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. This is what we call a tea pet.
A tea pet is 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. Although tea masters mostly use them as decoration, some also have them for good luck. Some of these "pets" can even test water for the right temperature!
Tea Pet History
Clay tea pets originated way back in Yixing during the Yuan dynasty, 13th century China. Yixing is well known for its clay (zisha) and the teaware made from it. Similar to the zisha teapots, the little creatures made of yixing clay are porous and unglazed. They are 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 has a soul), in turn, gives the pet a soul.
During the gongfu tea ceremony, we constantly nourish our pets by pouring leftover tea over them. This can be the hot water we used to warm up the teaware, the water used to rinse the tea leaves, or any leftover steeped tea.
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. Over time the clay will develop its unique scent.
In many cases, tea lovers have tea pets for good luck. These are most commonly pigs, toads, elephants, dragons, as well as certain Buddhist characters.
Tea Pets For Getting The Tea Water Temperature Perfect
There are also other purposes for these little statues. 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.
Some tea pets have a small hole in them. Tea masters use these to check the water temperature. 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 one of these tea pets for, it is undeniably a valuable part of gong fu cha. Certainly, it adds a distinct character to each ceremony. And remember! These guys 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.