Kung-fu (Gongfu) Tea

« previous post | next post »

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:

1822年马礼逊《华英字典·Part Ⅲ》:“CONGO TEA,工夫茶.”(1822年,Huaying zidian,6,83)
1822年马礼逊《华英字典·Part Ⅲ》“TEA”条:“Congo,工夫茶.”(1822年,Huaying zidian,6,426)
1854年6月《遐迩贯珍》第六号:“英国现下茶价,每工夫茶一磅,值银二十六先士,计一钱八分七厘。”(1854年,Xia'er guanzhen,80)
1854年7月《遐迩贯珍》第七号:“英国现在工夫茶每磅十一个边士至十二个边士。”(1854年,Xia'er guanzhen,90)
1887年王咏霓《归国日记》:“登天王山,过星冈茶寮,饮工夫茶。”(1887年,Guiguo riji,15正)

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

From the Dong shi riji section of Na Tong's Na Tong riji 那桐《那桐日記》(1890-1925) -東使日記:
晚赴外務部內田 康哉之約,園在品川,酒饌皆中國者,子初歸,有妓名小町甚佳,同席小村,飲功夫茶。
10 instances of 工夫茶:
(1) Wei Yuan's Haiguo tuzhi, juan 81 魏源《海國圖誌》 (1843, 1847-1848) -卷八十一/光緒平慶涇固道署重刊:
自後市上賣茶之 人,皆囤積不賣,買茶之人,到外購買,毫不能得,以致下等之黑茶綠茶,亦如常時好茶,並工夫茶一樣價值。
(2) Xu Ke's (1869-1928) Qing bai lei chao, 80 徐珂《清稗類鈔 (1916) -80、娼妓類/傳世藏書整理本:
乾隆時,毗陵陳 雲旅梅州,每月夜,即招兩人煮工夫茶,細啜清談,至曉,不及亂。
(3) The same book as the above, 92 飲食類/傳世藏書整理本:
即泉州、廈門人 所講之工夫茶,號稱名種者,實僅得小種也。
(4) The same book as the above, also 92:
閩中盛行工夫 茶,粵東亦有之。
(5) and (6) The same juan (92) of the same work contains the section titles 邱子明嗜工夫茶 and 某富翁嗜工夫茶.
(7) Yu Jiao's Chaojia fengyue, juan 1 俞蛟《潮嘉風月》(1801) -一卷/夢廠雜著本 (or 香豔叢書?):
工夫茶,烹治之 法,本諸陸羽《茶經》,而器具更有精致。
(8) The same section of the above work by Yu Jiao contains the following text, which is almost identical to the text in (2) by Xu Ke, above:
每月夜,即招兩 人煮“工夫茶”,細啜清談,至曉不及亂。
(9) Guo Songtao's Lundun yu Bali riji, juan 5 郭嵩燾《倫敦與巴黎日記》(1876) -卷五/通行本:
酒罷,上野夫人 瀹茗相款,略如武夷工夫茶,以小杯為飲具,意極珍重。
(10) Xue Fucheng's Chushi Ying-Fa-Yi-Bi si guo riji xu, juan 2 薛福成《出使英法義比四國日記續》(late 1890s) -卷二/通行本:
所產紅茶內工夫 茶一項,味可中等;花香茶一項,色美力勝,惜其攙末太多。

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:

– gōngfu is a term that has gained worldwide popularity in the last 20 years (he was writing in 1990)
– it is particularly widespread as a term for Chinese martial arts in Europe/America
– around 200 years ago, French missionaries in China introduced the term "gōngfu" to Europeans, as that was what Daoists at the time were calling their qìgōng 氣功 ("pneuma control") practices
– but, the term really gained popularity with the rise of the Hong Kong film industry and especially the popularity of Bruce Lee in the 60s/70s
– gōngfu is a colloquial term for martial arts used primarily in Guangdong / Guangxi
– but, in Chinese history, it has not been commonly used strictly to refer to martial arts (在中國歷史上,"功夫" 並未作為武術的正式稱呼而通用)
– "gōngfu" encompasses the meanings of strength acquired through practice, accomplishments achieved through self-control, and skill attained through discipline.  In other words, so long as one's gōngfu is profound, one can "refine an iron cudgel into a needle".
– thus, gōngfu refers more broadly to the cultivation of any sort of skill or trade to a high level, including, but not limited to, martial arts

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 thatgōngfu 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])


  1. Brad Patterson said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 7:00 am

    你中文功夫好厉害! (your mandarin kung fu is wicked !)

