Most people associate the word “pet” with a furry friend that they play fetch with; however, in the tea world, a “tea pet” is considered a token of good luck that is used during the tea-making process. Originating in the Yuan Dynasty, from 1206 to 1368 AD, tea pets have been found to have many purposes from just being a decoration, to testing water temperature.
Also known as a “tea lover’s pet” or “tea friend,” tea pets were originally made using leftover clay from Zisha teapots; thus, this is why they are commonly created using Yixing, aka Purple clay. This clay is impressively shaped and carved to form all different types of figurines. These figurines range from normal animals to mystical creatures to vegetables to people. Many tea pets resemble ancient Chinese characters, zodiac signs, and of course, animals.
In speaking about animal tea pets, certain animals represent certain things. For example, the Dragon represents power and strength. The pig represents honesty, wealth, and good luck. The dog also represents good luck and suggests that good fortune is to come in the future as dogs drive away disasters. Finally, the bird tea pet symbolizes happiness and wisdom. However, depending on the type of bird that the tea pet is, they will represent different things.
When one purchases a tea pet they are responsible for “raising” it. In this regard, to “feed” a tea pet, one is supposed to pour water/tea on it. Each time you “feed” your pet its color will change. Over time, with each pour, the tea pet will develop a gloss and begin to hold a fragrance.
In order to maintain your tea pet there are semi-specific instructions for its care. Under no circumstances, should you use any type of soap or detergent on the tea pet. Use normal, pure water to gently rinse the figure in between tea sessions, if desired. It is not required to rinse the pet at all. Additionally, if you want to thoroughly cleanse the tea pet in between sessions, you can invest in a tea brush to gently scrub away residue. Make sure you purchase a tea brush with coarse bristles but not so harsh that it will damage or scratch the surface of the tea pet.
The tea pet is to be used during the gongfu cha tea ceremony which originates back in China during the 1700s. This ceremony is known as the “Chinese Tea Ceremony” and Gong Fu Cha translates to mean “making tea with skill.” During this ceremony, there is a ritual presentation and preparation of tea using small brewing vessels. Whole tea leaves, unlike powdered matcha, will be infused several times using special teawares, like a wooden or metal tray to hold the supplies, a gaiwan or yixing pot, a bowl for waste, and of course, the tea pet among other utensils.
Some tea masters of the Gongfu Cha tea ceremonies believe that a tea pet is first obtained lacking a soul. The soul of the leftover tea from the ceremony is poured over the figure, which then, gives the pet a soul. By leftover tea, we mean a variety of things. This liquid could be the water used to warm the teaware, the water used to rinse the tea leaves, or any leftover tea in general. It is important to be sure that the liquid/leftover tea that is being poured on the tea pet completely encompasses the figurine. This is because the tea pet will absorb the tea, changing its color and giving it an aroma. For best results, it is encouraged to have even layers atop of the tea pet. Also, it is encouraged to use the same type of tea to feed your tea pet to keep them “happy.”
Choosing a tea pet can be a difficult decision because they all have different meanings and represent different things. It is important to do your research on which tea pet calls out to you the most and would be most beneficial to have in your life!