Tea was already prepared during Qin and Han Dynasties (229BC – 9) in China, but it could be prepared using any ceramics available at the time and there was no bowls or pots assigned exclusively to tea. Nevertheless, it is an important period in which the pottery production bloomed and gave ground to future advancements in this art.
Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
The Tang Dynasty provided great conditions for the development of tea culture, as tea drinking spread from the southern parts of China towards the north. This is also the first time proper tea-specific utensils for preparation and serving appear, described by Ju Yu in The Classic of Tea. The materials used for production of tea bowls play a greater role in deciding quality of the tea ware. The most characteristic and notable tea ware during this period was Yueh ware (also called Yueh Yao or Yue ware) which was first made in Yueh-chou, Chekiang Province during Han Dynasty. Although Yueh ware was produced already then, it reached its peak in the Tang Dynasty were it became the most used ceramics. These were celadon glazed porcelain-clay items, with a characteristic, greenish or olive color. Highest quality Yueh ware (known as mi-se meaning ‘secret color’) were selected as a tribute to the imperial family and valued greatly by connoiseurs and even poets who would praise the ceramics in their poetry.
During mid-Tang dynasty there emerged another type of favorite tea ware – the ‘white porcelain’ Hsing ware (Hsing Yao) produced in Hsing Chou. According to The Classic of Tea this tea ware was held in higher regard by people then Yueh ware. As for style, low-sided bowls were most popular. This period also marked the beginnings of Yixing tea ware (Purple Clay ware), which only later was praised for its tea-improving qualities. Below you can see a Yueh ewer and bowl and Hsing cup and ewer.
Song dynasty (960 – 1279)
The Song Dynasty developed two major styles of tea ware – popular Qingbai porcelain (Yingqing ware) with bluish-white glaze and the complete opposite – black-glazed Jian ware. The Qingbai ware was produced in Jiangxi and most often decorated with incised lines. This porcelain was mostly appreciated among the middle and upper class and some foreign markets, not as much by the imperial court.
Later most of white tea ceramics were replaced by Jian ware. The reason Jian ware became so valued is because the rich black color would emphasize and bring out the color of then-popular powdered tea and create a nice contrast. The most desirable Jian tea bowl design was the ‘hare’s fur’ design, which occurred naturally during firing. Both of the styles were to encourage appreciation and awareness of the color of tea liquor. Apart from the practical functionality, tea ware became objects of desire in Song Dynasty. Below a Qingbai ewer and bowl and Jian bowl and ewer.
Yuan and Ming Dynasties (1368 – 1911)
These two dynasties focused on classical and simple designs. Shufu ware – white porcelain made during the Yuan dynasty at Jingdezhen. It was the first-known porcelain ordered by imperial officials and it sometimes bore the characters shufu meaning “central palace”. This ware was covered with a bluish opaque glaze, whereas the base would remain unglazed, sometimes with molded relief on the surface.
Inspired by Qingbai porcelain Meiping ware came into fashion during this period. Meiping porcelain also has a transparent glaze, before applying glaze however blue decoration and ornaments were painted with finely ground cobalt oxide mixed with water. This created a contrast between the white porcelain and vivid blue color of cobalt oxide making these wares very memorable. Since during the Yuan and Ming period powdered tea is replaced by loose leaf tea the white inside of these two porcelain styles is meant to emphasize the different shades of yellow and green in tea liquor.
The most important tea ware that reached the height of its fame in the Ming period is Yixing ware, especially Yixing tea pots which are still very popular today. This ware is often called Zisha clay ware or Purple clay ware because they are made of unglazed, purple sand clay from the city of Yixing. The reason why Yixing ware was claimed to be the best for tea drinking and preparation was because the clay contained minerals which affected and improved the taste, but also could preserve aroma and temperature of tea better. The tea’s oils are absorbed into the porous surface of the pot, thus enhancing and altering the flavor depending on what tea type was brewed in the pot. Yixing pots are considered the first tea pots, which gave inspiration to creating different styles and using different materials later on. In Qing Dynasty Yixing production continued to flourish, with new shapes, styles and decorations. Below Meiping pot and bowl, two shufu bowls and Yixing tea ware.