    Great article. Loved the "pun" of sorts on 工 and 功.

    Have subscribed to catch more fun ! Cheers, Brad

  2. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    I am something of a tea aficionado, and my favorite teas are China blacks. In fact, the tea I by far drink the most of is identified in the English text on the tin as "China black tea / Panyong Congou / product of the People's Republic of China / Fujian Tea Import & Export Co., Ltd.". The Chinese version of the "Panyong Congou" section of the text is four characters, the final two of which are the older, simpler version of gongfu you list above.

    What does "panyong" mean, by the way?

    I was glad to see that the character for "tea" is in fact the character for "tea", something which I had guessed from the fact that it appears on every tin of Chinese tea I've seen.

  3. Leonardo Boiko said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    > 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

    Ooh now that was evil! You tease, you.

  4. Will said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    An article I have says:
    The congou [read gongfu] was first described in Yu Jiao's (1751-?) book Miscellanea of Chaoshan and Jiaxing 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 from the Chinese publication "Archeology of Agriculture", in special issue (6) on Chinese tea culture, from 1993 p 144. (by the way, both publications use 工夫 rather than 功夫). If you don't have access to this publication at your university, I have a few of the articles from this publication (in Chinese) which I can send you in PDF, as well as a less scholarly article which has a lot of promising looking footnotes.

    Some of the early references to gongfu tea do mention Lu Yu ("The proper way to make congou is to obey Lu Yu's tea ceremony but with more exquisite tea sets…"), so it's possible that folks who think "Tea Classic" mentions gongfu tea may have it backwards.

    I don't have any documentation one way or another, but I've always understood gongfu black (red) tea to refer to the skill / work involved in making the tea, rather than suggesting that this type of tea is actually used for making gongfu tea (which usually involves wulong / partially-oxidized tea).

  5. google-fu said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    @Brad Patterson

    Your translation is outdated. It should just be "Your mandarin-fu is wicked!"

    I am Teochew, though I only know a few words. My mom and grandma speak it but can't read or write Chinese. They switch to English when they can't express something. I didn't know any Teochew friends when growing up, and met one at university. However we started speaking Cantonese as we both knew it better.

    My dad said 工夫 is the correct form as it refers to the large amount of work needed in return for a minuscule amount of tea. I am not so sure after reading your blog, but 工夫 seems more correct to me, and if you want to call me a prescriptivist, I will say this: They're spelling of there is definately their.

  6. e said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    As a native Chinese speaker, I would say that 工夫 and 功夫 means, in this case, the same thing. Very roughly: effort. And to suggest 功夫 in this case equals English Kung-fu is misleading. The tea has nothing to do fighting.

    BTW i am from Fujian, am too a big tea lover, nice to know that someone half a globe away appreciate this brand.

  7. Claw said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

    … it seems difficult to accept such an assertion for a number of reasons, including: 1. its neutral tone …

    I don't think this argument is particularly relevant because the neutral tone in general is only a feature of the Mandarin dialects. The tea originated in southern China, and in most southern Chinese dialects there is no neutral tone and 夫 continues to be pronounced with a tone that corresponds to the MSM first tone (陰平).

  8. Will said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    I do like e's point that I've always taken 工夫 and 功夫 to be more or less interchangeable, and haven't spent a lot of time worrying about which one is correct. People will understand the meaning either way.

    I think the discipline and skill required are related to martial arts in a general sense (i.e., you could argue that the same practice and patience that are required for martial arts are also required to make tea well; some may consider this an overstatement, but that's how I've always understood it).

  9. John said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    You might be having some font issues (unrelated to the Chinese text) there.

  10. Rick Matz said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

    Your readers might enjoy this slide show about a very special teahouse in HangZhou which really demonstrates Tea Kung Fu.

  11. Rick Matz said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 9:06 pm


    This time with the link.

