Tea History: Why Don’t Asian Teacups have Handles?
One marked difference between Asian tea cups is they have no handles while Western cups have a looped handle on one side of the cup. Ever wonder why? The short answer is that Asians of various cultures believe that if the cup is too hot to hold, the tea is too hot to drink. The long answer is the story of how vessels were created to match the beverages people drink.
As old as tea is, wine predates it as a popular beverage, and bowls or goblets were first the vessels for wine. They were made of carved stone, wood, clay, and similar materials centuries before the development of glass, high-quality stoneware or porcelain. The tea vessels of royalty and the wealthy class were often decorated with silver or gold.
Nomadic cultures everywhere had some form of bowls for both food and drink from before 1000 B.C. Sized from small to large, these handleless bowls were known by various names like piola, pyola, piala, or chini throughout Central Asia, Russia, and Turkey. The round shape was not only easy for storing and transporting them as they traveled mountains, forests, and deserts, but when stopping to eat and drink, the bowls could be placed on dirt or nestled into sand requiring no tables for serving tea or food.
Artisans played with designs then as they do now, and the squat roundish shape for the teacup became a standard throughout Asia, all patterned after the concept of the handleless bowl. In China, bowls for tea were made with exquisite glazes, painted designs, and a wide range of colors, especially black which showed off the white froth of whipped tea.
Whipping Up the Handleless Tea Bowl
The brilliant chartreuse matcha of Japan, is actually a newcomer in the world of whisked tea. China whisked powdered tea from tea bricks centuries ago during the Tang Era. The technique involved the host grinding tea cakes into a powder, boil the leaves in a pot over a fire, then using a scoop or ladle to serve the tea into bowls for his guests.
A similar process, using an actual whisk, was called tea contending, popular through the Song Dynasty. Tea cakes were ground into fine powder, placed in a bowl, and boiling water poured into the bowl. A specially-designed whisk was then used to whip the mixture into a froth, the whiter the better, to show off the expensive black-glazed surface so popular then for tea bowls. Competitions raged amongst members of the court, and tea whisking was considered akin to a sport.
Handleless Teacup Etiquette
Both Chinese and Japanese cultures, and later the Korean tea culture, developed etiquette for holding small tea cups (pick up with your right hand, hold in your left). The Chinese gaiwan or covered cup, took that etiquette providing what is essentially a tea set that includes a cup, a lid to both paddle the leaves to infuse them and to cover the cup to keep the brewed tea hot. Added to that is a saucer for the cup to sit on in between sips and to rest while the tea receives more water for additional infusions. Cleverly, the cup could be used either as a drinking vessel or as a way to brew tea to be poured into even smaller cups to share the tea with others. Because gaiwans are used most often for teas brewed at lower temperatures than boiling, the handleless teacup/pouring vessel and lid are comfortable to the touch.
Tea Traders Export the Handleless Teacup
Chinese tea bowls were shipped along with crates of tea to Great Britain in the early 18th century, first as a “packing material” and later, when the cups proved popular abroad, as a commodity for sale, and their handleless round shape made stacking them easy for transportation.
New to tea drinking, the British of this era often ate the leaves and tossed the liquor. Soon enough, they realized how delicious the tea liquor was and sought curved-edged saucers they used to pour tea from the bowl-shaped cup into the saucer, and sipped from the saucer! Saucers are now used as a way to hold the cup and protect the tea table, and were designed to match the cup.
Handleless in America
Here in America in the 18th century, portraits were often used to show off their wealth, and one common depiction was tea drinking and tables laden with such “modern equipage as slop bowls, urns, and teapots of either porcelain or silver. The handleless cup was a typical accessory, traditionally small, and Chinese.
Along Came the Handle
Porcelain makers on both sides of the pond were slow to attach handles, most likely because full knowledge of firing methods for various clays were still being developed. British porcelain makers experimented with both hard and soft pastes during the late 18th and early 19th century, and with probably more of a nod toward fashion than utility for the handles had curlicues, gilt, and images. The handle slowly became a fixture of the British teacup in both fine porcelain and stoneware styles and are now ubiquitous. In addition, French, German, Bavarian, American, and Russian, and other tea-drinking countries with a porcelain industry followed suit.
How Tea Glasses are “Handled”
Other cultures eschew handles for their tea-drinking vessels, however, they use small clear or colored glasses not porcelain cups. For example, Morocco serves its fresh mint teas in glasses and set them in matching curved saucers. The Turks designed glasses indented on the sides in the middle of the glass, the better to hold on to them and set them either in decorative saucers or in holders, and add tiny spoons to stir the sugar they adore. Russians drink tea in glasses set into filigreed metal holders called podstakanniks with handles that allow tea drinkers mobility and a graceful, burn-proof way to pick up the glass now heated by the hot tea.
Why Asian Cups Remain Small
Most fine Western tea cups hold 5 ounces of liquid, and come with handles and matching saucers. The smaller Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cups hold only 2-4 ounces, and Taiwanese thimble cups hold barely an ounce. The capacity of Asian cups follows the custom of serving tea in small quantities and freshly brewing each subsequent infusion. This extends the pleasure of the tea drinking experience, prevents unnecessary cooling that occurs in large cups, and offers the subtle or marked nuances in flavor profiles common with multiple infusions. It is a Chinese custom to pour tea only up to 70% into a small handleless tea cup. While this is practical way to avoid unnecessary spills that might hurt the hands of the tea drinker, there is also a philosophical intent: the remaining 30% is to be “filled” with friendship and affection.