A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Gongfu Tea Tray

Tea trays are not only practical but also visually stunning, as they showcase the elegance of your tea set and present your tools in an aesthetically pleasing way. These trays are typically shallow and come in various sizes and shapes, offering versatility to suit your preferences. The primary purpose of a tea tray is to hold your teapots and cups, providing a designated space for any excess water or discarded water during the brewing process. You can find tea trays in popular shapes such as square, round, and fan-shaped, each offering its unique charm.

tea tray art

What is Tea Tray?

A tea draining tray, also known as a tea tray (茶盘 – Chapan), Gongfu tea tray, or tea sea, is an essential tool used in the Gongfu tea ceremony. Its purpose is to facilitate the drainage of excess and waste liquids during the tea brewing process. The tray typically features a grate that allows the liquid to drain away, either collecting it in a pan placed beneath the grate or directing it through a hose to a designated drainage area.

The Gongfu tea method is predominantly used for brewing oolong and pu-erh teas. Having a drain system is particularly crucial when brewing pu-erh teas, as the initial brews are often used to soak and prepare the tea leaves and vessels for subsequent infusions.

The tea tray plays a significant role in the Gongfu style of brewing, which can be messy and involves a lot of liquid. During the brewing process, cups, teapots, and other serving items are repeatedly rinsed with hot water and tea to ensure proper temperatures and cleanliness, all without diluting the tea. Typically, a pot of tea will undergo 4 to 10 brewing rounds. Given the wet nature of the process, the tea draining tray is indispensable for maintaining a tidy and elegant tea ceremony.

uses of tea tray

Uses of Tea Trays

Tea trays offer more than just serving tea; they have a range of versatile applications. Here are some additional ways to utilize tea trays:

  • Displaying Decorative Items: Tea trays serve as excellent platforms to showcase decorative items like candles, flowers, or small figurines. Their flat surfaces provide an ideal stage for highlighting these adornments, while their mobility allows you to rearrange them effortlessly throughout your home.
  • Organizing Small Items: Tea trays can effectively keep small items organized and within reach. You can employ a tea tray near the entrance to hold your keys, wallet, and phone or utilize it on your dressing table to neatly arrange your jewelry.
  • Serving Drinks and Snacks: Beyond tea, tea trays excel at serving a variety of drinks and snacks. They make elegant companions for presenting cocktails or hors d’oeuvres at parties, offering a convenient and stylish way to present refreshments to your guests.
  • Decorative Elements: Tea trays themselves can be decorative pieces, adding aesthetic charm to any setting. With a wide assortment of styles, materials, and designs available, you can select a tea tray that perfectly complements your personal style and existing decor.
  • Serving Tray: Tea trays extend their functionality as versatile serving trays. They can be employed to serve breakfast in bed, present an assortment of cheeses and crackers to guests, or serve a small meal or snack to an individual.
tea tray rich history and culture

History: Unveiling the Rich Heritage of Tea Trays

Tea trays trace their roots back to ancient civilizations, serving as vessels for presenting and serving tea and refreshments. In ancient China, the earliest known tea tray, known as “cha ping” or Gongfu tea tray, emerged. Initially, these trays were primarily utilized for transporting and displaying tea, accompanied by the exquisite tea utensils and accessories.

Throughout the ages, tea trays have undergone remarkable transformations to mirror evolving cultural tastes and advancements in technology. During the 18th and 19th centuries, tea trays embraced ornate and intricate designs, radiating elegance and artistic flair. In the 20th and 21st centuries, tea trays have embraced functionality and versatility, offering a wide array of materials and designs to suit diverse preferences.

Tea trays have held significant cultural importance in various parts of the world. In China, they occupy a central role in tea ceremonies, adorned with intricate decorations that pay homage to the event’s significance.