  12. Will said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    @Rick: I don't consider that style of brewing gongfu tea. Gongfu tea as discussed above (the style of tea brewing which originated in the Chaoshan / Chaozhou area in Guangdong, and was also popular in much of Fujian province) tends to be made with wulong (oolong) tea, and the same styles have been adapted now for pu'er tea as well, though you could argue that this is not as traditional. Generally, the brewing is done in a small unglazed teapot with quite a bit of leaf, and when a lidded cup / bowl (gaiwan) is used, it is decanted into small drinking cups. By contrast, the teahouse slideshow you linked to is serving the style of green tea popular in the Hangzhou area, the kettle with a long spout is used to fill the gaiwan (in a very showy way); less tea leaf is used, and generally the tea is consumed directly from the brewing vessel (e.g., gaiwan), rather than from a small tasting cup.

    However, the NYT did do a great piece on gongfu tea a while back:

  13. Bruce said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    I have studied Tai Chi quite extensively from Grandmaster Shou-yu Liang, of Sichuan Province, PRC. You can read more about him here:

    Master Liang and the other instructors at his Institute tended to use the term Kungfu (Gongfu) very little, in favour of the general word Wushu or more specialized words like Taiji or Qigong. Regarding Qigong, this word was used (as I saw it) for activities to sustain and promote health, rather than fighting techniques.

  14. The suffocated said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

    功夫 had already acquired the meaning of martial arts in the late 19th century. Examples can be found in novels like 永慶升平前傳 (1892), 彭公案 (1892), 聖朝鼎盛萬年青 (1893), 劉公案 (1894), 蜃樓外史 (1895). Attributing such usage to the Cantonese, I believe, is unsound.

  15. John Cowan said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

    Indeed, it is curious that it is the -fu part that has come to mean 'skill' in very recent sociolects of English.

  16. John Swindle said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 5:02 am

    @Dennis Paul Himes: "Panyong" is a place name. According to the Chinese-language website of Fuan City Tycoon Tea Co., Ltd., it came from the name of the village (坦洋, modern Mandarin "tǎnyáng") where that kind of tea was first produced.

  17. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    @John Swindle: Yes, those characters are the same ones on the tin corresponding to "Panyong".

  18. Evan Draper said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

    And yet in a way, 功夫茶 IS a corruption of the allegedly correct 工夫茶. So much for my skepticism. John, thanks for solving the "panyang" riddle: my tea circle thought it might be 盘羊 (盤羊). That translates to "argali"–which was just as mystifying in English–a Central Asian mountain sheep, maybe attesting to the tea's high-altitude environment.

  19. The suffocated said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 1:39 am

    @Evan Draper: No, it is not. The use of 功夫 as a synonym of 工夫 (to mean "effort" or "skills") predated the first known mentions of Congou Tea (1725, according to this blog entry) or 工夫茶 (1822). For instance, such usage can be found in Chapter 9 of the Chinese novel 情夢柝. The exact time of writing of 情夢柝 is unknown, but this novel was mentioned in another book 在園雜記, which was written in 康熙五十四年, or Year 1707-08. So, replacing 工夫 by 功夫 in 工夫茶 was probably valid at that time, albeit unpopular.

  20. Matt said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    Re the two Japanese words: In "kōfu", both characters are pronounced with what in Japanese are called the "Han (漢) pronunciations", while in "kufū", the first character has the "Wu (呉) pronunciation", which normally indicates an older borrowing and/or an association with Buddhism or law, while the long "fū" is a "colloquial pronunciation" (慣用音), which means that it probably arrived at its present form within Japanese rather than as a borrowed sound.

    So the simplest hypothesis is that the words "kōfu" and "kufū" represent two separate borrowings from Chinese, one of the original meaning and one of the later. Incidentally, 工夫 "effort, discipline, ingenuity" (the word is notoriously hard to translate!) allegedly began its career in Japanese as Buddhist jargon, which was indeed imported in bulk using non-Han pronunciations.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

    @The Suffocated

    Pieter C. Keulemans kindly sent me the following valuable information about the novels you mentioned:


    The term "gongfu" does appear in some of these novels and it does appear as a regimen of physical practice of martial arts. In the "Yongqing shengping qian zhuan" there is, from what I remember, this description of a young man training with heavy weights on his legs trying to jump out of a very deep trench, jumping a bit higher each time. Overall, though, I think these novels are still very far away from the world of Jin Yong, which are very specifically geared towards narratives in which a hero becomes ever more powerful and much of the plot revolves around learning (often secret) techniques that are only gradually revealed (and described in much greater detail). Usually, in late-Qing fiction (as in Shuihuzhuan), heroes walk into the novel with a clear set of skills, and the "bildungsroman" aesthetic of training oneself is not much there.

