by Arina on May 6, 2010

in Tea Ware


I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate a post to the peace of tea ware that I will be using most of the time during my tasting sessions: gaiwan.

Gaiwan is an elegant set of three pieces: a handless bowl gracefully mounted on a small saucer and covered with a curvaceous lid. It’s so lovely that sometimes I cannot help but giving it a gentle caress before I start making my tea.

As a warm up, let’s struggle through the linguistic jungle. The word gaiwan [gàiwǎn] in Chinese literally translates as “lidded bowl”, gai meaning lid and wan - a bowl. Then, the story gets more complicated. As for the Chinese word for the gaiwan’s saucer, I’ve come across different names such as [chuán] “boat”, [tuō] “tray” and [dié] “small plate”. In some western books on tea, I’ve also seen the word zhong used interchangeably with gaiwan. Well, according to the Comprehensive Chinese-English dictionary, the word  [zhōnɡ] is a generic word for any handleless cup. Therefore, in my understanding, only gaiwan’s handleless bowl can be called zhong, but it would be incorrect to use this word for the whole three pieces set. Well, if all said looks too complicated, just remember the mantra “gai is a lid, wan is a bowl”, and that’s it.

As it often happens with China stuff, you may expect a beautiful spiritual allegory behind the most trivial objects of everyday life. Gaiwan is not an exception: the lid can be viewed as heaven, the saucer – as earth, and the bowl – yes, you got it right, as a man. As a result, the whole thing  can be seen as the Universe. Next time you’ll be making some gaiwan tea, remember about that metaphor. Or invent your own.

Many good things in China come from Sichuan province. And they are not limited to pandas, sichuan peppercorns and gongbao chicken. Sichuan made a remarkable contribution to the tea culture by creating gaiwan tea-drinking style. Its people used to drink tea from a handleless cup with a saucer as early as the Tang Dynasty, and continued to do so all the way through the Song and the Yuan dynasty times. In the Ming Dynasty, the lid was added to the ensemble to make it perfect.

Seriously, I consider gaiwan as a good example of timeless product design that combines pleasant and harmonious visual aspect with practicality. It seems to be as many as twelve minor variations of the bowl shape, and just as many for the saucer, but the essentials remain the same. The bowl is wider at the top than at the bottom and slightly curved outwards. This makes pouring the water easier, and the leaves make graceful dance-like movements before settling down peacefully at the bottom. The curved lid captures the aromas emanating from the tea and prolongs its warmth. The saucer collects the spills from the cup and protects your hands from burning.

Gaiwan sets vary in size and can be used either as an individual drinking vessel or as a replacement for a teapot – then, the tea infused in a gaiwan is further poured into small cups. In both cases, the lid serves as a filter, keeping the leaves inside the bowl.

Most often, a gaiwan is made of glazed porcelain. In the tea shops here in Beijing, I’ve also seen the sets made of glass, clay or even melamine (stay away from the latter). When choosing your next gaiwan, it’s better to use a porcelain one – it is neutral for the tea and will not modify its taste (Stéphane Erler has described it here. In general, I view his blog as one of the best existing Internet recourses on tea).

Shopping for gaiwan is the easiest part of the story. You can find them everywhere. The shops on the second floor of Maliandao Tea Market probably have the widest choice in Beijing. But you do not need to go that far: gaiwans are  ubiquitous in every decent tea shop in town. Their prices are as varied as the price of the tea itself: they can be as cheap as 15-20 RMB, but high quality porcelain hand-painted sets can lighten your wallet of several thousands RMB. Don’t worry, we are in China, so there is usually a middle way, which here means paying about 50-60 RMB for a reasonable quality piece and without much haggling. Then, it is really a matter of your personal taste. My personal favorite for everyday use remains a plain white one.

I would love to know more about your gaiwan experience. Do you often make your tea using gaiwan? Do you actually drink from it or use it as a teapot substitute? For which teas?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

LK May 24, 2010 at 6:02 am

I mostly use teapots (of which I have encompassed a vast collection), but every once in a while I take out a gaiwan. My favorite is a hand-painted beauty I picked up in Shanghai. For higher grades of yellow and some green teas I use a glass gaiwan (to see the “agony of the leaves” in action). When I do use a gaiwan, I usually decant the tea into a fair cup – although I’ve been known to drink some teas directly from the gaiwan.

Tang October 23, 2010 at 7:35 am

Over time I have come to prefer a small gaiwan(60ml.). The small size makes it easier to get a higher leaf to water ratio. With a small size I can comfortably pace the infusions. I find my tea supply goes farther.

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