The gaiwan: A coveted, covered cup

To kick off this year’s series of blog posts, we are drawing your attention not only to the precious or rare, but also to the utilitarian tea utensils, little-researched but widely used for tea’s consumption throughout different eras and across the globe. 

Pair of gaiwan, porcelain, enamels and gilding, China, Qing dynasty, ca.1850-1890

This pair of porcelain lidded tea bowls on raised saucers are a recent acquisition and a new type of teaware to enter the collection. Made in China in the late 19th century and known as Gaiwan (盖碗), this unique Chinese vessel is used for infusing and drinking tea. Gaiwan are typically thin-walled and made from porcelain, glass or unglazed ceramic. The combination of lid, bowl and saucer are the gaiwan’s three most common components. For this reason, the gaiwan is also referred to as ‘san cai wan’ (三才碗) or ‘three talent cup’. According to Chinese folklore, the ‘gai’ (盖, lid) symbolises heaven, the ‘wan’ (碗, tea bowl) symbolises man, and the ‘tuo’ (托, saucer) symbolises the earth or ground. As a whole, this tripartite tea ware embodies harmony between heaven, earth and man. 

Daiyu drinking tea in ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’, a 1987 TV adaption of Chinese literature’s most notable mid-18th century work by the same name (‘Hung Lou Meng’, 紅樓夢) © China Central Television

A gaiwan is typically held in one hand, by applying light pressure to keep the stacked components in place. This, and the strict etiquette surrounding its use, can take a bit of practice. When drinking from a gaiwan, one is expected to tilt and ‘scrape’ the lid away from the mouth, to skim the floating tea leaves before drinking. No sound should be made – even while sipping or swallowing.

The gaiwan likely evolved from the lidded bowls used in China from at least the Tang Dynasty, while its lofty saucer is similar in form to the raised tea bowl cup stands which emerged during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Hollow on the inside with a raised foot at its base, these tea bowl stands were made of wood, porcelain or from carved red and black lacquer. The steaming tea bowls were placed on top of the stand and raised to the lips of educated monks and learned members of the elite classes. These stands also prevented their fingers from being scalded on the tea bowl! 

The fashion for loose-leaf tea had completely overtaken other brewing methods by the Qing Dynasty (1636-1735), which led to the gaiwan’s widespread use in the Chinese imperial court and amongst officials, eunuchs and aristocratic families. Official records describe how carved jade tea bowls, placed between gold or silver lids and saucers, were used to serve scented teas to the Emperor during special celebrations.

Jadeite tea bowl, with silver-gilt saucer and lid, Qing Dynasty, Jiaqing Reign (1796-1820), National Palace Museum, Taipei

The gaiwan was quickly incorporated into the romanticised view of traditional Chinese life and society. By the 1850s, the introduction of photography in China led to many Western photographers establishing their studios across major Chinese coastal cities. Hundreds of ‘cartes-de-visite’ (photographic portraits widely circulated and mounted into frames as decoration) showed middle-class Chinese political figures, generals, merchants and families dressed in traditional clothing, often proudly seated next to a low table on which are displayed the usual suspects: A gaiwan, a water pipe and a vase of native Chinese blossoms or even a branch from the tea bush, Camellia Sinensis. These items, so associated with China’s rich cultural heritage, were repackaged as elements of quintessential Chinese culture, establishing them in the national narrative. Especially to a Western viewer or collector, the various ‘props’ in these photographs represented the romantic allure of the ‘exotic’. 

Three gaiwan, resting on a European table… giving away the photographer’s western origins. 
Mandarin with family, Milton M. Miller, albumen print, 1860-1863 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the second half of the 19th century, when the Chitra Collection’s pair was made, the gaiwan was completely democratised and used in all levels of society, from the family home to the bustling tea house. The end of the Opium Wars in 1860 precipitated the migration flow of entire Chinese communities across Southeast Asia, bringing their familiar tableware to their unfamiliar new homes overseas. Renowned Chinese writer Liang Shiqiu  (1903-1987) recalls in ‘Drinking Tea’ that when someone travelled from mainland China to Taiwan, they brought with them a porcelain gaiwan, to be used every day for more than 30 years.

A porcelain gaiwan on a silver saucer, placed on a table next to the woman’s left hand. Portrait of a young woman, albumen print, unidentified artist, ca.1860 © The Stephen Loewentheil Collection

Brilliantly-coloured, auspicious symbols like those on the Chitra Collection’s pair of gaiwan can be found on utilitarian porcelain teaware from the 1860s to 1910s. These were often made to order in the Chinese kilns of Jingdezhen, for members of the Chinese diasporic communities across Singapore and Malaysia. Red characters in a circular seal to the base of the gaiwan‘s bowls read ‘Yuan Zhang Hong Zao’ (源 章 洪 造), or ‘made bespoke for Yuan Zhang Hong’. Although we have yet to discover further details on the owner, this kind of inscription reveals how there was still a demand for such utilitarian porcelain items, even on the tumultuous cusp of the 20th century.  

Circular seal bearing the name of the individual who commissioned the gaiwan from mainland China.

Today, the gaiwan is mainly used by tea professionals for the recently-developed gongfu tea ceremony, in specialist tea shops and for official state visits. One recent and notable example is US President Barack Obama, who in 2016 sampled tea served in gaiwan with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have tea following a tour of the West Lake State House grounds in Hangzhou, China, 3 Sept. 2016 © Official White House Photo, Pete Souza

I am grateful to Dr Shanshan Wang for her translation of the marks, and to Glen Chee, Terence Tay and Liu Wenzhuo for their generous assistance in my research.