You can tell a lot about artisans by how they care for their tools. The same can be said of a musician and her instruments, or a chef and his knives. Just as a master of any skill or craft can be distinguished from an amateur by that singular, effortless grace known to the Chinese as gong fu, so can a serious practitioner be told from a dilettante by how they treat the tools of their trade. Just as the proper execution of art requires the proper tools, so does the proper function of the tool depend upon their proper care. A true master, no matter how casual or cavalier s/he may appear in other aspects of life, is always meticulous in the handling, cleaning, storage, and maintenance of the objects of their livelihood. This meticulousness is not in itself a sign of mastery, but one who lacks it is not on the path to becoming a master.
This is particularly true of the art of tea, wherein nearly the entirety of the skill itself is care and attention. The focus of this post will be on the Chinese art of gong fu cha, as experience and familiarity demand. Before I narrow the discussion to those diverse and idiosyncratic instruments particular to that discipline, however, I will touch on some universal features general to the sister- and brotherhood of hot water and leaves.
Wet leaves, left sitting, will mold. Depending on the leaf in question and the ambient temperature and humidity, this can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, but the consequences of mold growth are always distasteful and often disastrous to cherished vessels. The noble South American tradition of yerba mate employs a hollowed calabash, called a mate, as the vessel in which the caffeinated herb is brewed. This organic, porous gourd, once infiltrated with mold, will forever after be stained and made unclean by the insult. The digestive enzymes in mold can tarnish silver and copper teapots. Even fine porcelain teapots, with their impermeable skin of glass, can be marred by long exposure to mold. This brings us to the famous unglazed teapots of China, notably the celebrated purple sand teapots of Yixing, along with those of Chaozhou and Jianshui.
These teapots are made from mineral-rich clay that is aged and perfused with microscopic pores. With each use they become progressively imbued with the aromatic essential oils of the tea brewed in them and, so impregnated with the fragrant substance, acquire a sublime patina that enhances the flavor of the tea. As such, these teapots are not used for a diversity of teas but are dedicated upon their initiation to a single type or even variety. A mature teapot, prodigious with the essence of a thousand uses, is said to be able to pour a rich brew from water alone. The damage done to one of these precious heirlooms by a bloom of noxious mold would be like unto that of a Stradivarius left in the rain.
This last example brings us around, finally, to the matter of Chinese gong fu cha and the role of teaware hygiene in that tradition. The cleaning of teaware, both before and after the tea service, as well as their proper maintenance and storage, are oft-neglected but crucially important elements of gong fu cha. In addition to ensuring the proper aging, beauty, and function of the teaware, the cleansing of the vessels with hot water has a ritual aspect in that it opens and closes the tea service. The preliminary and concluding rinses act as bookends that separate the intentional space of the tea practice from the mundane realities of daily life, which are so often full of clutter and preoccupation.
To provide a thorough treatment of the bathing of these vessels, I will reproduce in words the act in the same order as it is performed in the concrete. The first vessel to be rinsed is that lofty sovereign of the tea service, the teapot. As the primary vessel, it is awakened before its subjects by being first filled with boiling water to capacity, then, the lid being replaced, it is bathed a second time by pouring the living water over its crown. Thus rinsed and heated, from the inside out and then the outside in, it is decanted, as though serving tea, and is ready to receive its fragrant sustenance, the leaves themselves.
Often times, the primary vessel is not a teapot but a lidded bowl, known in Chinese as a gaiwan or zhong. This humbler though no less noble instrument serves the same role as the teapot, its offset lid straining the tea as it pours in order to retain the leaves within its cavity. There are different approaches to rinsing this younger brother; some fill it only to capacity and replace the lid, allowing time for the heat to be absorbed by the clay, before emptying it. I myself like to offset the lid slightly and pour water over the whole assemblage, effectively rinsing both the inner and outer surfaces of the lid, and vessel, and causing the lid to click pleasantly as the water enters through the aperture and forces the air within to escape. I like to overfill my gaiwan when rinsing it, thus rinsing and heating the saucer on which it is seated along with the rest. Whatever the primary vessel, and however one chooses to rinse it, it is generally decanted as soon as the clay has been sufficiently warmed and cleansed. It may be decanted into the secondary vessel or the cups themselves, as in the act of making tea, or it can be poured onto the flat draining surface of the tea tray, over a clay figurine meant for that purpose, or into a wastewater bowl. Where it is decanted to is a matter of style and there is no right or wrong in it.
This brings us to the secondary vessel, called the gong dao bei or Justice Cup, that is used in some of the more cosmopolitan forms of gong fu cha. This is generally a small pitcher, usually without a lid, resembling a Western creamer in form. These are often slightly larger in capacity than the primary vessel, and, as such, it is not always economical or possible to overfill them to rinse the exterior walls, especially when the source of the hot water is the primary vessel itself. Therefore, in order to properly heat and rinse both the inner and outer surfaces, it is often the custom to drizzle the hot water not directly into the vessel but onto the top edge, along the opening, usually in a clockwise motion.
When we come to the tiny, bowl-like cups used for tasting the tea itself, the procedure becomes much more diverse and ingenious, with many regional and personal variations. Some will overflow each cup, moving from one to the other with a single unbroken stream. Some will fill one cup and then, using either small wooden tongs or the fingers, spin the remaining cups one at a time perpendicular in the filled cup, thus submerging every surface until the last, which may be overflowed or similarly spun in one of its sisters. Still others will first fill, then invert the cups, before rinsing the exteriors with a second pouring of hot water. The unifying principle among all of these techniques is that, as before, both the inner and outer surfaces are thoroughly doused.
Following the tea service, the procedure for cleaning is much the same, but with more of an eye towards cleaning and polishing than merely rinsing and heating. The venerable unglazed teapot is simply rinsed and left to dry, with its lid removed or askew, for the porous clay dries very quickly when rinsed with hot water. They are never scrubbed and are certainly never cleaned with soap. The remaining vessels should be thoroughly wiped with a clean tea-cloth of absorbent material after their sanitizing bath of boiling water. I wash cups, as well as the lid, bowl, and saucer of the gaiwan, by grasping the surface using the cloth and rotating the whole 360 degrees through it. A simple wipe is usually sufficient for porcelain or other glazed ceramics. Glass vessels may be washed with soap and should be thoroughly polished and dried each time to ensure the sparkling clarity that gives them their unique charm. The tea tray, or cha pan, is often made of wood or bamboo and, as such, particular care should be taken to ensure that it dries thoroughly after each use to prevent warping and mold.
Properly cleaning your teaware after each use brings a deep sense of satisfaction and provides a grounding, meditative coda to the tea service. It is a singular joy, the provenance of the master, and helps to develop the familiarity and respect for your tools that gives you a true sense of connection with them. And the next time you go to make tea, that joy is reinforced as you are presented with a clean, dry tea set, ready to be awakened with steaming water and your practiced touch.
So Han Fan is the founder of West China Tea Company.