Compared to British teaware, which pretty much consists of a porcelain teapot and standard-sized teacups, Chinese teaware is far more diverse and rich in ancient history and philosophy.
In this blog post, I will give you some key vocabulary to help you navigate the complex tea preparation scenes you’ll often see in tea shops and tea houses across China.
To put it simply, lidded tea bowls are teapots without spouts. They were said to have been invented in the Ming Dynasty (明朝/míng chaó) (1368-1644). They are made up of three parts: the saucer (盘子/pánzi), the bowl (碗/wăn) and the lid (盖子/gàizi). The lid represents heaven, the saucer represents earth, and the bowl represents humanity. Together they represent the harmony between man and nature. Lidded tea bowls are made of a variety of materials, but the most popular is porcelain (瓷器/cíqì) because of its capacity to absorb heat, making it easier to handle. They are normally small, with a volume between 100ml and 180ml.
Lidded tea bowls are usually preferred to teapots with spouts because the wide opening on a lidded tea bowl allows the tea leaves to be viewed while brewing. Once brewed, the lidded tea bowl is held in a way that allows a small gap between the bowl and lid to decant the tea liquor while leaving the tea leaves behind. The tea liquor is poured into a fairness pitcher, which ensures the liquor concentration is equally distributed so that the last serving of tea is not stronger than the first serving of tea.
The purple sand teapot, also known as the yixing teapot (宜兴茶壶/yīxìng cháhú) is made of a special clay that comes from an area called Yixing in the Jiangsu province. The clayware dates back as far as the Song Dynasty (宋朝/sōng cháo) (960-1279). Whilst most purple sand teapots sold in China have the purple/brown hue, there are also yellow, green, blue and red clay teapots that go by the same name.
Purple sand teapots are generally used for the preparation of more robust teas (oolong, red and black teas) rather than the more delicate teas (green, yellow and white teas). This is because the clay absorbs a small amount of tea during each brew and, with prolonged use, can eventually taint the flavour of teas brewed in it. For this reason, tea fanatics will usually just use one teapot for one type of tea only. I’ve heard that there are families in China that have had purple sand teapots in their family for multiple generations. Their teapots have been used so many times that they don’t need to brew tea leaves in them anymore. They just pour boiling water into the teapot and the tea flavour in the clay seeps into the water.
Purple sand teapots in China are like paintings in the West. Makers of the teapots are considered artists, they autograph each of their pieces, and the most famous makers’ teapots can fetch millions of yuan at auction.
All tea ceremonies are performed on a tea tray that collects spilt or decanted tea liquor, which is then pumped out and disposed of. Tea trays can range from simple wooden boxes with slats on top to intricately designed stones with carved-out water drains.
The way to use a scent cup is hard to describe. It is taller and narrower compared to a normal tasting cup (品茗杯/pĭnmĭng bēi). The way it works is that the tea liquor is poured into the scent cup and then a tasting cup is put over the top of it. The heat in the scent cup creates suction so that, when the cups are flipped over and the tasting cup is on the bottom and the scent cup is upside-down inside the tasting cup, none of the tea liquor escapes until the scent cup is lifted up by force. Then, like magic, the tea pours out into the tasting cup. Depending on the type of tea, a sweet scent like honey is left behind on the glazing of the scent cup for guests to smell and savour.
Usually made of white porcelain or bamboo, the purpose of the tea holder is to measure out the tea leaves and to allow the appearance of the dry leaves to be clearly viewed before scraping them into the brewing vessel.
Instead of using hands to touch the teacups, servers will often use bamboo or metal tea tongs to handle the cups in order to be more hygienic.
Ever brewed tea leaves in a teapot and then found some of the leaves annoyingly stuck in the holes between the spout and the body? The Chinese don’t need to worry about this problem, as they invented the tea needle to dislodge lodged tea leaves.
The tea brush has an aesthetic purpose. It is used to spread any spilt tea on the tea tray and teaware around to ensure any tea staining is spread evenly.
True tea connoisseurs have a tea pet sitting on their tea tray. This is usually a classical Chinese figurine, such as a dragon, a water buffalo or an old Chinese sage. They are usually made out of purple sand clay and used as a receptacle over which wasted tea liquor is poured to avoid splash-back from the tea tray.
I’ll save this part for the next blog post, as the world of Chinese teacups is like entering the Land of Oz – filled with wonder.
The Keats Chinese Language School has a Chinese culture study option in the one-on-one intensive language study program. You can request special lessons in traditional Chinese tea culture and tea-related vocabulary. Kunming is the perfect place to study tea as Yunnan is the birthplace of the tea tree and puerh tea.
*Jaq James has lived in China on and off for five years across four difference provinces. She has a Bachelor of Laws, Master of Education and a Master of Public Policy. She has studied Mandarin with Keats since 2017. Jaq has a particular passion for Chinese tea culture. She writes articles for Tea Journey Magazine and has published a novella about Mount Wuyi tea culture, called The Found One. She is a co-founder of a tea club called The Artisan Tea Club, which also helps organise tea tours in China.
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