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The Story Of Pitchers

Article: He Jlan Sheng Photo: Chen Ming Tsung

The 'prototype' off Taiwanese Gongfu Tea Brewing

A Gongfu Tea performance during the 2006 Taipei Tea Culture Expo garnered rounds of applause and positive response. Among the tea ware used by the brewer was a double-layered aluminium tea tray, Jing De saucers, De Hua small white porcelain cups, Yi Xing red clay pots, and an improved Chaoshan stove. To brew Ti Guanyin in the traditional 'Gongfu' manner, the brewer placed tea leaves on soft, cotton tissue, and washed the cups with hands. The pitcher was left aside during the first brewing; tea liquor was poured directly into the cups. For the sake of convenience, the pitcher was used after the second brewing when tea was served to the audiences. It was an exquisite Gongfu Tea presentation by all measures, and became a yardstick of sort, showcasing results of an all-encompassing development of the tea culture in Taiwan. However, for industry personnel from Hong Kong and Malaysia, who happened to be there as observers, the legitimacy of this demonstration was queried. This leads us to three very interesting points:

First, the traditional exquisite Gongfu Tea presentation has since gone at its birthplace, namely, in Fujian and Chaoshan. Furthermore, across the entire Chaoshan region, only the simple three-cup tea brewing technique, using double-layered porcelain tea tray, is widely practised by the local residents. Where is the conventional Gongfu Tea brewing to be found then?

Second, adaptation and fine-tuning to the techniques would have been made once it has spread outside of the cradle of Gongfu Tea brewing, and this applies to places like Hong Kong and Malaysia. As such, the real successor of the conventional Gongfu Tea practices remains a controversy.

Third, Taiwanese Gongfu Tea has never considered itself to be the 'prototype' ; in fact, since the early immigrants brought to Taiwan tea brewing methods from their hometowns, they have always been making tea in their own ways. Imagine this. Young men recruited by the Dutch to work as labourers, commonly known as 'Luo Han' feet, would not have so much as a parcel for belongings. Making a meagre living, they could only make tea with the simplest of utensils they managed to pack before leaving home: a zisha teapot, a few small porcelain tea cups and some Wuyi tea leaves carefully wrapped in cotton tissue. One illustration of small pot brewing could be found in "The City of Saddness" directed by Taiwan's Hou Hsiao Hsien. In the movie, the character played by Chen Song Yong carried a clay pot with boiling hot water from the kitchen, preparing to pour hot water to brew tea in a zisha pot that was placed on the serving tray/tea vessel (Da Wan Gong). Tea liquor was then directly poured into a row of small tea cups next to the serving tray; no pitcher nor holding cup was in sight, and not to mention the sophisticated Chao Shan stove afforded only by wealthy businessmen or scholars. Such is the example of Gongfu Tea originated from the hometowns of these common people. The movie received the Golden Lion Award at the 1989 Venice Film Festival.

The influence of Japanese pots on Taiwanese tea ware

Taiwanese pot brewing, to a great extent, is influenced by the brewing of Japanese Sencha. It is highly plausible that the use of pitchers began as early as the time when Taiwan was under Japanese Occupation. This saying is made even more believable by the "Nine Valley Fired (Jiu Gu Shao)" pitchers left behind after the War has ended. Introduction of "Fu Ji" -designed Yixing red clay pitchers made by Fu Ji Tea House during the 1950s [as shown in picture, courtesy of He Jian], coupled with the rise of postwar Ying Ge ceramic trade, Gongfu tea set (commonly known as old gentlemen tea ware) could be found in abundance in tea houses,where pitchers have become part of a standard tea service.

The Influence of creamers on Taiwanese Pitchers

Ying Ge had produced large quantity of pitchers; however, theirs forms and textures were not up to the expectation of tea aficionados. At that time, the Taiwanese tea art circle chanced upon the "bean green creamers" designed and manufactured by the Xiao Fang kiln for their European customers. These were then adopted as pitchers during the transition period.

Taiwanese tea aficionado He Jian has in his collection a Yixing-exported Duan Ni creamer with handle (as shown in picture, circa 1950). With a tall body in a shape of a gourd, it looks similar to "bean green creamers" produced by Xiao Fang kiln, which was the popular shape for pitchers at that time.

Around early 1970s, there began the trend of 'old gentlemen tea' which was a common sight in the parks across Taiwan. There, retired senior citizens were seen playing chess and sipping tea under the shady banyan trees. They brewed and served 'the old gentlemen tea', whereby they did not directly serve the tea from pot to cups; instead, they poured the tea liquor into the 'fair' cup (Gong Dao Cup) until the teapot was emptied and being returned to its original spot. Afterwards, tea was poured into individual cups from the 'fair' cup. This is still practised in Taiwan, especially in small factories or offices.

With or without handles

Around 1970s, the use of creamers as pitchers was the order of the day. However, with tea art emerging in the 1980's, pitchers without handles became popular. From Lu Yu Tea House to Tangsheng Pottery, from the ancient Qigu Tang to the Wistaria House, all pitchers were of the handle-less type. This could be the trend that reflected the aesthetics of the time! In Year 2000, "Yang Xin Tong", with its "Thatched Cottage" series, launched different designs of glass pitchers with handles. Since then pitchers with and without handles have garnered their loyal following. There are myriads of designs in the market, which enrich the tea settings in Taiwan.

Factors behind the prevalence of Pitchers

First, in the 1980s, Lu Yu Tea House became the pioneer in promoting education of tea art in Taiwan. In the overall design of its tea brewing classes, pitchers were an integral part of the standard tea service. For more than two decades since, numerous families in Taiwan have been influenced by this practice. Today, tea brewing without using pitcher is considered uncommon.

Second, owing to the once popular "Tea Brewing Competition" in Taiwan, pitchers were used to ensure consistency of the tea liquor from three brews. It allows participants to avoid the highly difficult act of directly pouring tea liquor into the cups, while maintaining neatness and cleanliness of the tea setting. Meanwhile, distributing tea liquor will become a much more elegant act.

Third, in recent years, the popular tea appreciation gatherings in Taiwan have been focusing on the sense of space; tea brewing and serving is not necessarily a round-table event. Greater physical distance between brewers and the guests presents some sort of difficulty when it comes to distributing tea liquor. With pitchers, there is more flexibility with the number of guests to these gatherings. Meanwhile, pitchers enrich the presentation of a tea setting and enable more dynamic interaction between brewers and the guests.

Alternative uses of Pitchers

First, there are still tea aficionados who prefer to pour their tea from the pot directly into the cups. In this case, pitchers only serve as a backup, or a place to keep the leftover tea liquor. This enables appreciation of the "cold aroma" of previous brews after certain amount of leftover tea liquor has been collected.

Second, in the process of brewing, if one wished to appreciate the aroma without using the aroma cup, pitchers double as one. Besides tea distribution, it allows for a relatively simple way to appreciate the aroma.

The new "prototype" of Taiwanese Gongfu tea

The four hundred years of history behind the small pot of Gongfu tea in Taiwan began with the forefathers from Fujian and Guangdong and their most simple "prototype" tea ware. This has since incorporated multi-cultural elements. With the addition of different utensils and human influences, the trend has moved towards the new 'prototype' with the use of small pots. Pitchers are one of the must-haves in the new 'prototype' of Gongfu tea brewing. From no pitcher to fully utilizing it, from handle-less to handled, from direct pouring from pot to cup to the use of pitcher for tea distribution, cooling and aroma appreciation, it seems that the process is still experiencing changes, and the so-called new "prototype" of Taiwanese Gongfu tea brewing is far from being concluded.