If you’ve ever participated in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony (gong fu cha), you might’ve noticed a small clay or ceramic creature sitting somewhere atop the tea tray, slowly slurping up tea alongside the tea master.
A tea pet is indeed what it sounds like - a small clay figure or ceramic animal, placed atop the tea tray during tea ceremony.
Although not limited to animals, tea pets are small clay figures used during gong fu cha for various purposes; most often as decoration, but also used by tea drinkers for good luck, or to test water for the right temperature.
The History of Tea Pets
Clay tea pets originated way back in Yixing during the Yuan dynasty, 13th century China. Yixing is well known for its purple clay (zisha clay) and the teaware made from it. Similarly to the zisha teapots, tea pets that are made of yixing clay are porous and unglazed, making them very absorbent to water.
Gong Fu Cha: How to Take Care of A Tea Pet
Some tea masters believe when we adopt a tea pet it has no soul. Pouring tea over it, which is believed to have a soul, in turn, gives the tea pet a soul.
During the gongfu tea ceremony, we constantly nourish the tea pet by pouring leftover tea over it. This tea can be the hot water used to warm up the teaware, the water used to rinse the tea leaves (in some cases), or any leftover steeped tea after we have filled the teacups.
When pouring the leftover tea over the tea pet, we make sure it is completely covered. The tea pet will absorb the tea, including the color and aroma, and over time will develop its unique scent.
In many cases, tea pets, most commonly pigs, toads, elephants, dragons, as well as certain Buddhist characters are placed on the tea table by tea lovers for good luck.
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Tea Pets For Getting The Tea Water Temperature Perfect
There are also other purposes for tea pets. One of these include checking if the water is hot enough throughout the ceremony. For this purpose, the “pee-pee boy” is by far the most popular tea pet.
You may notice tea pets that are used to check water temperature because they will have a small hole in them. In the case of pee-pee boy, we immerse him in cold water to fill him up half-way, after which we pour the hot tea water over him. If the water is hot enough pee-pee boy will start peeing. The hotter the water, the further he will pee. However, make sure that the brewing water is not too hot!
For directions on getting the right water temperature, you may check here.
Of course, pee-pee boy is not the only option for checking the water temperature. Nowadays certain variations like water spitting toads, dragons, and gourds, to name a few, also exist.
No matter what purpose you choose to adopt a tea pet for, it is undeniably a valuable part of gong fu cha and adds a distinct character to each ceremony. And remember! Tea pets are picky creatures, they only prefer to drink quality loose leaf tea.
Please take care of your tea pet similarly to a Yixing teapot. You may rinse it with water, but do not use soap or detergent.
Many tea masters suggest using one tea pet for every kind of tea. However, it is not necessary and is up to the preference of the tea pet owner.