Do you have a favorite cup, and if so, what makes it your favorite? My dad has a favorite coffee cup based on its shape and how the lip curves in just the right way. My husband’s favorite is simply the one that holds the most liquid!
Back in the 700s, during China’s Tang Dynasty (618–906), scholar and tea connoisseur Lu Yü had a favorite teacup. Or rather, a tea bowl, as was the custom of the day.
And his preference mattered.
After all, Lu Yü was the world’s leading authority of tea and his influence was huge. At a time when people were brewing tea leaves mixed with herbals, vegetables, and/or fruit, he pushed for tea leaves alone.
Granted, that meant leaves that had been ground up and then pressed into cakes, which were then boiled in water.
Still, this was a major advancement, solidified with Lu Yü’s book, Chajing, or Classic of Tea, the first (that we know of) written about tea.
So his preferred tea bowl? One made of Yue celadon or greenware.
Celadon/greenware covers a lot of ground because the terms can refer to color (green) or to the transparent green glaze (often crackled, from Song period onward), and celadons can be stoneware, earthenware, or porcelain.
This ware is ancient, and was improved over the centuries as kilns and glazes improved. By Lu Yü’s time, the Yue (Yüeh) region—the first to produce celadon, beginning at the very tail end of the third century BCE—was producing the highest-quality celadons.
Poet Lu Kuimeng commemorated those smoky kilns:
In autumn, in the wind and dew, rises the smoke of the kiln of Yue (Yüeh)
It robs the thousand peaks of their kingfisher blue.
(Beurdeley and Beurdeley 1974:66)
And how was the quality of the celadons judged?
Well, besides construction and artistic quality:
In T’ang, one of the criteria for judging ceramics was the compatibility of their colors with tea. An eighth-century authority on tea, Lu Yü, prized celadon Yüeh ware over white Hsing ware, for this reason, among others. The former complements the greenness of tea while the latter shows up its undesirable reddishness. . . . he preferred the translucency of Yüeh ware . . . , comparing Yüen to jade and ice.” (Smith and Weng 1979:142) [emphasis mine]
The “translucency” sounds like porcelain, which developed during this time period.
True porcelain appeared in the late Tang and was fully developed during the following Sung and Ming dynasties. True porcelain requires purified clay that’s a mixture of kaolin and petuntse, and a kiln temperature of 1250–1300°C, which fuses the body and glaze, making the ware glassy and translucent, resembling jade.
Some sources say that celadon was the precursor to porcelain but according to Beurdeley and Beurdeley (1974:94), the Chinese considered both Yue celadon and white Hsing ware as porcelain (ci/tz’u) even though westerners may label the celadon as kaolin-based stoneware.
And that lovely jade-green color?
It’s generated by the pottery process:
Artisans apply a wash of slip (liquefied clay), which contains a high proportion of iron, to the body of the stoneware before glazing. The iron interacts with the glaze during the firing and colours it one of various shades of green. (Kuiper)
The glaze of Yue celadons “does not amalgamate completely with the body. It is thick, hard and brilliant” (Beurdeley and Beurdeley 1974:96)—that “jade and ice” desired by Lu Yü.
In addition to color and luster, Lu Yü wanted his tea bowl to have a specific shape, recommending “shallow rounded sides and a straight upright rim, the capacity being no more than half a sheng or 300 milliliters of water [10.1 oz]” (Faulkner 2003:32).
This shape is much like today’s matcha bowls.
It seems that celadons did become the preferred drinking vessels for tea during the Tang dynasty.
A tea bowl excavated from Hunan’s Changsha kiln site, a greenware producer, was inscribed “bitter-tea bowl,” while one found in an early-ninth century shipwreck was inscribed cha zhanzi, “another term for tea bowl,” according to researcher Li Baoping (2012).
Japan, Korea, and Thailand enthusiastically embraced celadons, imparting their own artistic interpretations on them.
Today, vintage and modern celadons are still available.
And although I can’t make tea as Lu Yü did, I can make a Chinese green tea, Lung Ching from TeaHaus in this case. And can check whether pouring it into a celadon cup versus a white china cup makes a difference.
Does the white cup give green tea an “undesirable reddishness”?
Well, yes, it does, especially pronounced when the cups are placed on a black background. On both light and dark backgrounds, the celadon cup gives the tea a tinge of green, particularly along the edge. (These were all photographed under ambient light from a north-facing window.)
So ideally, should we be drinking green tea only from green cups?
The food industry does plenty of research into color and perception. Participants of a 2012 study thought that coffee served in a red cup (warm color) was hotter than coffee served in a blue cup (cool color), and that a cold beverage served in a blue glass better quenched their thirst (Guéguen and Jacob 2012).
Following up on that research, G. Van Doorn and colleagues concluded that their results “support the view that the colour of the mug should be considered by those serving coffee as it can influence the consumer’s multisensory coffee drinking experience,” either negatively or positively (Van Doorn et al. 2014).
Other studies have demonstrated that people rank wine higher, no matter what its actual quality, if it’s served in glass rather than plastic.
Our perceptions are powerful and presentation counts for more than we might think, so maybe we should be drinking green tea from high-quality, green-colored teacups. And if you don’t have any, this can be a nearly iron-clad reason to buy some!!
–Baoping, L. “Tea drinking and ceramic tea bowls: an overview through dynastic history,” China Heritage Quarterly, vol. 29, March 2012.
–Beurdeley, C., and M. Beurdeley, A Connoisseur’s Guide to Chinese Ceramics, trans. by K. Watson, Harper and Row, NY, 1974.
–Cooper, E., A History of World Pottery, rev. ed., Chilton Trade Book Publishing, Radnor, PA, 1988.
–Faulkner, R., ed., Tea: East and West, V&A Publications London, 2003, reprint 2009.
–Guéguen, N., and C. Jacob, “Coffee cup color and evaluation of a beverage’s ‘warmth quality,'” Color Research and Application, 8/29/12.
–Kuiper, K., “Celadon,” Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed 8/6/20.
–Smith, B. and W. Weng, China: A History in Art, rev. ed., Doubleday & Co., 1979.
–Van Doorn, G. H., D. Wuillemin, and C. Spence. “Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee?” Flavour 3:10, 2014.