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Blog 51: Gaiwan and Its Design

Updated: Oct 19, 2018

No matter what kind of tea we drink, we all need some tools to make tea. Among all tools, Gaiwan (Chinese: 盖碗, Gaiwan literally means “lid and bowl/cup”) is the most favored. Gaiwan, as its name in Chinese suggests, is a tool that has a lid, a saucer and a cup. Traditionally, Gaiwan is also called “San Cai Wan”(Chinese: 三才碗, meaning: Three Talent Bowl) or “San Cai Bei”(Chinese: 三才杯, meaning: Three Talent Cup). The three-piece tool is often interpreted by some tea professionals that the structure of it implies the harmony of people and the nature. One popular explanation is that the lid is the sky, the saucer is the ground, and the cup is people who stand in between. Personally, I don’t believe Gaiwan was made with this “philosophy” in mind. But, Gaiwan is given this significance because its dominant role on a tea table. Today, let’s talk about Gaiwan, the king of all teaware.

Interestingly, Gaiwan did not become a major teaware until the reign of Emperor Yongzheng of Qing Dynasty (1722-1735). During the reign of Yongzheng, the fashion of drinking loose leaf tea continued to develop. During this period of time, the making and the design of Gaiwan were perfected. Eventually, it becomes how we drink tea today. (If you’re interested in why Gaiwan did not become popular before the Yongzheng era, please click here to see our previous blog on “the history of tea-drinking)

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A painting of Emperor Yongzheng of Qing and his chest of teaware (on the right side)

After hundreds of years’ transformations and improvements, we now have a vast selection of Gaiwan designs and styles. Despite they’re all called Gaiwan, they’re not the same. By material, we can categorize all Gaiwan into three major categories: purple clay, glazed china and glass. By design, we can also put them into multiple styles: standard/oversize, tall/short, normal cup opening and horseshoe.

Purple clay is very capable of absorbing smells and flavors, but this feature only works when the pot has a good airtightness. (see more about clay pots in our previous blog here) Because Gaiwan is not a pot and does not provide a great seal, we do not recommend tea drinkers use clay Gaiwan at all. This is perhaps why most seasoned tea drinkers use china Gaiwan. China teaware is glazed, so it does not absorb flavors and affect the taste of other teas. Depends on the firing and the glazing techniques, china Gaiwan have numerous textures. The most common china Gaiwan is blue and white. For tea lovers who prefer a more personalized statement, we also have famille-rose, monochrome glaze, white jade, enamel, Ding-Yao and Ru-Yao materials. (You can find Gaiwan made from these materials on our Teaware page. We’ll have more detailed introduction to each material in future blogs.) Some tea drinkers prefer glass Gaiwan to appreciate the great amber color of premium black tea. Despite that, glass Gaiwan is normally only an addition to china Gaiwan since it’s not a premium material.

As long as a china Gaiwan is glazed, it does not affect the flavor of a tea. What matters more is the design of a Gaiwan. A standard Gaiwan (shown above) holds about 100ml to 150ml of water. A oversize Gaiwan (shown below) may hold up to 300ml of water. Originally, oversize Gaiwan is designed for steeping green tea and white tea. Because of its large size, many of our U.S. customers also choose it for teas. While this is feasible, using oversize Gaiwan can potentially suffocate tea leaves if too much water is poured into Gaiwan. Therefore, we always recommend that not to add more than 150ml of water when using an oversize Gaiwan.

A tall Gaiwan is also different from a short Gaiwan. A tall Gaiwan is ideal for black tea but not for oolong tea because oolong tea has bigger leaves that cannot be completely immersed in a tall Gaiwan. A short Gaiwan has a flatter bottom, and it’s excellent for collecting and preserving fragrances. A short Gaiwan is commonly used in a tea sampling using the technique called “suffocative steeping” (see our previous blog about “suffocative steeping” here).

Horseshoe Gaiwan is another popular design especially among royal klins. The horseshoe design looks like an upside-down horseshoe. Both royal courts of Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty adored this design. The original horseshoe design had a very narrow cup opening, which made holding a horseshoe Gaiwan extremely difficult. Fortunately, the modernized design extended the opening for easier and safer grip. (see the modern design below)

We understand that this blog is only a very brief introduction to Gaiwan. Many materials and designs mentioned in this blog need more thorough introduction. We’ll revisit these topics in future blogs. Please stay updated by joining our mail list and following us on social media.

I hope you enjoyed today’s blog. As always, if you have questions or suggestions, please leave a comment, tweet us @valleybrooktea or email the author directly at Please also follow us on Instagram @valleybrooktea and join our mail list to get our daily tea updates and our latest promotions!


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