    The martial arts are also described in much less detail and the world of martial arts is not yet divided into the many, many different schools that you find from the twentieth-century onwards (that, I think is the work of a 1910s novelist/martial-arts practitioner, Pingjiang Buxiaosheng); maybe two or three schools of martial arts are mentioned, but clearly this differentiation and the huge differentiation of martial arts techniques that comes with it, is not yet that important. In short, these novels do feature martial arts, but it is still a far cry from the world of Jin Yong.

    One more thing, there is not yet the kind of "neigong" practice in these novels that becomes so important in later martial arts fiction. It would seem that the interest in emphasizing (in martial arts novels, not in broader literature) the idea of nei versus wai is a later invention.

    Finally, these novels are regional in nature. I myself am interested in the Beijing branch of martial arts novels, often founded on local storyteller tales. "Yongqing shengping qian/hou zhuan" is a good example. These novels are based on tales told by a local Beijing storyteller (originally from Shandong) named Jiang Zhenming and his disciple, a local bannerman Hafuyuan. THe novel has quite a bit of Beijing slang, lengthy descriptions of local Beijing culture, and the like. Usually in the transformation from storyteller tale/hand-written manuscript/drumsong to printed novel, the local characteristics (at least in terms of language) become ever more muted. I wrote an entire chapter on the local nature of some of these Beijing novels which I would be happy to send.


  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

    Since these novels (discussed in the previous comment) are clearly of great importance in the development of gongfu as martial arts, I will post several other valuable communications from correspondents.

    This one comes from Shang Wei:


    Of these books, Penggong an 彭公案is a standard gongan 公案novel. It is set in the Kangxi reign, and its protagonist is Peng Peng彭朋, whose biography is included in Qingshigao清史稿. The novel has it sequels and seems quite influential. Liugong An 劉公案has survived in the hand-copied manuscript form, and is less known.

    Shenlou waishi 蜃樓外史reads more like a martial art fiction, but it also involves demons and magic, and thus verges on what Lu Xun describes as "shenmo xiaoshuo神魔小説."

    The other two novels, Yongqing shengping qianzhuan 永慶升平前傳is set in the Kangxi reign while 聖朝鼎盛萬年青 is concerned with Qianlong emperor's tour through Jiangnan, when the emperor is said to travel in disguise and deal with all sorts of people, including haohan (martial arts heroes) and local bullies. These two works are not related to each other, but they are probably based on the storytelling of the time. Yongqing shengping qianzhuan also begins with Kangxi emperor traveling in disguise, but then other characters take over, becoming the main characters of the novel.

    If you need more information about these works, you can check 中國通俗小説總目提要,and look at pages 767, 770, 787, 791, 1097. You may also gain access to the full text of these works through the baidu search engine.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

    I should note that the gong'an ("court case") literature mentioned in these comments has a long history that goes back at least to the Song period, having its basis in stories about the legendary Judge Bao (Bao Zheng 包拯; 999-1062). Note this passage from the Wikipedia article about Judge Bao: "In many stories Bao is usually accompanied by his skilled bodyguard Zhan Zhao and personal secretary Gongsun Ce (公孙策). Zhan is a skilled martial artist while Gongsun is an intelligent adviser. There are also four enforcers named Wang Chao (王朝), Ma Han (馬漢), Zhang Long (張龍), and Zhao Hu (趙虎). All of these characters are presented as righteous and incorruptible." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bao_Zheng

    In Western literature, there are the remarkable Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik. They are based on the exploits of a Tang period historical figure named Di Renjie 狄仁傑 (c. 630–c. 700) and later legends about him, but with much fertile invention on the part of van Gulik. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judge_Dee

  24. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    Long-ago reminiscences from Tai-loi Ma:


    I have heard of all of these novels, except Liu gong an, and read some of them when I was young. The first three were about martial experts who gave up their independence and served as body guards of honest officials and even the emperor who frequented the south incognito. It is interesting to note that the monks of Shaolin Temple were presented as villains in the story about Emperor Qianlong. The last one seems out of place with the rest. It is more fabricated.

