I saw my first tea pet the first time that I saw someone brew gongfu tea. It was a smooth stone turtle, serenely resting on the bamboo brewing tray, the tea flowing gently off its back as the tea master doused it with a rolled oolong. “A gift for the tea gods”, he said, or something like that, and I could sense the beautiful humility of such a gesture. Since that day I have met many tea pets, from nosey water buffaloes to tiny stoic scholars, and they continue to be a small clay reminder that tea is meant to be shared.
If you have never encountered a tea pet, let me introduce you! Quite common in China and Taiwan, these little clay statues sit with the tea equipment and await a bath. They come in many shapes and sizes; often they take the form of a traditional good fortune animal like the pig, turtle, dragon, dog, or water buffalo, but sometimes one will find a lucky cabbage, a log, whimsical spider feet, or a tea master of old such as Lu Yu.
There’s even special versions of these unique items which are interactive. If the clay is carved just right, sometimes the water flowing over the mouth of the tea pet will form cute little bubbles. There are plastic-like tea pets that change color with hot water like the toys I used to get in cereal boxes. However, despite these fun mechanics, it’s important to understand that a tea pet is more than just decoration!
When preparing tea in the gongfu (essentially “with skill”) style, there’s usually a lot of water thrown about. Firstly the pot and cups must be warmed, then sometimes the leaves will be rinsed, and when the first infusion is steeping, some extra water is often poured over the pot to seal in its heat. At each of these stages, the used hot water or tea is poured out into a bowl or onto the table itself. Rather than simply waste that water, however, some can be poured on the head of a tea pet sitting nearby. Why would you do this? It’s certainly extraneous to the act of preparing the tea! Each tea devotee may have their own reasons, but in my experience this ritual serves the dual purpose of cultivating mindfulness and intention.
Firstly the action of allowing extra drops to fall on a specific target keeps the mind present on every act of making tea, including the rather mundane process of disposing of water down the drain which might otherwise be unconscious. And secondly, this gesture serves as a reminder of the intention of kindness toward others, even if only making tea for one’s self. “Sharing” some of the tea with the tea pet, perhaps even the last drops of each infusion, can give the practitioner of the leaf a sense of connection with all of the beings in the world.
With the extent of the Internet these days it’s much easier to find a Chinese-made tea pet than it once was, but I encourage everyone to find a tea pet that suits them from any source. A few of my favorite “tea pets” are just small artifacts made of clay, stone, crystal, and plastic that were never intended to be used in a tea service, and they perform the task quite admirably! Making a tea service your own is the highest form of tea art, in my opinion, and connecting with a tea pet is just one way to bring that experience to life. I hope you find a tiny friend to share your next pot!