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What's with the small tea cups?

Chinese tea gongfu cha

Such tiny, mini cups, how can you get a decent cuppa out of that? One sip and you're done! When brewing tea in the traditional, Chinese, gong-fu way, small, somewhat tiny cups are traditionally used. Some people think it's a hassle to always have to refill your cups and that such tiny cups are no where near enough to quench a thirst or satisfy ones craving for tea. But there are good reasons for why the tea cups are small – taste, appreciation and there's a social aspect as well.

Taste and appreciation

One reason for the small cups is because they're better for taste and appreciation of fine quality teas. When brewing tea the traditional gong-fu way, the general rule is, more leaves, less water, quick infusions. This releases different characteristics of the tea and with each subsequent infusion, the taste changes and evolves. The small cups allows you to really appreciate the taste and flavour of each stage of the tea. For example, our Phoenix Honey Orchid oolong really benefits from brewing in the traditional gong-fu style. 

Phoenix Honey Orchid Oolong tea

The first infusion highlights the floral fragrance inherent in the tea. On the second and third infusions, the more fruity, lychee and stone fruit flavours start coming to the fore. Subsequent infusions then show off the honey-like sweetness of the tea, which slowly gives way to a pleasant bitterness and general oolong flavour of the tea. It's a slow journey but one that allows you to appreciate all the subtle taste, flavours and qualities inherent in fine Chinese teas.

Sharing is caring

There's also very much a social aspect to brewing tea in the traditional gong-fu style. Whilst tea in the West is synonymous with quiet, me time, tea in China is usually the opposite. Tea is used as a means for bringing people together, whether it's family, friends or even strangers. One of the first things you're offered when entering a Chinese household is some tea, whether you asked for some or not. Even retail shop owners would have a gong-fu tea setup in their shop and would offer tea to customers.

In Chinese culture, the relationship between host and guest is an important one. The host would always offer tea to his/her guests and conversations would be had over tea. Hosts would always need to be vigilant in ensuring that their guests' cups aren't empty for too long. It's an important gesture in hospitality and shows that the host is treating the guest(s) with respect and has their undivided attention. And also, if there's a lull in the conversation, the host at least has something to do in continuing to brew more tea and thereby breaking the awkward silence. Whether intentional or not, I see it as a welcomed aspect of sharing this type of tea drinking with friends and family.

Sharing tea

Collectivist vs. Individualist

Western cultures are generally seen to be individualistic societies – that is, focusing on self, what I want and what I want to achieve – whilst Asian cultures tend to be more collectivist societies, where it's more important to maintain harmony within the group or family. This is no where more evident than with the differing approaches to the subject of tea.

As mentioned earlier, in Western countries, tea is often associated with quiet, me time. Hence the big cuppa teas we like to brew for ourselves and enjoy at our own leisure. In China though, tea is more associated with sharing and hospitality. You offer tea to your guests and constantly need to top up their small cups with a fresh brew. Whilst I have nothing against big cups of tea, I also think that we could all do with spending some more face-to-face time with our friends and family. And what better way to do that than over small cups of tea?


Tea Angle are based in Sydney Australia. We are purveyors of fine Chinese teas and the teas that we source are single origin and have no added flavourings. Click here to see our tea collection 


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  • Thank fr the info

    Robin Gnzalez
  • You’d put the tea into your brewing vessel first – usually in a lidded vessel called a “Gaiwan” or a small teapot. Then you brew the tea quickly before pouring it out, either directly into a series of small tea cups or into what’s known as a “fairness cup”. The following video quickly explains how to brew tea gong-fu style, where small tea cups are traditionally used

    Tea Angle
  • Do I need to put this tea in the cup and just pour the water over it or do I need something to encapsulate the loose tea in? I just read about the vanilla lychee tasting tea and how you can infuse it over and over in the small cups. I think this is so cool. I would like to try it but I don’t know anything about it. Thank you

    Vicki Magee

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