    I am not sure whether the term Gongfu appeared in any of these novels. I believe the early gongan novels (i.e. Shi gong an and Peng gong an) were derived from dramas via pingshu. The martial art represented is the showy martial art on stage.

    I don’t think that I have really responded to your question. But I have not touched those novels for decades.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

    From Richard G. Wang:


    I haven't actually read these novels. To the best of my knowledge, the novels 永慶升平前傳 (1892), 彭公案 (1892), 聖朝鼎盛萬年青 (1893), 劉公案 (1894), 蜃樓外史 (1895), are court-case (or detective) novels. They are not martial arts novels. But the Judge Bao-type judges always have able martial artists as their followers, and they sometimes have to fight evil people. In this sense, martial arts are sometimes involved. I haven't paid attention to the term gongfu. But I would surmise that the term is used occasionally in these novels when martial arts are described.

  26. The suffocated said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    Let me cite a few examples of 功夫 (as "martial arts") from the novels I mentioned:

    永慶升平前傳 (1892)

    Ch. 9: 從此就在此廟中學藝,練鷹爪力重手法、一力混元氣、達摩老祖易筋經、分筋挫骨法、點穴的功夫,練會趕棒一條、短刀一把。The phrase "點穴的功夫" is sometimes translated as "Dim Mak" (點脈), which means to paralyse your opponent for a short time by hitting the proper acupuncture point.
    Ch. 97: 孫四方要細問張玉峰,外邊鋼腸烈士歐陽善、鐵膽書生諸葛吉兩人趕到。歐陽善一瞧,舉棍照定那孫四頭上就是一棍。張玉峰瞧見了,說:「別打!」孫四往上一衝氣,「叭」的一聲,正中在頭頂之上。幸虧孫四他有貫頂的功夫,要不然死於非命。The phrase "貫頂的功夫" above belongs to the class of martial arts which is known as "硬功". Famous examples of 硬功 include 金鐘罩 and 鐵布衫.

    彭公案 (1892)

    Ch. 46: 花錘太保丁興過來,掄錘就打,被歐陽德施展點穴功夫,點倒在地,立時身死。Again, we have "Dim Mak" here.
    Ch. 114: 焦振遠練就虎尾三截棍,天下無敵,又有一身軟硬功夫,天下除去兄長,誰還是他的對手,這事倒不好辦了。In Chinese fictions, martial arts can be essentially divided into four classes: 輕功, 內功, 外功 and the mastery of weapons, where the thrid class (外功) can be further divided into two subclasses 軟功 and 硬功, which are what the phrase "軟硬功夫" in the above quotation refers to.

    聖朝鼎盛萬年青 (1893) There are a lot of mentions of 功夫 in this novel. The followings are two examples.

    Ch. 15: 再言武館中值事,趕緊辦完牛化蛟喪事,隨即問他首徒李雄道:「你師伯呂英布,功夫比你師父如何,現在武當山否?」李雄道:「呂英布師伯前有信來,說在肇慶府城南門大街開設武館,若論武藝,比我師父勝得幾倍,恐他不來,若肯來就是兩個胡惠乾,也敵他不過。」Here 功夫 and 武藝 (literally "martial arts") are used interchangably.
    Ch. 75: 大凡有功夫的人,不論他外功內功,練就鐵骨鋼筋、刀槍不入,他卻有一處照門,諸如渾身皆不怕刀槍亂砍,那照門上面,不必說是刀槍,即用一個指頭在那裡點這一下,即刻就要送命。Both 外功 and 內功 are mentioned here.

