Article by Dai Zu Xi Photos by Chen Ming Tsung
Tea has spread its influence throughout history, far and wide. Having been the favourite beverage among scholars, means that there exists a treasure of writings on tea.
At the end of 1980's, the hobby of tea-drinking swept across Taiwan, thanks to the booming economy and a conducive environment. Tea houses mushroomed, finding their ways into large cities and small towns alike. At every turn, people from all walks of life joined this new trend with their cups and pots, ready to par.
Tea-drinking is more than a passive pastime — instead of sipping tea in quietude, drinkers are sometimes engaged in lively conversation about all aspects of tea, from the distinct aroma to its place of origin. Remarks such as "Oolong harvested in spring will have that tempting aroma of steaming glutinous rice", or, Jinxuan launched in winter has the aroma of sugar cane energize any tea talk. With this keen interest in quality, tea farmers also devote a lot of their effort to research and production. These two forces drive the market and fuel the development of tea and tea-drinking. As time goes by, consumers look forward to deeper satisfaction. To enhance the experience brought about by the aroma, taste and colour of this celebrated beverage, tea utensils have come into the limelight.
At the beginning, there were only cast iron tea pots and tea cups, and hardly any other utensils. Pitchers, as such, was simply not there yet.
In Taiwan, pitchers came into fashion almost overnight. Today, very few of us know of their origin; many tea drinkers think that pitchers have been a part of the tea service all along. The truth is, it is more of a coincidence.
Around 1975, the thriving economy led to the emergence of tea shops. Shop owners prepared samples of different kinds of tea for potential customers as a means of promotion; over time, visitors filled these outlets. The crowd was lively and the business good. There was one inconvenience though - the spout of the teapots was not up to the task. As everyone was enjoying their cuppa, there was tea dripping all over the table top which was rather unsightly. At this time, a salesman showed up with a pitcher, or tea pourer or tea receptacle as some chose to call it. Essentially, it is a receptacle to receive the tea liquor from the teapot. Tea is then poured into individual teacups. The unprecedented precision it offers to tea pouring turned the pitcher into an immediate success. Since then, it has been indispensable as part of a complete tea service. It works equally well with small teapots, where by it holds two to three brewings for a larger number of people. Last but not least, the pitcher allows minute and hard-to-strain tea leaves to settle before the tea liquor is served.
Inquisitive minds will ask, how did this come about? Well, the story traces all the way to a porcelain factory in the northern part of Taiwan. Actually, the factory manufactured sanitary wares for bathrooms. As a sideline, they had also developed a 15-piece coffee set which was modelled after the tulip. Among the 15 pieces was one which looked like a coffee cup, except that it had a small spout on one side. It was designed to pour cream into coffee cups without dripping, a creamer. It just happened that there was considerable surplus of this item. Seeing this surplus stock, one smart salesman had an idea. An avid tea drinker who frequented tea houses, he knew very well tea drinkers' needs. With his untiring effort, these tulip-shaped pitchers found their way to the tables of tea shops in Taipei. In less than a month, pitchers of different shapes appeared in the market. They wese given a push by tea art classes, which formalized the position of the pitcher as an indispensable item in the art of tea.
As to how many types of pitchers we have today in Taiwan, it is really hard to tell. Tong Sheng alone carries tens of designs. In Taiwan, tea drinkers prefer pitchers shaped like a Chinese teacup; whereas in Korea and Japan, handled pitchers are in demand.
There are various reasons why Taiwan tea drinkers prefer pitchers in the shape of a cup. They are simple and fuss-free with a contemporary flavour. The outward-turned rim enables tea liquor to cool down, while the palm-sized body is easy to handle and prevents hands from being scorched. The wide rim allows a normal-sized teapot to rest on it upside down, hence no tea liquor will be wasted. The colours are distinct, with a range of vividly coloured glaze available. They are pleasing to the touch, easy to clean and affordable.
For over three decades, tea art has been flourishing in Taiwan. From traditional tea brewing to tea infusion, then the use of the pitchers along the way, tea art continues its evolution.