Tea pets are the perfect companions on your tea journey! August 26 2014
Quietly I sat in the dark back corner of Hidden Peak Teahouse in downtown Santa Cruz. I was in deep appreciation of the thick black brew at my fingertips and was inwardly reflecting on how I had arrived at this place and time. My only companion a fat frog made out of clay who persistently stared up at me. What did he want? Those soulful eyes unsuccessful in hiding deep desire. Whatever words he would have spoken were obscured by the large coin held tightly in his mouth. It was obvious what he wanted though. Tea. This frog was a tea pet, and he was thirsty. Pouring it over his head I shared some of my puerh; momentarily sating his never ending thirst.
Waking that morning I innocently plodded right into a new world, and a new life for myself. I woke a passionate coffee man and went to bed with the ancient magic of puerh coursing through my veins. That day late last Spring was certainly momentous. I experienced brewing tea gongfu style, drank my first puerh, and met my first tea pet all in the same afternoon. I have written at length about my journey with puerh, but I have rarely mentioned our thirsty companions.
Last fall we went to the Vancouver Tea Festival. While in the area we visited The Chinese Tea Shop. It was there that we met our first companion. This adorable little piggy was our first tea pet. We named him “Xiǎo Yóu Dù” (shao yo dew - 小油肚) which means “little fat belly”. Over the months since then a few more tea pets have volunteered to join us on our journey.
If you’ve never heard of tea pets I should explain. Tea pets are simply little bits of clay sculpted into forms. Most often the shape of animals popular in Chinese culture. Wikipedia says that tea pets have been a part of Chinese tea drinking culture since the Yuan Dynasty (13th century). That’s certainly possible, but it is hard to find information on the history. Wikipedia suggests that there is little mention of tea pets in recorded history because they are an insignificant detail. There is a Chinese idiom that may describe this mindset: ”trifling destroys the will” ( 玩物丧志 wán wù sàng zhì ). I don’t find tea pets to be a trifling matter or insignificant. I think they’re a fun addition to your tea rituals.
Nearly every single tea shop we went to in China had tea pets sitting proudly on their gongfu tea tables. Some were small, plain, and simple animals. Others were large, ornate, and complex works of art. Most common were frogs, pigs, pixiu (baby dragons), and buddhas; in that order. We asked everyone about the history of tea pets. Most admitted that they knew little about their history. Yet all recounted a similar story: traditional potters would take the leftover clay scraps at the end of the day and make cute animals for fun. Sometimes these would be sold with the teapot whose clay they shared.
Even if tea pets have traditionally held a trifling position in the history of Chinese tea, that has certainly changed. Tea pets are big business in China these days. With the recent economic boom in China there is an abundance of disposable income looking for a new home. That is a problem that many potters are seeking to remedy. Ten years ago tea pets were just simple lumps of clay shaped like an animal and sold for pennies. Now they are true works of art. Individual tea pets are often made with rare clay, exquisitely sculpted into large shapes. This new art form comes with some crazy price tags. We visited stores entirely devoted to tea pets. That’s all they sell; tea pets. Hundreds of sizes and shapes packed onto shelves floor to ceiling. The sizes range from thumbnail to human head size. All the members of the Chinese zodiac are present. Traditional Chinese historical figures are also well represented. The most elaborate will carry price tags well into the multiple hundreds of dollars.
From the vendors we talked to they have no problems selling them. The more they cost, and the better they are made, the more people want them. The problem is that there is less focus on making cute, small, trifling tea pets. The vendors and potters see no value in creating small tea pets that are sold for small profit. A lot of recent focus has been on making large works of art sold with incredible markup. That said, it’s not too hard to find cute, fun tea pets for an affordable price. If they are handmade they will have a price that reflects that.
We brought back as many as we could. It was a lot of fun shopping around for good deals on cute tea pets that we could sell for a reasonable price. We have a nice selection of those we thought our customers would like: http://crimsonlotustea.com/collections/tea-pets
Since these tea pets are generally made from the same clay as traditional Chinese clay teapots they exhibit the same benefits. You can ‘feed’ them. They will absorb the tea over time the same way that an Yixing teapot will. They have been single fired and are not glazed. They will change in color over time. If exploring the world of high end, quality tea is a journey. Tea pets are your traveling companions. They will drink the same tea you do. They drink the good and the bad. They will quietly sit with you for hours and share your experiences. It's real simple, just give them a little bit of the tea you're drinking when they look thirsty and don't wash them with soapy water.
When we first got to China early this year we bought a tiny little frog tea pet. He was small enough to travel in the secret 5th pocket of my pants. He went everywhere with us. We would take him out at tea tastings and let him share the journey with us. He has been to more tea mountains, and tried more quality tea, than many tea industry professionals. The journey has weathered him. He wears the well worn exterior of an aged tea explorer with pride. The photo above shows how he has changed over the months.
Are tea pets a trifling thing? Sure, but who cares? Tea should be fun. Find yourself a tea pet companion and enjoy your journey with some company.
All images © Crimson Lotus Tea 2014