In much of the Northern Hemisphere, February is marked by the long continuation of Winter’s grip. Here from the vantage point of my tea room window, overlooking the flurry of a snowstorm overtaking New York City, I cannot help but want to be indoors, nestled against near the warmth of a central heater, and tucked beside a boiling kettle and teapot. I, for one, find days like this quite inspiring for making tea. As a sort of “forced” predicament, snow days tend to make me venture inwards, both inside and into my mind. As always, tea follows.
On this particular day, kept indoors due to inclement weather, I set my kettle to boil and pull out a trusty 茶船 chá chuán, literally “tea boat”. But, what is a “tea boat”, pray tell? I thought I was remaining inside… Who would want to set upon an ocean voyage in such a cold and stormy day? Fear not… a “tea boat” is not quite what it seems.
Rather than a nautical vessel, a “tea boat” is a “warming” vessel! Constituting of an open shallow bowl, this enables the tea brewer to pour water into the teapot and then over the teapot, allowing one to warm the teapot from both the inside and outside! As one continues to do this, steeping after steeping, the water in the tea boat begins to climb up the surface of the teapot. If skillfully done, this water will retain its heat and help to “push” additional flavors out of each subsequent brews. Especially on cold days, this is essential, as teapots can cool down considerably by the latent cold air.
Over the many years I’ve been practicing gong fu cha, I’ve acquired several chá chuán, each with their own particular qualities. My very first was, like many of us beginning in tea, a simple porcelain rice bowl. Not pictured, I eventually gave this away to a tea friend. In its stead, I replaced it with a Yixing tea boat, found in the early 2000s at San Francisco’s Imperial Tea Court. Compared with its porcelain predecessor, the Yixing tea boat is ideal for using for brewing tea. The heat retention qualities of Yixing clay means that the water within the its walls remains hot over many “pour-overs”. Similarly, like the Yixing teapots it heats, over the years, with regular use, the clay has seasoned and attained a “jewel-like” patina.
Other tea boats I’ve collected throughout the years offer a variety of different brewing experiences. A Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white porcelain piece gifted to me by a dear friend and antiques collector is what I use in cooler days as it is more shallow and the water it keeps cools at a faster rate. Conversely, when I opt not to pour water over the teapot, I often use this dish to practice 干泡法 gàn pào fǎ (lit. “dry brewing method”). In this way, this piece is quite versatile.
In the Autumn months I use an ancient Chinese celadon bowl, the circumference of which has been broken. While still functional as a chá chuán, the imperfection of this piece is a poignant reminder of the effects of time and the ephemeral qualities of everything in this world.
Similarly, on nights set to a full moon, I often prefer to use another piece of ancient Chinese ceramics. In this instance, a large white teabowl from the Song period (960-1279) becomes a perfect complement to the big bright moon that lights the night sky.
When I step out into the world, I find other objects to use as tea boats. When I conduct tea meditations at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I use a piece of Japanese 懐石 kaiseki ware, skillfully repurposed by the tea house’s owner to become a beautiful tea object. While it functions perfectly as a tea boat, the fact that it is essentially a “found object” does not escape me. This, too, adds to the meditation, a worldly object used mindfully, a roof tile polished until it becomes a jewel!
An appreciation of chá chuán would not be complete until I mention the rather elusive and somewhat “endangered” 潮州茶船 Cháozhōu chá chuán, the Chaozhou tea boat. Sometimes referred to as a 茶盤 chá pán, “tea tray”, the Chaozhou tea boat is made up of two pieces, a perforated “tray” that sits atop a deep basin. Originally made of ceramic or metal, these pieces are generally only large enough to fit a small Yixing teapot and, maybe, just three small tasting cups.
Once a common object in the everyday tea set of the inhabitants of the Chaozhou region of Guangdong province, over the years, the Chaozhou tea boat/tray became harder to find, often replaced by “fancier” and “splashier” bamboo, stone, and plastic “tea trays” (茶盤 chá pán). However, as people become increasingly interested in tea’s history, this older form, too, has seen a return in popularity, with modern replicas and contemporary re-imaginings appearing on the market.
So, as you cozy-up close to your tea set today to brew a hearty pot of tea, perhaps you’ll invite a tea boat along. As you sail these seven seas of a myriad of teas, this vessel may prove its worth to you. If you haven’t yet used one, perhaps you can “adopt” and “adapt” an object. Otherwise, use this “appreciation” as your guide.