The art of gong fu cha, the Chinese tea service, is generally practiced using a specialized tea set. Collectively called cha ju (or equipage by people who insist on using French), the instruments of gong fu cha encompass a whole spectrum of diminutive, elegant, precisely-crafted little bits and bobs. Though they may seem arcane to the uninitiated, each serves a purpose and, by virtue of their very particular dimensions and functionality, have to be produced with that purpose in mind. For example, it is difficult to construct a gong-fu teaset using Western teapots, because Western teapots are generally much larger than a gong-fu teapot. If you do manage to find a teapot of the appropriate size, it will probably be for a child’s play teaset and not intended for actual use. Furthermore, it will probably resemble a cupcake. Teapots are even among the more familiar of the cha ju; another essential vessel, the gaiwan, is not manufactured in any size outside of China and the Chinese diaspora, and it serves no other purpose than the preparation of loose-leaf tea.
I say manufactured – not produced – because, while the majority of contemporary Chinese teaware – especially that which makes it to the West – is created in enormous factories and workshops for mass distribution; there are a small but growing number of potters in the US who are hand-crafting teaware for the purpose of using for gong fu cha. As both an avid tea lover and a pottery enthusiast – mostly as a spectator – I have made the acquaintance, over the years, of many talented ceramicists and tea lovers who have endeavored to replicate the small, even, fine-walled vessels and tools of gong fu cha.
In general, I find that American versions of Chinese gong fu teaware often resemble the genuine article visually, but do not feel – or function – the same. American pieces tend to be heavier, with thicker walls, and there is no end of confusion about how to make a gaiwan lid fit properly (it should fit inside, not over, the mouth of the bowl). That’s not to say that these wares can’t be fine pieces in their own right – the great kilns of Delft, in Holland, rose to prominence by mimicking Chinese porcelain wares right down to the ersatz Chinese script. But they don’t feel, or pour, like genuine cha ju.
Within the past year I have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of two Austin-based potters who have begun making beautiful, and more importantly serviceable, teaware. Mary Cotterman, who is currently an artist-in-residence at the Bascom Center for Visual Arts in North Carolina, had been experimenting with gong fu style teapots and gaiwans when I met her in December. One day while having tea with her, I showed her my Chinese teaware collection, and several weeks later she had produced no fewer than 4 complete teasets: gaiwan, gong dao bei/pitcher, and matching cups. She even produced several ceramic cha pan, or tea trays, both in the Chaozhou style (a round perforated plate over a basin), or an open one based on an original design by my friend Sylvia, a talented potter herself. Since then, Mary has refined her designs and experimented with different glazes.
Chris Long’s distinctive and playful style can be found at his booth at the HOPE Farmer’s Market every Sunday. He studied pottery in Taiwan and is no stranger to Chinese pottery. He has so far produced two prototype gaiwans, one large and one small, both with a beautiful matte blue glaze.
Both Mary and Chris are interested in producing more gong fu teaware, which I intend to sell – currently the only teaware I carry is cheap, functional, manufactured Chinese wares, because that’s all I can afford to bring over as inventory. Teaware is heavy and expensive to ship, and some pieces will inevitably be broken during shipping. It is my intention eventually to have the bulk of my teaware selection be locally produced – we may not be growing much tea in American (yet), but as the gong fu cha community here grows and more talented craftspeople are exposed to cha ju, there’s no reason our homegrown gong fu teaware can’t rival the great kilns of China and help breathe new life into Chinese tea culture.
Images courtesy of the contributor.