- A wine cup used in the bronze age in China. Notice that there is a mouth piece, a reverse eave for easier pouring into the cup, a ear ( foreshortened — in the centre of the cup pointing towards you — i.e. on the right side of the mouthpiece ) and complete with two posts for guiding the tilt of the cup for proper manner. Before the design decision for the simpler round shape tea bowl, the people in antiquity had considered very carefully the functioning of a drinking vessel.
Jue wine cup, bronze, Shang Dynasty ( 1399 ~ 1000 B.C. ), Collection National Palace Museum, Taipei
- A millennium later, the drinking vessels for the royal and the noble had been much simplified. The tripod was dismissed, so were the various other features except for the ear.
Jade tall cup with ear. Han Dynasty ( 202 B.C. ~ 8 A.D. )
- Another millennium went by, the technology of porcelain was already extremely sophisticated in China. The craftsmen were able to produce wares not only of precise forms, but also playful and artistic ones. The ear feature of the cup is not exempted as a target for their creativity. The elf ear shape employed in this playful design was derived from the bat, an auspicious icon in the ancient culture. Note also that the overall form is much simplified but yet well-balanced and elegant. Designs in crafts had gone through much evolution by that time.
Cup in Light Aqua Glaze ( Celadon ), Ge Kiln, Yuan era ( 1201 ~ 1400 A.D. ), Collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei
- Before the cup serves the purpose as an infusion ware, the lid for it has always been important for keeping warmth in and dirt out.
White jade cup with two ears and zitan wood lid, Song Dynasty ( 960 ~ 1279 A.D. ), Collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei
- A 7th century painting about Xiaoyi 蕭翼, a court minister of the Tang Dynasty, debating and swindling his way to obtain the legendary calligraphic scroll “Lanting” which introduction was the work of Wang Xizhi 王羲之. While the confident and handsome looking cheater was convincing the puzzling monks, two servants were preparing tea to receive the well-dressed guest. The young boy was holding a cha zhan tea bowl ( 茶盞 ) with a cha tuo receptacle ( 茶托 ) to wait for water from the older man, who was heating water in a caldron — not a kettle, it was not invented or popular yet. Tealeaves had been ground into powder and placed in the tea bowls. At that time, the only form of tea available to most people was compressed.
Original painting Xiaoyi Swindling for the Lanting Scroll 蕭翼賺蘭亭圖 by Yan Liben 閻立本 ( 600 ~ 673 A.D. ) This reproduction itself is from a copy made in the 11th century ( Song Dynasty ) of the original. Copying original painting was an important means of conservation, collection and exhibition in the old days. Collection at the National Palace Museum, Taipei
- Predecessor to the teacup saucer, the tea bowl receptacle — the tuo 托 — takes many shapes and designs. Usually there is a recess cavity for holding the foot of the tea bowl, a flat extended wing or ring for holding, and a taller foot for easy lifting and resting.
Lacquerware receptacle for tea bowl, in Qulun motif ( 曲輪 ). 13th century ( Southern Song Dynasty ), China. Collection at Tokyo National Museum, Japan
- Tea drinking in China had remained pretty much unchanged for a few centuries. In this 12th century painting, the monks are still holding tea bowls with receptacles in a design similar to that the servant holds in the 7th century painting. However, the servant now uses a long spout water pot — perhaps originally a wine pot — to add water into the bowl and at the same time whisks the content. Notice that the receptacles are in red and the bowls in black — vogue at the time in certain regions, which had profound influence in Japanese tea ware design to this day.
Five Hundred Luohans ( ie Arhats / Arahants ) Scrolls 五百羅漢圖 ( detail ), Southern Song Dynasty ( 12th ~ 13th century ), no signature, probably by Zhou Guichang 周季常. Collection at Daitoku-ji, Kyoto
- This maybe what the 500 luohan painting depicts: heavy black glaze tea bowl from the Imperial appointed Fujian Kiln 建窯. This kind of tea bowl comes to know as tenmoku in Japan.
Youdi black glaze tea bowl on red lacquer receptacle, Southern Song Dynasty ( 127 ～ 1279 A.D. ), Collection at Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka
- By the 13th century, the form of tea consumption remained pretty much the same. Notice that water is still heated in a caldron or pot first. The servant in the foreground is milling tealeaves into fine powder. Mills of similar design are still used today in Japan for obtaining powdered tea. The tea bowls are stacked bottoms-up on the table behind, next to the column of tea bowl receptacles. Notice the servant in the background is pouring water into the bigger bowl. The handle of ladle sticks out from that bowl. In consistence with several other paintings and murals, it is likely that water is infused/mixed with the grounded tealeaves in the bigger vessel before ladled into the serving tea bowls in such setup.
Tea Extraction 攆茶圖 ( detail ), Liu Song Nian 劉松年 c.1200 A.D.
Collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei
- This tea bowl design maybe similar to those in the tea grounding painting. There is a large number of such lighter colour and shallow tea bowls from Song Dynasty in existence today. Such conical tea bowls are called cha zhan 茶盞 in Chinese.
Longquan Kiln 龍泉窯, Between Song and Yuan Dynasty, 13th century.