    劉公案 (1894)

    Ch. 95: 皂頭段文經有一妹丈姓徐,名叫克展,年三十七歲,面目黑色,五短身粗,一身的硬功夫。他就是本府城外八十里張棟村小潭口人氏,在大名道台衙門,身當馬快。還有本府城中二人:一名叫張君德,年三十四歲;一名叫劉奉,年三十六歲。俱是民人,都有些武功夫。This is a particularly interesting example — note that the author wrote "硬功夫" and "武功夫" instead of the more popular "硬功" and "武功".

    蜃樓外史 (1895)

    Ch. 20. This chapter is entitled "比功夫計除巨寇 顯英豪力剿雙龍" and the story is about "擂台比武". There are several mentions of "功夫" in this chapter. For example, one sentence reads "你既會賭功夫,俺且問你還是頭功,還是腹功", where "頭功" and "腹功" refer to the use of "硬功" to protect the head and the abdomen.

  27. Nick said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    I've also run across 功夫面 (never 工夫面), which I don't think actually take more time to produce than other 面 — which I think tips that particular case towards "mastery". I'd bet this is a much later coinage than 茶, though, just from the feeling of the few places I've seen it (i.e.: ephemerally fly-by-night noodle stands).

    This is a hugely impressive post, btw. Some poor graduate student studying 功夫 somewhere just got scooped on a dissertation chapter.

  28. The suffocated said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    Hmm, in the above 劉公案 (1894) example, I might have mistaken the meaning of 硬功夫. "硬功夫" could also mean "very good at Kung-fu", not necessarily "硬功" (a class of martial arts). But the phrase "武功夫" clearly means "武功", or martial arts.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    @The suffocated, Nick, and others

    Many thanks for your substantial contributions. The post and the comments together now probably constitute the most authoritative and complete account available anywhere of the rise of the concept of gongfu / kung-fu as a type of tea preparation and as a way to refer to martial arts.

    I will continue to add comments from specialists on late imperial and early Republican fiction as they come in. This one is from Martin Huang:


    Unfortunately, I have read none of these works mentioned by you, although my general impression is that some of these works are often a mixture of 公案 and 狭义 . Indeed, the concept of 功夫 is a relatively late phenomenon.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

    From Chris Hamm:


    Yes, I know of them, though I haven't read them all; most of them are on my list for "some day," but there are so many of these things, and they're so damn long.

    Yes, they are (proto-)martial arts novels: 彭公案 and 劉公案 are what modern literary historians call "chivalric court-case novels" 俠義公案小 說, in the vein of 三俠五義, with heroes aiding a righteous judge, while 永慶升平前傳 and 聖朝鼎盛萬年青 involve champions gathered about the Qing emperor. I'm least familiar with 蜃樓外史, but believe it's set in the Ming, and may have some of the characteristics of what Hsia (1974) has called the "military romance." I'd be very surprised if they use the term 功夫 to refer to the martial arts, but can't swear to it one way or the other.

  31. Aaron said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 1:25 am

    I am surprised to see so many people spend so much efforts to find supports in various literature for both sides. As a native Teochew speaker who also speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, I side with 工夫 as the correct written term. 工夫 and 功夫 share the similar pronounciation in Cantonese and Mandarin. But in Teochew dialect, these two terms are pronounced differently. Anyone who speak Teochew dialect would undoubtedly pick 工夫 as the correct written term in gongfucha. Simple pronouce the following terms in Teochew and any Teochew speaker would pick 工夫. The terms are 工作 and 气功. The Teochew pronounciation of Gong in gongfucha is the same as the gong in 工作, not the gong in 气功. Also worth noting here is that the Teochew dialect is one of the oldest spoken dialect in China. So the pronounciation in Teochew dialect may be a good path to explore in this arguement.

  32. The suffocated said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    @Aaron: I think we all agree that (1) 工夫茶 is the original (hence correct) name of the tea, (2) the 工夫 in 工夫茶 refers to "effort" rather than "martial arts", and (3) 功夫茶 is the more popular term than 工夫茶 nowadays. So there are not "two sides" of opinions. A few questions remain, though: (a) Is 功夫茶 also correct, or is it a "corruption" of 工夫茶, as some suggest? (b) How did 功夫 come to mean "martial arts"? Did 功夫 acquire the meaning of "martial arts" only recently?

