An ingenious invention that has been in use in China since the earliest days of the Ming dynasty – circa 1350 – is the simplest, most satisfying way of enjoying loose leaf tea.  It is decidedly the best way to get the most enjoyment from green teas, for which it was originally developed, though it lends itself to making others also.

I speak of the covered cup called a guywan in Mandarin or chazhong in Cantonese.  It is a brewing vessel and drinking cup in one which consists of saucer, bowl, and lid that function together.  Guywans are hard to find in the U.S. but it’s hard to imagine doing without it once you finally acquire one.  The guywan is another of those Chinese inventions like paper and printing and china itself – the simplest way of preparing and enjoying tea all day and night long.  Use a guywan a time or two and you feel as though you’ve been handling one all your life.

How do you use a gaiwan to brew green tea?

In brief, you simply put a pinch of tea leaf in the cup, pour on the water, and watch the leaves steep.  The lid is used to stir the tea, to serve as filter holding back the leaves when you sip, and to cover the cup and keep the liquor warm.  You keep sipping and adding water for as long as the leaves will yield flavor.  Now that you have the idea, you can appreciate refinements of these steps.

Enough tea for a single cup is heaped in the bottom where it may be seen to best advantage against the whiteness of the porcelain.  (The appearance of the tea leaf before, during and after steeping is highly important to the Chinese.)  Water is not poured directly onto the leaf, but onto one side of the guywan, producing a swirl in the cup.  The leaves swirl and gradually become saturated and sink to form a floating forest in the bottom of your cup.  You unhurriedly watch this ballet of the leaf as its dissolving juices color the water until after a minute or less you deem it time for a first exploratory sip, sometimes without waiting for all the leaf to sink.

Is it difficult to use a gaiwan?

Handling the guywan is easier to demonstrate than to describe.  The cup is never removed from the saucer.  If right-handed, place the saucer holding the cup in the palm of your right hand and steady the cup by resting the thumb on its rim.  The lid is used as a paddle to stir the liquid away from you.  This roils the leaf at the cup’s bottom and circulates the tea.  To take a sip, place the lid at a slight tilt away from you so that it serves to hold back the leaves.  You hold the lid at this slight angle (the thumb and forefinger of your left hand grasp its round handle) while the right hand under the saucer raises the guywan to your mouth.  You sip.  All this is less complicated than it sounds and you will quickly get the hang of it.  Before long your gestures develop elegance and grace.

Add water before you finish the first cup to keep the tea asteeping and coax out more and more of the goodness of the leaf.  Only the third time water is added do you pour it directly into the middle of the infused leaf.  This will not swirl but rather will invert the mass of leaf.  Any China tea yields multiple infusions, and one discovers what subtly different tastes emerge from a second, third and fourth infusion, compared to the first.  There’s a Chinese saying that the first cup is most fragrant, the second sweetest and the third strongest.  This process may be repeated as long as the leaf yields flavor.

For green and white teas it is important to use water between 170 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit – the more delicate the tea, the lower the temperature.  Water that’s too hot gives the liquor a yellowish tinge, a sure sign the nectar of the leaf has been cooked instead of extracted.  The cooler the water, in turn, the longer the leaf may be steeped.  A minute, more or less, is about right for green teas of great subtlety, allowing a little longer for each successive infusion.  Fine green teas are the least forgiving of all teas to make to perfection.  In making such for guests, you may learn to use a single guywan which can drained at the proper instant into a small pitcher.  This requires tilting the lid and using it to hold back the leaf while you pour.  Use the pitcher to fill thimble cups.  With less exalted green teas, each person can drink from his own guywan and serving guests is just a matter of replenishing each guywan with hot water as required.

With black tea, oolong or Pu-Er, you begin by rinsing the leaves.  The first water you pour on – well under half the guywan – is immediately drained off.  (Remember that the cup is never removed from the saucer.)  You now bring the guywan to your nose and uncover it, breathing in the freshly released aroma of the leaf.  Only now that you have inhaled its perfume is water poured on again, to steep.  With while or green teas you omit rinsing the leaves and you steep the tea without replacing the lid.  Pour just a few drops of water on green leaf to release its aroma for you to inhale before infusing.  With black, oolong or Pu-Er teas, use just-boiling water, cover the cup, and allowed considerably longer steeping time.  These teas are not only less beautiful to watch infuse, but they also taste better hotter.  Black tea should always be decanted to prevent over-steeping.

This article has been updated from the original 2009 publication.

Photo “gaiwan” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer “snickclunk” and is being posted unaltered (source)

Photo “China – Chengdu 22 – green tea” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer McKay Savage and is being posted unaltered (source)

Photo “zen and the art of grain” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer David Singleton and is being posted unaltered (source)