- In another painting by Liu Song Nian, where he depicts two tea vendors in a tea competition, tea cups with rounder bottoms and deeper bellies are used without receptacles. This is understandable, tea is served formally to the gentry in the previous tea extraction painting, where here tea-making has to be immediate and efficient among the specialists. Notice that there is no visible use of the whisk. According to written documentations, the powdered form is still the norm of tea at the time, and water has to be added with skill to produce the ideal drink. Perhaps that why the serious look on the face of the man with the pot.
Tea Competition 鬥茶圖 ( detail ), Liu Song Nian 劉松年, c.1200, Collection the National Palace Museum, Taipei
- Rounder and deeper tea bowls ( cha wan 茶碗 ) have always been used alongside with conical shape shallow cha zhan, such as this 11th century celadon tea bowl in Koryo Dynasty Korea. Similarly fashioned vessels must have been used in the scene in the Tea Competition painting. Deeper tea bowls make it easier for tea infusion/concoction within the bowl without spilling. They also hold temperature better.
Celadon Tea Bowl, Koryo Dynasty ( 1000 ~ 1100 A.D. ), Collection at Detroit Institute of Arts
- Loose leaf tea was officially appointed as the preferred tea form in place of compressed tea in the beginning of the Ming Dynasty ( 14th ~ 17th century ). With that ground tealeaves becomes a thing of the past in China and steeping has since become the style. Tea pot has then acquired a key role. Cha zhan ( 茶盞 ) tea bowl is replaced by cha wan ( 茶碗 ) tea bowl. Notice in this 17th century painting the characters are holding very large tea bowls. The respectively large teapot sits next to a small mouth water pot.
Tea Tasting 品茗圖 ( Detail ), ( attributed to ) Chen Hong Shou 陳洪綬 ( 1598 ~ 1652 ), private collection
- The spread of tea was expedited with the loose leaf form, so was the use of teapot and the cup. In Japan, outside of the tea ceremony, tea from the pot and drunk from the cup helped to democratize the use of the health drink.
Massager, Women’s Toilet Series, Felice Beato, c1880
- Imperial appointment of the loose leaf as the preferred form of tea had helped the advancement and sophistication of tea production to achieve the diversity and fineness we enjoy today. By the 16th century, finer teapots had already become a trend among people of the scholarly and privileged class for matching tea quality. Notice in this early Yixing example, the shape retains a striking likeness of the wine pot, same as those water pots used in previously cited paintings. This particular artist, however, did come up with a great variety of classic teapot forms.
Tall Yixing Teapot, Shi Dabin 時大彬 ( active early 17th century ), Ming Dynasty, Collection at MAI Foundation
- Design and materials of tea cups have been liberated since loose leaf became the major tea form and the tea pot taken up much of the processes in tea preparation. Porcelain has been a major material. Shape, form and surface design are as diversified as much as colourful. This “gang style” 缸杯 — footless cup with wide-short belly — example is from mid-Ming Dynasty in the Cheng Hua period 成化 ( 1465 ~ 1487 ), which was auctioned in 2014 for an astronomical figure.
Doucai “gang” style cup 鬥彩缸杯 with chicken motif, Cheng Hua Imperial Kiln, Jiangxi
- It is unclear when and how the gaiwan ( 蓋碗 ) had become a major tea vessel. However, by early 18th century, gaiwan was already a common daily household item. This seems a logical evolution with the popularity of loose leaf tea after all. Notice in this design, the brim of the bowl concave inwards, akin to cookware lidded bowls. The receptacle is also missing — it was still fashionable to use one with a different design and material.
White Porcelain Gaiwan Pair with painted landscape, Yongzheng period ( 雍正年間 1722~1735 ). Collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei
- The basic shape of the modern gaiwan was formed in the 18th century, as is reflected in this extravagant birthday present version. Notice the brim of the tea bowl is now convex rather concave — as different from the tea bowl samples cited previously. The shape and proportion of the major features, the thickness distribution of the lid button are also all there. Only the material is entirely not suitable for proper use. This is only but one tiny piece of the many exhibitions of wealth of the late imperial court.
Gold gaiwan with enamel inlaids, Qianlong period ( 1736 ~ 1795 A.D. ), Collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei
- Although the basic shape of the modern gaiwan was formed in the 18th century, the craftsmen still often got commissions to produce forms of various extravagant features, regardless of functionalities. It was true then; it is true now.
Tall foot gaiwan in gold glaze, Qing Dynasty ( 1644 ~ 1911 A.D. ), Collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei
- When photography came to this part of the world in the 1850’s, the gaiwan was already such a common household item that it has become a usual motif in most interior portraits. Unlike the teapot and tea bowl before it, the gaiwan stands alone as both the singular vessel serving both infusion and drinking purposes. Notice that the gaiwan here rests on a receptacle of a different material than the bowl. This is inline with the receptacle tradition of the cha zhan tea bowl.
Western Man in Hong Kong in Chinese Costume, Lai Afong Photography, c1880
- This large gaiwan that appears in the home portrait of two upper class ladies has the receptacle made in the same material as the tea bowl. This was an extravagant approach when production of things was still very expensive, because the receptacle could easily become useless when the tea bowl was broken.