    For question (a), since 工夫茶 is the original term, we are tempted to think that people write "功夫茶" simply because they have mistaken the meaning of "gongfu" in the name of the tea as "martial arts", where the correct interpretation should be "effort". Now, don't get me wrong. Many people (including myself) do commit this mistake, but literary evidence also shows that the use of 功夫 to mean "effort/skills" actually predated the first known mention of 工夫茶. So, while the name of the tea started out as 工夫茶, I think 功夫茶 was also a valid name right from the beginning. As people now seldom use 工夫 to mean "worker" and all other meanings of 工夫 are included in the term 功夫, but not the contrary, 功夫 has practically become a broader term than 工夫 in modern times. This might explain why writing 功夫茶 is nowadays much more popular than writing 工夫茶, regardless of whether people know the true meaning of gongfu in "gongfu cha" or not. But this is just my own opinion and certainly there are people who disagree.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 11:21 pm


    Happy to hear from you.

    As a matter of fact, in the fourth paragraph from the end of my original post I did discuss the different pronunciation of 工夫 and 功夫 in Teochew. It was my hope that a native speaker of Teochew such as yourself would follow up. In a way you have, but it would be much more helpful if you could indicate the actual differences. Can you spell them out (as I tried to do) and, if possible, indicate whether they have different tones?

  34. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 5:39 am

    Although the Scripta Sinica Database (as VM points out) has no premodern reference to 功夫茶, it also has no reference to 功夫針鋪 (finely made needle shop), despite the fact that this usage is attested (twice) on the world's first brand advertisement (for a Song-era needle shop in Jinan, Shandong), the bronze printing plate for which is held in the National History Museum (Beijing).
    This would seem to suggest that gongfu was written either as 功夫 or 工夫 (Zhu Xi uses gongfu in a philosophical sense copiously, and it is also spelled in both ways in his printed works).

    The adjectival usage of gongfu (carefully made xxx) was I think rare. I can only think of gongfu cha 工夫茶, gongfu zhenpu 功夫針鋪, gongfu xizhen 功夫細針, and gongfu zhi wen 工夫之文.
    Can others think of more examples?

  35. ahkow said,

    December 11, 2011 @ 12:31 am

    Like Aaron I'm also a native (albeit heritage speaker) of Teochew. I know this tea as kaŋ33 hu33 tæ55 (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wq83awIaPvk 0:17-0:18).

    Not sure about Aaron's assertion about 工 being the correct reading. I looked up mogher.com (a online Teochew dictionary) and got the following – the opposite of what Victor wrote:

    功: koŋ (literary reading 文读); kaŋ (vernacular 白读)
    工: kaŋ (both literary and vernacular)


    On the other hand, zdic.net gives both kaŋ and koŋ to 工, and only koŋ to 功, which would support Aaron's claim.

    Hopefully someone with a more authoritative dictionary can chime in here…

  36. John Lapham said,

    July 6, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    Hey there Victor Mair!

    I was introduced to your work by Professor David Knechtges a couple years ago at UW. I'm sort of a fan of yours because I study martial arts, martial philosophy, martial science, and tea. Your translation of the 孙子兵法 came out just before I began doing a project on it. Then, afterwards I did another project on the 茶经, just before you book on tea came out. Then I went to China to study tea.

    I have studied and taught gongfu cha, and if it weren't for you final remark I would have been mildly disappointed. It actually amazes me that "gongfu" is translated as "martial art" at all. There's definitely a correlation, but not everyone who practices martial arts possesses gongfu, and not everyone who possesses gongfu practices martial arts. (gongfu could be translated as kung fu and that would be okay… far too much to blab about here)

    I think I was at first intimidated by the amount of work you put into that, but cooled down as I neared the end, and we got the petty arguments out of the way. I prefer 功夫茶, but that's only because I was never told otherwise, and it suites my imagination better. Has more power in it. I wouldn't dispute it with anyone though. I would never say kung fu tea or martial arts tea, however.

    Nevermind all of that stuff though. I just wanted to say hello. I enjoyed your work. This post alone is quite beyond me, but I hope, if I continue in my tea studies, I can source it some day.

    Maybe I'll shoot you a link when I put my papers on my website.

    Thanks, from Seattle (in Chengdu at the moment),


RSS feed for comments on this post