write down the expression gōngfu chá, they almost always did so with the characters 工夫茶 rather than with 功夫茶.
Walter William Skeat, in his Principles of English Etymology (1891), vol. 1, p. 430 gets it basically right: "Congou tea, from Amoy kang-hu tē, where kang-hu is for kung-fu, lit. 'work' or 'labour'; said to be so called from the labour bestowed on it." Nothing about martial arts. The Rev. Skeat presents roughly the same information in his remarkable Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, rev. and enlgd. (1897; 1st ed. 1879-1882), p. 129b, but adds that the expression is used in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "School for Scandal," first performed in London at Drury Lane Theatre on May 8, 1777. However, I do not appreciate his afterthought that "the true Chinese is kung-fu ch'a, with the same sense." Quite the opposite, one may legitimately say that the Amoy pronunciation is more authentic than the Mandarin one, inasmuch as this type of tea preparation, as we shall see in the next paragraph, comes from the regions of Chaozhou and Fujian (where Amoy [now called Xiamen] is located).
The earliest two Chinese uses of the term gōngfu chá I know of refer respectively to the Chaozhou region (1801) and to the province of Fujian (Fukien, Foukien) (ca. 1840-1860). It is curious that, for the latter text, in the same major reference work (Morohashi Tetsuji, Dai Kan-Wa jiten (Great Sino-Japanese Dictionary), where I found these citations, in one place (4.344/3746c, #8714.118) gōngfu chá is written as 工夫茶, while in another place (2.367/1449c, #2295.102) it is written as 功夫茶. Either the editors of Dai Kan-Wa jiten were relying on two different versions of the Mǐn zájì 閩雜記 or they committed an all too understandable copyist's error. In either case, it only goes to show that — most likely already by the mid-19th century when the Min zaji was composed, and certainly by the mid-20th century when the Dai Kan-Wa jiten was assembled – 工夫茶 and 功夫茶 were both being used to write the vocable gōngfu chá. Since HDC, 2.766b gives 功夫茶 for this quotation from the Mǐn zájì 閩雜記, as do most online citations and versions of the text that I can find, it would appear that this is the form in the original text. This would make it an exception to the overwhelming majority of references to gōngfu chá in texts dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, where gōngfu chá most often — though not always — is written as 工夫茶. However, the fact that a substantial number of online quotations of the mid-19th c. Mǐn zájì 閩雜記 write 工夫茶 for this term or note that 功夫茶 is also written as 工夫茶, it is clear that there is plentiful confusion over the proper orthography for the expression gōngfu chá.
What purports to be the entire text of the Cháo jiā fēngyuè jì 潮 嘉風月記 has been copied into this blog. Note that, as documented by the OED (cited above), there are earlier references to gōngfu chá in English sources than this earliest known reference (1801) to 工夫茶 in a Chinese text.
In Chinese writings on the history of tea, it is often claimed that there are references to gōngfu chá in Lu Yu's 陸羽 (733–804) celebrated Chá jīng 茶經 (Tea Classic), which marks the legitimization of tea drinking in China and the founding of the tea cult. But this is simply not true. There are no references to gōngfu chá in Lu Yu's Tea Classic.
This author uses information preserved in the great Ming encyclopedia, Yǒnglè Dàdiǎn 永樂大典 (Yongle Encyclopedia; 1403-1408) to suggest that even in Yuan times, gōngfu chá had not yet appeared in Chaozhou.
According to Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 6, p. 561: "It was probably in the 18th century that a special way of making oolong tea was developed, called kungfu tea."
I have heard from various sources that it is possible for Teochew (Chaozhou) speech to distinguish between the pronunciations of 工夫茶 and 功夫茶, hence that speakers of that topolect would be able to tell the "proper" sinographic form for gōngfu chá. Indeed, when I looked up 工 and 功 in Hanyu fangyin zihui 漢語方音字彙 (A Glossary of Character Readings in Sinitic Topolects), 2nd ed., I found that the pronunciation of the latter is given as koŋ. More interestingly, however, the pronunciation of 工 is a much more complicated affair, there being one literary and two vernacular pronunciations: lit. koŋ, vern. 1. kaŋ, 2. k'aŋ. If there are speakers of Teochew (Chaozhou) who read this blog, perhaps they can shed additional light on the pronunciation of 工夫茶 and 功夫茶 in that topolect.
All of this leads me to make the corollary point that what is of primary importance about Sinitic languages are the vocables of which they are constituted, not the characters that are used to write them, which are of secondary importance. This verity is borne out by the fact that, already at the earliest stage of the writing system and throughout its entire development, the same morphemes and lexemes can often be written with two, three, four, or even more different characters or groups of characters and by the fact that there are many morphemes in various Sinitic languages that cannot be written with characters or for which characters must be assigned on an ad hoc, forced basis. This is particularly obvious for languages such as Taiwanese and Cantonese, but it also holds true for Pekingese, Sichuanese (Szechwanese), Shandongese, and many other topolects within the Mandarin branch of Sinitic). Because of the wide variety of sinographic forms for a large proportion of Sinitic vocables and lexemes, there ia a constant call for "standardization" by lexicographers and language reformers in China.
More astonishing than the circulation of the vocable gōngfu chá for a considerable period of time before it came to be written down in characters (witness the prior references to gōngfu chá in European sources) is the fact that the very word for tea (MSM chá, Amoy tê [Thomas Barclay, Supplement to Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy (1923), p. 222a]) itself must have been circulating for several centuries before someone (perhaps even Lu Yu himself) cleverly devised the graph chá 茶 by erasing one stroke from tú 荼 ("a kind of bitter plant"), probably sometime around the middle of the 8th century.
Finally, in writing this blog, I must confess that I spent quite a bit of TIME in WORKing on it, which makes me think of a highly relevant expression, xià gōngfu 下工夫 ／／ 下功夫 ("concentrate one's efforts" or "put in time and energy". This is what you have to do to make a good cuppa gōngfu chá. Never mind whether you write that 工夫茶 or 功 夫茶.
(Thanks are due to Jonathan Smith, Matt Anderson, Brian Vivier, Josh Capitanio, Huang Heqing, Mark Liberman, Rebecca Fu, Xu Wenkan, Tang Hai-t'ao, Yang Jidong, Yao Dehuai, Doug Hazen, Jerry Packard, Jerry Norman, James Norwood Pratt, and Evan Draper, who originally asked me whether "功夫茶" is a corruption of the allegedly correct "工夫茶" [Evan was skeptical])