Across Europe, tea trays symbolized refinement and hospitality, gracing the presence of esteemed guests during tea gatherings. In contemporary times, tea trays have found their place in a range of settings, from formal tea parties to casual get-togethers.

metal tea tray

Tea Tray Materials

Metal Tea Trays

Metal tea trays have gained popularity due to their practical benefits. With their durability and resistance to breakage or deformation under normal circumstances, they offer convenience in terms of cleaning and lack any unpleasant odors. However, when it comes to capturing the essence of Chinese aesthetics, metal tea trays may seem lacking. They serve as complementary pieces to other tea sets, but their presence can somewhat diminish the ambiance of a tea-tasting experience. If your primary focus is functionality and cost-effectiveness, an inexpensive metal tea tray will suffice for casual tea drinking.

jade stone tea tray

Stone Tea Trays

Stone tea trays offer several advantages worth considering. They possess qualities that make them resistant to water absorption and deformation. Additionally, stone tea trays come in various textures, including jade tea trays, inkstone tea trays, and Jiulongbi stone tea trays.

  • Jade tea tray: Jade is esteemed for its five virtues—benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, courage, and cleanliness. It is regarded as a symbol of auspiciousness, happiness, fortitude, and benevolence. Jade tea trays are believed to ward off evil spirits and provide a sense of reassurance. Jade’s hardness, even surpassing that of diamonds, makes it highly sought after by manufacturers and tea tray enthusiasts alike.
  • Inkstone tea tray: Inkstones are made from stone materials and are renowned for their exquisite craftsmanship. They embody the essence of Chinese tea culture and exude a unique charm that withstands the test of time. Inkstone tea trays not only serve practical purposes but also hold significant value as collectible items. It is important to note that while inkstones are exquisite, they tend to be expensive.
  • Jiulongbi stone tea tray: Jiulongbi stone exhibits exceptional hardness, tough texture, and a vibrant color palette. Its intricate shape, natural beauty, and rich cultural significance have earned it a place among the top ten extraordinary stones in China. As a result, Jiulongbi stone tea trays stand out among the diverse range of tea tray options.

Embracing the elegance and cultural depth of stone tea trays adds a touch of sophistication to the tea-drinking experience.

Wooden Tea Trays

Among tea trays, wooden ones are undoubtedly the most widely used and recognized. When thinking of wooden tea trays, mahogany tea trays often come to mind first, followed by ebony tea trays and the increasingly popular root-carved tea trays. Wooden tea trays exude elegance, freshness, and a natural appeal that complements the tea culture. They possess an antique charm that enhances the overall aesthetic when paired with other tea sets. A well-crafted wooden tea tray not only adds a touch of ambiance to your tea-tasting experience but also offers practicality. Properly maintained, a wooden tea tray can emanate a unique radiance and become a lifelong companion. However, it’s important to note that wooden tea trays are slightly less durable and resistant to corrosion compared to other types. Moreover, many wooden tea trays on the market are made from miscellaneous woods, so caution is advised when making a purchase.

Bamboo Tea Trays

Bamboo tea trays have a distinct charm that exudes a natural, refined, humble, and tranquil ambiance. They symbolize the changing seasons and evoke noble sentiments. Placing a bamboo tea tray in your tea space brings forth a refreshing breeze. Bamboo tea trays are lightweight and visually pleasing, often regarded as the ideal partner for tea ceremonies. However, it’s worth noting that bamboo tea trays tend to absorb water and have lower resistance to corrosion, making them less suitable for prolonged use.

Bakelite Tea Trays

Bakelite tea trays originated in Taiwan and have gained popularity in mainland China over time. These tea trays are distinct from wooden trays as they are made from oak plastics processed with phenolic resin. Despite not being made of wood, bakelite tea trays possess several advantageous qualities. They are resistant to deformation from both heat and cold, exhibit high corrosion resistance, are easy to clean, and are environmentally friendly. In terms of durability, they surpass wooden tea trays while maintaining an affordable price point. Bakelite tea trays offer the allure and charm reminiscent of wooden trays, making them an excellent choice. Remarkably, experts from Taiwan have even suggested that well-maintained bakelite tea trays can develop a mahogany-like patina over time.

