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Tang Dynasty style tea cups 
31st-Aug-2009 09:39 pm
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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!
1st-Sep-2009 06:26 am (UTC)
Those sound just oh so cool. Wish I'd been there to buy a set for myself (too bad they aren't a regular item, I'd order and have them shipped).

1st-Sep-2009 09:50 am (UTC)
What a very informative post! Thank you -- I'll definately keep my eyes peeled.
1st-Sep-2009 11:53 am (UTC)
Cool! Could you post pictures of your cups?

Also, would you mind if I reposted this on my blog? I'm big into the history of tea and would love to share your experience.
1st-Sep-2009 02:42 pm (UTC)
I was just thinking I should get my camera out and take some photos of this and other teaware I've collected lately!

Feel free to repost anything I write. I'm happy to share. I've done a lot of tea history research myself, so perhaps we can share resources sometime. One nifty find: Amazon is carrying hard-to-find reprints of Robert Fortune's travel journals from when he explored inland China in disguise in the mid 19th century in an effort to steal tea plants and trade secrets for the East India Company. And this during a period when the country was closed to foreigners and they could be put to death for venturing beyond the trading ports. Fascinating reading. http://www.amazon.com/Journey-Tea-Countries-China/dp/1402181965/
1st-Sep-2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Ooh I love it! I'm always looking for primary sources, but haven't looked too hard as of yet. Have you read Beatrice Hohenegger's "Liquid Jade?"

Going to post on http://theteascoop.typepad.com
1st-Sep-2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
Yes, Liquid Jade is one of my favorites! A nice mix of detailed information and friendly writing style, and perhaps the first book I recommend to anyone interested in learning about tea.
1st-Sep-2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
I refer to it all the time since I've read it. She's a brilliant writer. I wish I could make it the UCLA tea exhibit she's guest curator for.
1st-Sep-2009 07:43 pm (UTC)
Cool! I'd visit that exhibit if I could.

A very nice tea blog by the way. I'm having a great time reading through the archives!

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