You are no stranger to gaiwan if you grew up on Chinese period tv dramas set in Imperial China. You are no stranger to gaiwan if you grew up brewing gongfu cha. Gaiwan as an image and tool have been prominent throughout Chinese history and in my upbringing. What is it that makes this bowl timeless?
Prior to the Ming Dynasty, the common method of consuming tea was through boiling the leaves, and/or whipping the powder grinded up from tea leaves (today matcha is still widely consumed and its formal preparation has become a well respected ceremony known as Japanese tea ceremony. In a casual setting it’s gained popularity through a variety of drinks crafted by baristas in your local coffee shops). Steeping the tea leaves became a new way to prepare tea, and with this also came new methods for preparation. This is where gaiwan came in. 盖碗 “gai wan” literally means “lidded bowl” and has three components. The gai (lid), cha wan (tea bowl), and tuo (stand). The first two components are self-explanatory, “tuo” however isn’t merely a “stand” for the vessel to rest on. It functions as a handle. When you drink out of a gaiwan, you would hold the stand supporting the chawan to your mouth, and use your other hand to push the leaves afloat away using your the lid. This motion often functions as a moment of tension in Chinese period tv dramas, while we the audience patiently wait for the silent parties to resume their dialogue.
According to a record of a Tang Dynasty text by scholar Li Kuangy, the daughter of a famous general (modern day Chengdu local) by the name of 崔宁, invented gaiwan. Prior to her time, chawan did not have a stand. Often times they would burn her fingers. Cui Ning’s son used a wooden plate to hold up the chawan to solve her problem. To prevent it from tipping, the daughter stabilized the cup using wax drippings to draw a circle on the wooden plate. And the earliest prototype of gaiwan was born.
When traveling through China, you may notice some differences in how gaiwan is served. During the time when the Manchurians ruled the Qing Dynasty, gaiwan was the tool for the ruling class. The Manchu loved their traditional milk tea, which wasn’t as palatable for the Han Chinese. When milk tea wasn’t consumed, the ruling Manchu and Han Chinese enjoyed green tea and floral tisane (also known as herbal tea) together. At this time, gaiwan was designed with a taller body, allowing the bitter leaves to sink for easier consumption. Gaiwan tea is still served as a vessel and drinking bowl in one in many teahouses in the Sichuan region today.
The ethnic Hui people in China consume tea and herbal tisane in gaiwan year round. They also call gaiwan tea “san pao tai” 三泡台. “San pao” means “three steep”. The name loosely reminds me of an English proverb “third time’s a charm”. The third steep is when the tea leaves have fully opened, the rock sugar has dissolved, and the herbs have expanded. Now the fragrance is fully actualized and the taste is just right.
When you travel to the far southern part of China, the gaiwan is of a smaller shape. The wider and smaller body allows more leaves to expand and is more suitable as a vessel for decanting brewed tea rather than personal drinking. Gaiwan has remained a staple for gongfu cha in Chaozhou.
There is so much more to be said about gaiwan, and I promise to follow up with a Part 2. For now, enjoy your gaiwan whether you brew gongfu style or drink gaiwan tea!