As many of us know, tea is a long established mainstay in Chinese culture. History has revealed that this “elixir” was being consumed by the people of China centuries before Christ! Since it’s initial introduction into the people’s consciousness, the production, preparation, and perceptions around tea have evolved along with the people. As this beverage grew in popularity, it transformed from an everyday drink into something of a social affair. The preparation and consumption of tea became an artful showcase.
The social evolution of tea dictated the shape, size, and overall design of the vessel from which it was being brewed and served. With time, the vessel also began to make a statement about the individual preparing it.
First, we should establish that the medium used to steep tea is not used to actually boil the water. Kettles have been something of a constant used to heat water before marrying it with tea.
Though legends of how tea first found its way into our cups sound quite magical, the people of China initially consumed it for very practical purposes - largely as a form of medicine. Herbs, roots and spices were cooked and boiled down over long periods of time to create a nutritive drink or “soup.” With the advent of the Camellia Sinensis plant, the leaves were processed into a paste used to make a tea brick. The blocks of tea would later be broken or torn into smaller pieces for brewing.
Considering the form and use of tea in its early period helps us to interpret the utilitarian bowl that was used to brew and consume one’s tea at the time. The bowl was molded to accommodate a larger amount of tea than most are accustomed to today – but it also needed to be small enough to still be held in-hand and ready to drink. This preparation shaped what is recognized as the chawan – literally meaning “tea bowl.”
Though the chawan is now commonly associated with Japan and its culture surrounding the prized powdered matcha, its origins come from ancient China. It is believed that the Japanese were introduced to tea and the chawan (589-618 AD) when Buddhist monks from Japan visited a Chinese monastery in the Tianmu Mountains – hence the morphing of the Japanese name “tenmoku chawan.” Tea production began to transform from bricks, which were often used as a form of currency, to powdered and loose leaf forms during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This transition came at a time when the preparation of tea began to develop a cultural aesthetic. The powdered tea was “whipped” or whisked with a specialized bamboo instrument, which is still used today when traditionally preparing matcha into a thick foamy paste.
This cup of magic has been aptly characterized as, “the froth of liquid jade.”
The previous period known as the Tang Dynasty (618-907) established the foundation for tea culture in China, travelling from its origins in the south to northern China, largely with the help of Buddhism. During the Tang era, the emperor sanctioned special attention to the cultivation of tea for its use in the imperial court as tea parties had become commonplace.
A major influence in laying the foundation for tea culture during this time was the esteemed tea scholar, Lu Yu. In addition to advising men appointed to oversee the tea estates, Lu Yu composed the Cha Jing, or The Classic of Tea – the first comprehensive body of work on tea. But the respected sage did more than simply outline the plant’s properties – Lu Yu transcended rudimentary methods of preparation and birthed a sociocultural ethos around tea. He called for it to become a medium that could appeal to the consumer’s higher nature, arguing that one could find a source of serenity and drink for the purpose of taste as opposed to the primal urge of quenching one’s thirst.
The Tang Dynasty’s foundation paved the way for tea to continue flourishing and deepening its roots in Chinese culture. By the beginning of the Song Dynasty, tea parties were a fashionable ritual in the Chinese court as well as society at large. Though the chawan remained a popular vessel for many centuries after Tang, history has revealed that people in the city of Yixing had begun experimenting with the development of the teapot during the early years of the Song Dynasty. Today the yixing (pronounced “yee-shing”) teapot is one of the most prized vessels used for brewing tea in China. Valued for the zisha clay’s uniquely porous and absorbent quality, yixing are commonly used to brew one specific type of tea - often oolong, black or Pu’er. Over a series of repeated brews, the pot naturally seasons with trace oil in the tea and acquires the distinctive character of your particular tea of choice.
After nearly one hundred years, the gaiwan, a relative of the chawan, emerged during the Ming Dynasty. Still maintaining the qualities of the all-in-one brew and sip technology, this smaller cup design also incorporated a lid and saucer. Today, the famed gaiwan is often made of porcelain or glass, which is great for brewing more delicate green or white teas. These materials do not retain high temperatures as zisha clay does and provide an appealing presentation for the senses, especially when using glass. Typically a “wash” or quick wet and strain technique is used to awaken the tea leaves before beginning the actual brew. Much like its predecessor, the gaiwan is a quite versatile piece of teaware. Its modified features make for a delightful brew, providing abundant fragrance and pleasant hues.
So what is your style and flavor profile? Whether you enjoy the creamy froth of matcha or have the complex palate that craves an earthy pu’er – there are wares crafted for brewing all of your desires to perfection.
Peruse our selection of essential Teaware.
Article written by Mariah Monet J.