Pottery Tea Trays

Pottery tea trays hold a special place among tea enthusiasts, as pottery itself is crafted through intense firing processes. In fact, most of our beloved tea sets are made from pottery. The inherent beauty of ceramics is undeniable, and within the realm of pottery tea trays, the purple clay tea tray stands out as the most renowned. Its elegance and refinement have captivated the hearts of ancient literati, and its esteemed status remains unchallenged to this day. Pottery tea trays offer more than just visual appeal; they possess practical advantages as well. They are resistant to water absorption, tea stains, and corrosion, making them easy to clean. The unique beauty and rich history associated with pottery tea trays combine to create a truly perfect tea-tasting experience.

Tea Tray Styles

Tea trays come in various styles, each with its own function and impact on cost. Let’s delve into the different styles:

Water-storage Style Tea Tray

Most tea trays are designed in this style, where wastewater is temporarily stored inside the tray and cleaned up after tea is served.

Tea Tray with Drawer

These tea trays have a built-in drawer to collect wastewater filtered from the tea. The drawer can be easily opened and cleaned when it becomes full.

Tiered Tea Tray

In this style, the entire tea tray functions as a container, with the surface acting as a cover and filter. Wastewater is stored inside, and the lid needs to be opened to pour out the water.

Tea trays with drawers are more convenient and durable, while tiered tea trays have higher quality requirements to prevent water leakage.

Draining Tea Tray

These tea trays are equipped with a drainage system, including a drain hole connected to a plastic pipe that directs wastewater into a separate container.

Draining tea trays are suitable for tea enthusiasts with high tea consumption. However, since the container and tea tray are separate, they require additional space and are less portable.

Root Carving Tea Tray

Root carving tea trays belong to a unique category of wooden tea trays made from an entire tree root. They are created from carefully selected roots, showcasing interlaced wood grain and roots, resulting in a captivating beauty akin to divine art.

In addition to their exquisite appearance, root carving tea trays possess a distinctiveness that ensures no two are alike, mirroring the individuality found in nature. However, their high cost, bulkiness, and susceptibility to cracking are notable drawbacks.

tea tray

Multi-function Tea Tray

With technological advancements, electronic multi-function tea trays have emerged. These trays not only serve as a platform for teaware and brewing tea but also offer features such as water supply and drainage, boiling water functionality, teacup disinfection, and storage space for teaware.

While multi-function tea trays greatly simplify the tea-making process, their modern design, similar to metal tea trays, may be seen as incompatible with traditional tea ceremonies. Therefore, they are best suited for office settings when serving customers or for individuals primarily focused on tea taste.

Understanding the diverse styles of tea trays allows you to choose the one that aligns with your preferences and needs.

Popular Chinese Tea Tray

Yu Chapan (Jade Tea Tray)

Jade, known for its delicate texture and graceful appearance, holds a special place in Chinese culture. Its virtues of kindness, righteousness, wisdom, bravery, and purity have made it a symbol of glory, happiness, and fortitude throughout history. Often referred to as “the beauty in stone” in ancient texts, jade exhibits a range of colors, including grass green, light green, dark green, gray, and milky, all displaying a unique luster and smoothness. It is believed to possess protective properties, warding off evil spirits.

The exquisite jade tea tray (玉茶盘) embodies a variety of artistic and elegant styles. The natural jade surface resembles the texture of marble, showcasing its vivid and smooth characteristics. In the case of a marble tea tray, its inherent beauty is further enhanced by the graceful lines found in natural marble, creating a cool and water-like touch. The addition of sculptures complements the jade tea tray, satisfying the modern pursuit of both elegance and tradition.

With its harmonious blend of grace and elegance, the jade tea tray stands as a testament to the timeless beauty and cultural significance of jade in Chinese heritage.