Upper Class Chinese Ladies, Lai Afong Photography, c1880
- A young man holding a gaiwan in an opium den to pose as drinking from it.
Photo by Lai Afong, c 1880
- We have found no reliable source as to when the gaiwan is used only for infusion and tea decanted from it into other vessels for drinking. In this photograph taken of a tea tasting room of a foreign trader’s in Canton ( Guangzhou ), it is clear that the tea from the doom-lidded taster’s mugs is served in gongfu style small teacups in the front row. This is very different from the Western tradition of holding the tea in a big bowl and the tasters slurping up from a spoon. We think this practice may be related to the way we make tea in the gaiwan and drinking from small cups nowadays. It is said that in Chaozhou and southern Fujian, people have always been doing that.
A Tasting Room in Canton ( detail ), John Thomson, c1880
- Today, the gaiwan ( proper name in Hong Kong: cha zhong 茶盅 ) is still an important piece of infusion ware in the daily life of many people outside of the tea trade or tea connoisseur circle, such as in this working class dimsum restaurant in Hong Kong.
Men at shared table, Lin Heung Rou, Central, Hong Kong
- Poor quality mass produced gaiwans of bad designs flood a market of under-informed modern day customers. Thick, clumsy brim; narrow belly; and heat conducting lid buttons are some of the common flaws of cheaply produced gaiwans that are selling for thousands of percent markup margin.
Crude quality mass produced gaiwans selling for well over 10 USD, photographed in a Chinese product emporium in Hong Kong
- Industrialization has helped smaller producers to make properly designed gaiwans with reasonable quality available to a growing market of tea hobbyists and people of the trade. One just have to know what to look for and where to find it.
White porcelain, modern semi-mould produced gongfu tea gaiwan, Fujian
- This particular gaiwan design has a ring saucer, a homage to the structure when it was first invented to hold the tea bowl: the cha tuo. A taller bowl is best for use as a cup and for infusing green or black teas employing longer infusion time.
Tall gaiwan with ring style receptacle, blue and white porcelain, hand-painted landscape motif on modern mould produced bisque, Jingde Zhen
- This gaiwan has a round bottom tea bowl, thin brim, tall dome lid and thin lid button-wall for superior gongfu infusion and handling. Instead of a cha tuo, this design employs a saucer instead. This reflects a significant usage of gaiwans is intended for infusion rather than for drinking from. The cha tuo becomes irrelevant, since its purpose is for lifting the tea bowl for drinking. For more information on how to use the gaiwan as a cup, please read this article: Using the Gaiwan as a Cup
Modern hand-thrown Kaolin porcelain, Jingde Zhen
- Lid: Not only is the lid instrumental for infusion quality and ease of handling, it is also decisive to the look of the gaiwan. The dome has to rise high enough for proper insulation for the surface of the tea liquid, yet low enough for the fingers to manoeuvre on it with comfort. The rim has to be thin enough for precision in scooping the leaves, tea foam etc, and yet not too thin to be easily breakable. The button, which is critical for handling whether using the gaiwan as an infusion tool or as a cup, has to be raised high enough from the lid to avoid too much heat conducted to it. To that ends, thinness of the material is also critical.
- Tea Bowl: The shape, thickness distribution and material integrity of the tea bowl is the soul of a gaiwan. The manner with which heat is circulated, dissipated and maintained inside of it is key to infusion quality. Proper thinness and curvature at the brim, a wide enough belly to allow scooping by the lid and a balance of weight are key to smooth handling.
- Tuo: The tuo of a gaiwan serves both the purpose of a saucer and that of a cup ear. It has to have a receiving cavity to fit the foot and bottom of the bowl nicely so that when the bowl is tilted for drinking, it is still securely held between this cavity and the lid that is pushed back, held by the other hand. Other names for the tuo include receptacle, saucer, tea bowl stand, etc. For more info about how to use a gaiwan as a cup, please read this article: Using the Gaiwan as a Cup
An insignificant-looking piece of equipment
We infuse tea in it as if it were a teapot. Some drink from it as a teacup. Many still use it for both purposes at the same time. Yet little has been documented about this little indispensable piece of teaware. In our first attempt to study the history of gaiwan basing on historical clues, we have found that its existence is inseparable from the evolution of tea itself.
Gaiwan: simply indispensable
This slide show is our first attempt to study how the gaiwan has come about. Please click on the first photo to begin the show.
There are a few recurring terms in the photo captions that maybe you would like a little more information about:
Cha zhan ( Chinese: 茶盞 ): tea bowl with a conical shape and usually used in conjunction with a receptacle “stand”, kind of like a cup on a saucer the old fashioned way.
Tuo ( Chinese: 托 ): the receptacle for a cha zhan or tea bowl, as in plant the receptacle for the flower. Some use the word stand, but since it is used as a handle, like the ear of a cup, so the term receptacle, which is attached to the flower, as it is attached to the bowl, is a bit more accurate. In Japanese and some Chinese, the character 台 is used, this refers to the manner of how some customs think of it as a stand rather than also as a handle.
Receptacle: see “tuo” above
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