Have you been harboring a curiosity over the small statues in Chinese tea shops? Do your friends, with their fancy slatted trays and rare oolongs, have a little friend who frequently graces their tea table? Are you super super into tiny cute animal figurines and delicious teas? You, my friend, are ready to get hooked on tea pets.
These little buddies date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368 AD) when pottery artists began playing with teapot scraps, fashioning whimsical figures out of the spare clay to entertain themselves and their clients. The practice caught on and soon there was demand for intentionally fashioned statues designed to represent household spirits and mythological guardians such as dragons, great turtles and luck-bearing dogs. A bed of coins under the pet (or one in the mouth as pictured below) represents a pet that will bring financial prosperity to a household. Birds are thought to bring wisdom and happiness. Some are fashioned to look like a beloved pet, while others are irreverent and even lewd!
My first tea pet ever was a gift I bought myself for my thirtieth birthday. My house had just been burned down by my dog and I was homeless. I'd lost almost everything and was so freakin stressed out. Dr. Boyfriend took me to a Taiwanese tea shop here in Seattle and at the tasting counter I saw my tea pet. A beautiful cobra, about six inches tall, seated atop a pile of coins with an elegant tail holding up a crown. The temperature-reactive paint turned emerald green and sunflower gold when hot tea was poured over it and I was entranced. It was my special gift to myself, a treasure to help the terrible month feel a bit lighter. A way to salvage The Big Three-Oh. It's still my most precious tea pet and every time I use it, I get the warm fuzzies. Tea pets are designed to be sentimental.
I am often asked the following questions about tea pets.
"What do they do?"
They are cute! They make you feel good! They might blow bubbles, they might change color, they might pee, but mostly they sit around and make you smile.
"How should I take care of them?"
Tea pet care is delightfully simple! Simply water them regularly with hot tea (mostly important for tea pets made of yixing clay, which will crack if left for a long time without hot water bathing), allow them to air dry well after use, and that's it!
"What are they made of?"
All manner of substances can be made into tea pets, from a simple garden rock with googly eyes to the most rare and precious of clays. Many tea pets will be made of yixing clay (these unglazed pets range from pale red to deep dark brown, nearly black in hue), but porcelain is equally common, and even metal tea pets aren't unheard-of! Unglazed pets will be more absorbent and take longer to dry, but will also generally be designed to do a fun trick, such as pee across a room or blow bubbles. The glazed ones are typically designed simply to be cheerful, though some do have the temperature-reactive color changing paint, which is very exciting!
"What shapes are there?"
Tea pets can be any size and shape. In my personal collection, I currently have one pee boy, one snake, one little red pig, and one bat! I have seen horses, cranes, and fish heads with their mouths open. I have seen a small stack of pebbles on a tea tray be treated with the same charm and reverence as an intricate gilded dragon sculpture. If your heart is drawn to it, go for it! A big part of the fun of tea pets is showing off all the strange, beautiful and silly designs you can find or make!
Thanks for taking the time to read a bit about these wonderful little friends. Tea pets are a joy, and I hope you've felt a bit of their happiness just by reading about them!