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About Gaiwans

See these articles on our blog Fine Tea Focus for more information about gaiwans:

Edited and amended extract from Wikipedia

A gaiwan is a bowl with a lid and sometimes a saucer originating in China and was first created during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). It is used for infusing tea and can also be used for consuming that tea.

The Chinese:

  • trad: 蓋碗, simp:盖碗, pinyin:gàiwǎn; literally, “lidded bowl”
  • trad: 蓋杯, pinyin: gàibēi; literally, “lidded cup”
  • trad: 焗盅, pinyin: júzhōng; literally, “hot-steeping vessel”

lid-on-gaiwan-when-pouring.jpg

History

Prior to Ming Dynasty, tea in China was normally consumed from the vessel in which it was prepared. As described by the tea master Lu Yu, the special bowl for this tea had to be large enough to accommodate the implements and actions of tea infusing, while being compact enough to hold comfortably in hand while drinking. This versatile vessel was simply called a “cháwǎn” (茶碗 lit. “tea bowl”). During the Ming dynasty innovations in both the tea ritual and preparation gave rise to the gaiwan. The gaiwan of the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty was larger than the gaiwan used today; the size was good for infusing tea for several people. The gaiwan today is generally smaller and more leaves are used in infusing, with many infusions being typical.

Function

The gaiwan is considered by many tea connoisseurs to be the preferred method for infusing teas with delicate flavors and aromas, such as various green teas and white teas (leave the lid off the gaiwan for these to prevent ‘cooking’ them). The versatility of the gaiwan is also noted in the preparation of oolong infusions because of this particular tea’s ability to be infused multiple times. However, the gaiwan is suitable for any type of tea, including pu-erhs. The gaiwan is important in tea tasting due to its open style, especially when you infuse the tea leaves without the lid on, and glazed surfaces. The openness lets you view the tea as it infuses. The glazing seals the clay they are made from and prevents altering of the flavor and aroma of the tea during infusing.

The gaiwan consists of a bowl, lid, and very often a saucer. Each piece plays its part. The bowl is for the tea leaves and water and where they are infused. The lid allows the tea to be infused right in the bowl and either be drunk right from the bowl (traditionally using the lid to block the leaves for ease of consumption), or decanted into another container. The saucer, if there is one, can help insulate your fingers from the heat of the bowl when you lift it to drink or pour into a chahai or cups. These sets can be made from a variety of materials, including porcelain and glass. Gaiwans made from Yixing clay or Jade are particularly prized by collectors of tea paraphernalia.

Some regard gaiwans as the preferred method for brewing green and white teas since their porcelain absorbs the heat and does not damage the tea. If you use them for black teas, be aware that the large lid allows heat to escape too quickly during the infusing process, but you may try it anyway – we’ve had good results. They are especially good for enjoying scented teas like jasmine tea; you can lift the lid after infusing and sniff the aroma as part of your experience with the tea.

Holding

Usually all three parts are held at once with both hands. Hold the saucer with the 4 fingers of your right hand and let your thumb rest on the edge of the bowl. Use your left hand to hold the lid, with which to brush away any tea leaves before bringing the rim of the bowl to your lips. As the liquid is hot it can take some practice doing this.

You can also strain the tea liquid into a chahai and pour into sipping cups from there. This gives the tea a chance to cool and is better for sharing with guests.