My dear friend Dr Spo often rhapsodizes over tea – no rubbish as he so wisely put it – and the accoutrements for tea making. A recent post of his set my train of thought shunting off to the siding of “I see it so often I forget it’s there.” Now I’m sure we’ve all been there – that thing around the house that is really unusual or lovely or unique (or perhaps all three) that we see so often that we forget it’s there. And a tea service that I bought in Beijing back in 2006 and that sits on a bookcase in our living room fits perfectly into that category.
There are so many tea markets in Beijing and I don’t remember where I purchased this little set – it was one of the twenty or so in Guanganmenwai. These markets are six or seven floors of elaborate shops selling tea and accessories for the making of a considerable number of the 1,500 odd varieties of tea in the world. And that doesn’t include those artsy-fartsy infusions of fat-reducing, sleep-inducing, anxiety-ending herbals which are not teas at all. We are speaking of the real thing: Camellia sinensis in all it’s glory and variations – Black, Green, White, Yellow, Oolong, and Pu’erh. No rublish here, good Dr. Spo.
Though I was immediately taken with the little tea set the process of purchasing it was made complicated by an aggressive sales lady who shadowed my every move while incessantly clicking her pen. Then she interfered in a discussion I was having with Laurent and proceed to quote an unreasonable and nonnegotiable price for the set. So we left, had a cup of – what else – tea at another merchant and talked it over. Our friend Yi went back in to see if he would have any better luck. He did and it now sits on the bookcase in our living room.
The style of pot is called Yixing after the region where the rock used to make the clay comes from. The rock is ground then mixed with water and allowed to sit and rest. It can then be mixed with other minerals or clays to give it a specific colour, lustre and consistency. The clay is not thrown on a wheel but pounded into thin sheets and the pot is built by hand. The Verdant Tea Channel has a video of the initial steps in the three day process to complete a pot. It is 20 minutes long but a fascinating look into the creation of a Yixing tea pot. It can be viewed here.
The clay is then baked in perhaps the oldest form of firing: a sand pit. A fire is built in a pit, often using sawdust or fine kindling, the unbaked pieces are layered in the pit with the kindling material. A fire is lit and when the kindling begins to smoulder the pit is covered. It is a method that has been used for centuries. I ran into it when visiting the much lamented Museum of Inuit Art and wrote about it at that time. The post includes some stunning examples of the ceramics and a video on sand pit firing.
The unglazed clay inside a yixing teapot absorbs tea oils and tea flavors over time. A teapot used for many years will flavor and texture hot water, even without tea leaves. This is a subtle effect that builds up over time and it allows the teas to blend and gives a greater intensity to the flavour. A yixing teapot is never washed, only rinsed and wiped.
There is a good chance that this set was made for export as a more traditional version would have shallow tasting cups and a serving pitcher. The cups in my little set are more in the style of “aroma cups” which were popular in Taiwan and have “saucers” which is not the norm.
As well as being a good way of displaying a set the Gongfu tea tray was designed to facilitate the performance of the tea ceremony. The slats allow overflow or water discarded in brewing to drain off. Simple but highly functional.
There is also a set of tools that are used for the various tea ceremonies. In Chinese these ceremony sets are known as Junzi Liujiantao and have been crafted over centuries to perform specific duties in the preparation of tea.
Tea Tweezer 茶夹 (Cha Jia) a tool for picking up the tea cup to protect your fingers from heat, or taking tea leaves out of a Yixing teapot.
Tea Scoop 茶则 (Cha Ze) used to take dry teas from the tea pouch or tin into the teapot.
Tea Vase 茶筒 (Cha Tong) is the holder for all the ceremonial utensils.
Tea Funnel 茶漏 (Cha Lou) is a cylindrical funnel used to direct the flow of tea leaves into the Yixing teapot, and also used to prevent the tea from overflowing.
Tea Spoon 茶匙 (Cha Shi) used to transfer tea leaves from the tea holder to your tea pot.
Tea Pin 茶针 (Cha Zhen) for clearing the small tea leaves which blocking the filter holes in Yixing teapots, so that the water can go to the spout smoothly.
I have to admit that the set has never actually been used to make tea but simply sits on the bookcase. However when next the good Doctor and Someone come to visit – which hopefully will be in the very near future – we shall give it a try. The best Pu’er we can find – definitely “no rubish”!
On this day 1953: The State of Georgia approves the first literature censorship board in the United States.