I am on a journey, my journey started a long time ago and it continues today. My journey has taken me from my grandmothers plastic covered table cloth to were I am today:
Building my gongfu!
Part of the gongfu is a tea pet, I’ve seen tea pets, I’ve talked with friends on reddit about them but I did not know what they really were. WHAT was the history of the tea pet?
Recently and ironically I ran into a tea blogger talking about a tea pet and I was so excited because I could find some history of it, no history and pretty much not much information about a tea pet. I regress.
When you want to write a blog and talk about something most people do not know about you have to know about it yourself. You educate yourself so you can educate others.
So, here is what we know about tea pets.
If you meet someone who has a tea pet you can be sure that person loves tea. However, a tea pet has been part of of the tea ceremony for years and years and years.
A tea pet is made of clay typically, however modernization has caught up with it and created tea pets from all sorts of materials. I’m still going with clay.
The clay represents the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) and the tea pets are to be made from the clay present during that time: Yixing clay. The birthplace of tea pets, Yixing, was first famous as the birthplace of “Yixing clay” in Song dynasty. These tea pets much like teapots made at the same time are not glazed and have an almost sandpaper rough feeling to them.
A Tea pet is handmade using Zisha (Yixing clay) and unglazed, so it is usually in the natural color of Yixing clay. There are three kinds of Yixing clay: purple clay, red clay, and green clay. A tea pet can be made of either of one of these Yixing clays, or a mixture of two clays to produce different colors.
Nowadays, with the development of technology–it is not hard to find alternatives to Yixing clay as the material to make tea pets–the production is still concentrated in Yixing region.
Purple clay, is the principle clay, which turns red-brown or dark-brown after firing. The artisan often adds iron clay to achieve a better color effect.
Red clay, also known as “Stock Yellow”, has a much higher contraction percentage than purple clay, and shows a vermillion color after firing. Because of its high contraction percentage, red clay is more suitable for making small-sized objects like tea pets and teapots.
Green clay has a color similar to duck eggshell, and appears off-white after firing. It is more rare than purple clay, and more expensive on the market.
However, probably because the ancient Chinese scholars believed in a saying that “excessive attention to trivia saps the will”, there is very limited literature on the development of tea pets in Chinese history, but we do know they were developed as a mascot for tea lovers.
So we the tea lovers are charged to “raise” our tea pets and we do so during the tea making time by pouring tea over the pet. By pouring tea over the clay eventually the tea will wear on our tea pet.
The most popular figure of the tea pet is the “pee-pee boy”, which is used to judge whether the water is hot enough to make tea.
Pee pee boy is the most representative and popular figure among tea pets. It is about 3 inch tall with a red-brown color.
The ability to judge the water temperature is its most useful quality contributing to the popularity of the form. To do this, a tea lover immerses it in cold water until it is filled up and shakes it to make sure it is filled at least 50 percent with water; after that, hot water poured over the pee pee boy will make it “pee” if the water is hot enough.
The hotter the water, the further it pees. The principle behind the pee pee boy is thermal expansion of air. It is designed to be hollow with only one tiny opening, so that water can flow into pee pee boy at a slow pace and will not drip out until sufficient hot water is poured on its head. When hot water is poured over its head, the air in the pee pee boy expands, resulting the water to be squeezed out through the tiny opening.
Experimental and simulation results based on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics principles have verified the capability of such device to measure temperature. With this feature, the pee pee boy soon became the most popular figure in tea pets. And recently, more and more artisans also utilize this technology on other tea pets, such as water-breathing dragons or a water-spraying tortoise, to provide more choices for tea lovers.
Tea pets are also molded into zodiac animals or Chinese mythical creatures such as dragons, Pixiu, Qilin, etc., to symbolize good luck, fortune and happiness, as well as historical or mythical characters such as Guanyin, Maitreya and Zhu Geliang.
I’m still on the search for my tea pet. I don’t want to just purchase one, it has to be special because it has meaning and when I sit my tea pet next to my amazing cup of tea, it will have meaning and I now will have a full understanding of why!
Any help in finding a tea pet are greatly appreciated, I’ll update once he (yes it will be a he) is found.
Hendren, Jay (2012). “Gongfu Cha: A New American Luxury”. Colorado Journal of Asian Studies. 1 (1): 59.
Pan, Chunfang (2004). Yixing Pottery: The World of Chinese Tea Culture. San Francisco: Long River Press. P.41-49
Lo, Kuei-hsiang (1986). The stonewares of Yixing: From the Ming period to the present day. London: Sotheby’s Publications.