I've been curious about trying out Tang Dynasty style tea brewing for a while, but it's hard to find any of the 28 tools that Lu Yu describes in the Ch'a Ching (the first real book on tea, written in the 8th century). This past weekend I visited The Best Tea House in Richmond B.C. which is known for their selection of hard-to-find items (tea re-roasters, antique gaiwans, etc) and causally mentioned to my wife that if nothing else, I'd like to find Tang Dynasty style tea cups.
Tea cups of the late Tang Dynasty and early Song Dynasty pre-date what we think of as tea cups. Before that time tea was brewed rather like a soup (sometimes including bits of onion, salt, orange peel and whatnot) and drunk out of a bowl. By the late Tang tea was drunk for its own sake, and although it was still drunk out of bowls they'd become much smaller. Thus Tang Dynasty tea cups are really tiny shallow bowls that hold a little puddle of tea. Viewed on edge they look like a very wide-angled triangle with the base as the tip.
Oddly The Best Tea House didn't have any, but when we visited our next stop, Spring Cottage Tea House, we asked the owner if he had any. He knew immediately what we meant and unlocked a cabinet to show us a special-order set to Tang cups that were already sold -- they were hand-painted with delicate bamboo accents and sold for $360 for a set of six cups!! He then found a set of factory-made Tang cups in the same cabinet, but couldn't remember how much they were supposed to cost -- he offered them to us for $4 each and we jumped at the chance.
Now I'd just wanted the cup for novelty purposes until we found the rest of the Tang Dynasty tea brewing equipment, but I was really, really surprised at how different the tea experience is with this sort of tea cup.
It's so broad and shallow that when you drink from it the tea doesn't pour into your mouth; instead it slowly ebbs in like the tide, while the puddle of tea is all about under your nose.
The effect is that the aroma is much, much more apparent and the taste creeps slowly washes over your tongue, coating it gradually. This brings out a lot of the more delicate tea flavors that are normally lost. It makes creamy greens seem ten times creamier, and aged pu-erhs much more complex and broad.
We've spent the last few days taking out all sorts of favorite teas and trying them with this new cup, discovering new nuances to appreciate.
If you ever get a chance to pick up a Tang Dynasty style cup, I highly, highly, highly recommend it!