A Guide To Popular Asian Tea Ware

November 24, 2020

by Diana Rosen

When visiting the Pacific Rim countries of China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, you’ll discover both the timeless elegance and sophisticated practicality of classic Asian tea ware. Whether made of fine glazed porcelain or the purple clay of Yixing, Asian tea brewing vessels, cups, and accessories are legion, yet all provide the tea drinker an opportunity to savor every drop of every infusion and to philosophically be one with the tea. To achieve this, one must suspend, as much as possible, the cares of the world and focus only on the preparation and drinking of the tea.

Among the many styles of tea service equipage throughout Asia are:

Oolongs are a specialty on this lovely island, so its most popular tea ware is a gong fu set (aka kung fu) that comprises a small teapot, usually about 3” in diameter, so that the large oolong teas will be infused with great concentration of flavor.

To add both ceremony and pleasure, the set may include some or all of the following: small pitchers used either to hold extra hot water or to pour the tea from the teapot; 3” high cylindrical scent cups to pour a little tea into it expressly to pass around to guests to showcase the floral nature of the tea and, subsequently, to use to pour into tiny thimble cups, about 1” in diameter. The sets are usually made of either porcelain or clay and the thimble cups may either be all porcelain or clay with a white porcelain glaze on the inside to best show off the color of the brewed tea.

Using such a set creates a feeling of intimacy between the tea drinkers sharing the same tea. Because of the small size of the equipage, everyone can enjoy subtle or pronounced nuances in flavor profile as the multiple infusions are poured. With small quantities, the tea allows the drinkers to slow down and be fully present with the tea.

South Korea’s tiny tea-growing industry has experienced a resurgence since the 1960s and a restoration of its once flourishing tea ceremony traditions. Perhaps the most significant part of this resurgence in artisans dedicated to replicating what is probably Korea’s most significant contribution to ceramics: celadon.

Developed during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 CE), celadon is a sage-colored glaze that makes a perfect backdrop for Korea’s fine green teas. Sometimes called greenware or Goryeo, celadon is called Cheong-ja in Korean, and found in any porcelain used for eating or drinking and for decorative objects like vases or incense burners.
Patterned after the Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu, the Korean version uses fine green tea leaves or a powdered tea like matcha; heats water over a brazier, and has similar-sized small cups and bamboo utensils to scoop out tea for brewing, clear out brewed tea leaves from a spout, and to ladle water into a pot. The side-handled teapot is most common as it makes pouring easier than top handled pots.

The host is often a man, but whether male or female, those conducting the tea ceremonies are dressed in traditional costumes of silk or other fine cloth, and in colors that are bright and festive like hot pink, chartreuse, with a touch of black or white.

Except for matcha, Japanese teas, are brewed either in side-handled teapots called kyusu, or cast iron teapots called tetsubin, the unglazed iron pot that can be smooth or have a class hobnail surface, and tetsu kyusu, glaze-lined cast iron teapots that can be various colors and are often decorated with Japanese symbols of nature. Cast iron pots are particularly wonderful for keeping tea hot. Glazed cast iron pots may also be used to heat the water or hold heated water for multiple infusions. Complementary ironware teacups with an inner glaze are often used but, because they retain heat so well, many people find porcelain ones more comfortable to handle.

The tea equipment for chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) is particular to the preparation of matcha and uses a wide-mouth tea bowl (chawan) to brew in and to drink from; a bamboo whisk (chasen) to aerate the tea to a froth; a chasen holder to facilitate quick drying of the whisk; a bamboo ladle (hishaku) to pour hot water onto the matcha; a narrow scoop for clearing tea leaves from the spout and a shorter broad scoop for measuring tea; bamboo pinchers to pick up hot cups, and decorative lacquer or porcelain canisters (natsume) to hold the matcha during the ceremony. (Practical containers are used for storage.)

Other chanoyu accessories may include water pitchers (mizusashi) for extra water, or to cool boiled water down; a teapot lid rest (futaoki;) a rinse water receptacle (kensui;) strainers, and infusers.

A hohin tea set takes a little practice to handle gracefully because they have no handles and are squat. One must pick them up as if holding an apple. The set contains two or more cups, a small teapot and lid and a matching small pitcher for water. They come in an endless array of colors and designs and are made of stoneware or porcelain.

The birthplace of tea has developed legions of tea ware but two of the most common are Yixing clay teapots and the gaiwan.

Yixing clay is porous and retains heat well. Because of the porosity, only one type of tea should be used in a particular pot because, over time, the clay will absorb the tea’s flavor. If a mixture of teas are used, they will taint the next cup and render it undrinkable. Modern Yixing pots vary from the classic purple-red clay to those to which oxides have been added to change colors to green, beige, ochre, black, or blue.

Many Chinese tea sets, whether Yixing clay or fine porcelain, may include such accessories as bamboo tea scoops, spout cleaners, pinchers to lift rinsed cups, and others similar to Japanese tools mentioned above. What is unusual are drainers, either metal or wood, which are an ancient nod to life without plumbing. Teapots and cups are placed on the perforated lid. After hot water is used for rinsing teas or heating cups, it is poured through the perforated lid into the waiting tray underneath. This clever tool not only allows the host to stay with his guests for the entire process of tea service, it helps him do it neatly, avoiding stains on cloths or table surfaces. When the tea service is complete, the host will carry the entire tray to a sink off site. Residual tea leaves are scooped up and tossed and all the waste water in the tray is poured down the sink drain along with any water to rinse off the cups and brewer.

Gaiwan are made from plain or decorated porcelain or stoneware although jade and jade-like materials have been used. Gaiwan can be used either as a tea-drinking vessel or as a brewer to pour into smaller cups. It consists of a lid to keep the tea hot and/or to paddle the leaves to unfurl in a slightly indented cup; a cup from which to sip the tea or use it as a vessel, and a saucer to sit the cup upon when not in use or to have it refilled with water.

A third, more casual Chinese tea ware, is the zhong, a mug with an infuser, topped by a lid that serves as a saucer for the infuser. Zhongs are usually made of porcelain or stoneware and highly decorated.

This is but a glimpse of the legion of Asian tea ware. Enjoy the hunt to experience them all!

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