Friday, June 18, 2010

Questions for The Gallery: Topsy Turvy Gaiwans

Recently, Toki of The Mandarin's Tea Room brought our attention to a couple of questions regarding gaiwans and ours in particular floating around the internet. At the request of Toki, I posted the answers on this blog (I think he's got some tea riding on the outcome).
Question 1: The lid rests at a crooked angle on the gaiwan. Why doesn't it sit perfectly straight on the cup?

While Michael knows the answer to this, he has a hard time explaining something that makes very natural sense to him. I think I really understood best myself, when Bill from China Flair explained it to me: A perfectly round lid that maintains constant contact with the walls of the gaiwan is one that has no natural gaps for tea to pour out. Extra effort and finger strength is needed to create and maintain an artificial gap that can lose it's place. You also run the risk of creating a vacuum that seals the lid to the cup, this can cost precious brewing seconds as you try to unstick the lid and create the gap for the tea to pour through.
Let's look at a Late Ching Dynasty gaiwan up close:
When the lid is set straight across the cup, there should be a gap between two sides of the lid and the wall. The other two opposite sides of the lid should be in contact with the cup. The tension between those two contact points act as a hinge for the lid to swing around. All good gaiwans should have this feature. As Bill from China Flair explained it; there should be a position where the lid rests naturally to create those points of tension and the gaps. and then you won't need to rely on finger strength to maintain an artificial gap. He has a great tip for the pros: Examine your gaiwan BEFORE you even add the tea leaves and find the contact points. Position the gaiwan and pitcher in such a away that you should be able to grasp the vessel and pour from it without any wasted time or movement.


One of the most cringe-worthy moments I've witnessed occurred while having tea with a friend at a tea house that just opened up in the city. While the proprietor was a very nice man and an avid tea drinker, it became quickly obvious that he had never been trained to brew with a gaiwan. What he knew was probably gleaned from watching his vendors and crucial details had been missed during his observation. First, he used a very lightweight glass gaiwan to prepare an aged puer, when a porcelain one would have handled the high heat better. Once the tea was in, he let hot water overflow his glass gaiwan for a good several seconds. A number of sizable tea leaves was pushed out in the cascade. While a dome of boiling water settled on the top and rested along the rim, he grasped the edges with his fingers and let the scalding water break against his skin. Ouch. I noticed his finger pads were a vivid, blistering scarlet. The lid slipped against his fingers a few times while he poured out the tea, allowing more large leaf chunks to escape and some awkward fumbling. Like watching a car lose control and veer off the road,we couldn't look away. When we asked why he chose that particular gaiwan to brew with, he explained that the porcelain lids were all crooked while the glass lid fit perfectly in the cup. If he realized all those times the lid slipped against the wall of the cup and further burned his fingers was because of that perfect lid, I don't think he would have been so happy.
Question 2: Why is the saucer so much wider than the foot of the cup?
Sometimes the dish is deeper than the height of the foot the cup has a lot of wriggle room. If you don't center the foot, it can sit at a tilt and appear crooked. This is prevalent in many older gaiwans like the one picture above. While there may not have been an original reason other than the fact that same person rarely worked on both pieces, Michael realized that looser saucers did have a benefit. When a gaiwan fits snugly in it's saucer, excess water that drips into the bottom can create a pressure difference and suction the base to the cup's foot. Of course, the effect doesn't last long and the bottom will eventually come loose again, often while the cup is hoisted in the air.
Michael doesn't use the saucer when he brews tea but this is one of the details he focused on when he commissioned his own gaiwans to sell. He wanted to minimize the risk of falling saucers for the customer that does include their saucer while they make tea.

Here's a modern hand-painted gaiwan I picked out while in Hong Kong. In addition to the beautiful lions cavorting across the lid and cup, it has functional features I'm looking for. A perfectly, imperfect lid with a natural tilt; a thin edge to the flared rim and a nicely balanced knob that's easy for me to grasp.

The saucer is also much wider than the width of the foot. If I ever do brew tea with the saucer, I at least don't have to worry about water suctioning the cup to the saucer. For the sake of full disclosure, this is actually the second one I've purchased... I dropped and chipped the first one while washing it; Yumcha strikes again!
Michael tends to go through several gaiwans in a sitting. Especially when the Mandarin stops by and the marathon comparison tasting commences. By the end of the day all the gaiwans are sitting out with lids at various crooked angles. The scene can look quite haphazard but it's one that hasn't changed in many generations.

4 comments:

yumcha said...

Toki, I hope this helped. I'm leaving for my vacation today. I'll see you next week!

Anonymous said...

In the past I have had a problem with thin walled gaiwans developing stress cracks from the rim down. Cupping the bowl in my hands a few moments,warming it before brewing has stopped the cracks. I learned from your posting,thanks.

Philippe de Bordeaux said...

Your photos are beautiful like the ustensils the gaiwans teapots and tea .
Your gallery just as your hands & fingers so wonderful...
Delicate nice and quiet but a lot of life!
In short "j'aime" love in this atmosphere.
A splendid work.

Mes amitiés.

Cordially .

. PHILIPPE .

yumcha said...

Thanks for the comments, I wrote this up at 2 in the morning as I took a break from packing for my vacation. Just read it myself and noticed ALL the typos and grammatical errors!!! Whoops.... Sorry about that. It seems like I got the point across, though. That's some comfort while I sit on the beach and work on my sunburn.
Thank you for the lovely compliment, Philippe. Those are actually Winnie's hands in the photos. I have to give credit where lovely credit is due. I'll pass along the compliment!
Thanks agin for reading, I'll be back next week.
Yumcha