Zi Pao Yu Dai Shi (Purple Robe Jade Belt Stone Tea Tray)

The Zi Pao Yu Dai Shi (紫袍玉带石茶盘 means Purple Robe Jade Belt Stone), exclusively found in Guizhou’s Buddhist Sanctuary Fanjing Mountain, boasts a captivating blend of purple and green hues, gracefully complemented by hints of orange and white. This natural color combination creates a harmonious and visually pleasing aesthetic. With its distinct layers, the stone exhibits excellent density and moderate hardness, offering a delicate and velvety touch. Notably, the tray possesses exceptional resistance to acid and alkali, allowing for intricate carving. In addition to its unique characteristics, the stone contains trace elements that contribute to human health, including sericite, iron oxide, chlorite, anatase, rutile, and tourmaline.

Purple has long been revered as a noble and mysterious color, symbolizing auspiciousness. An ancient saying, “the violet hazes come from the east,” reflects the optimistic outlook towards hope and the future associated with this captivating hue. The natural formation and patterns of Purple Robe Jade Belt Stone, combined with traditional folk hand-carving techniques, result in captivating sculptures characterized by intricate empty carvings, standing carvings, and embossing. These masterpieces possess significant ornamental, practical, and collectible value, showcasing vitality and artistry. Originating from the sacred realm of Buddhism, the Purple Robe Jade Belt Stone absorbs the ethereal aura of heaven and earth, providing protection against negative influences and ensuring the safety of one’s family.

The Purple Robe Jade Belt Stone tray stands as a testament to the remarkable beauty and symbolic significance found in nature, captivating the senses and imbuing tea ceremonies with an enchanting touch of elegance.

Wumu Chapan (Ebony Tea Tray)

Wumu Chapan (乌木茶盘: Ebony Tea Tray), derived from the persimmon tree, predominantly thrives in regions such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar. Renowned for its gradual growth, this material possesses a delicate and dense composition, featuring unique, scarce brown holes and attaining remarkable hardness. When the surface is meticulously cut, it reveals a resplendent, glossy texture reminiscent of a polished bronze mirror or a lustrous satin surface, evoking the captivating essence of jade.

The Ebony Tea Tray stands as a testament to the artistry and meticulous craftsmanship employed in its creation. With its refined aesthetics and superior quality, it becomes an exquisite centerpiece for any tea ceremony, enhancing the experience with its unparalleled beauty and timeless appeal.

Jichi Mu Chapan (Wenge Tea Tray)

Jichi Mu Chapan (鸡翅木茶盘 or Wenge Tea Tray, simply means “chicken wings wood” tea tray). Derived from the red bean family, Wenge wood flourishes in regions such as Yunnan and Fujian in China, and Thai Nguyen in Vietnam, as well as Southeast Asia and Africa.

Its captivating name originates from the striking patterns that resemble the graceful wings of a chicken. Wenge wood exhibits a fascinating array of colors, ranging from contrasting black and white to vibrant hues of yellow and purple. When the wood is carefully cut, its grain showcases enchanting cloud-like patterns reminiscent of the intricate feathers of a bird in flight. Particularly on the longitudinal section, the wood reveals thin and mesmerizing patterns, showcasing the inherent beauty of nature through countless variations. With a relatively limited production compared to rosewood and padauk, wenge wood possesses a truly distinctive texture that adds a touch of uniqueness to every tea tray crafted from it.

Zhu Chapan (Bamboo Tea tray)

Zhu Chapan (竹茶盘 : Bamboo Tea Tray) is the most common type of tray in Chinese tea culture. Renowned as the fastest-growing plant with exceptional versatility and widespread cultivation, bamboo stands as a remarkable resource. The tea tray crafted from bamboo showcases an enchanting blend of freshness, purity, and tranquility, radiating a natural and serene ambiance. Not only does it embody practicality in its design, but it also evokes a sense of spirituality and poetic charm. As you fill the bamboo tea tray with delightful teas and delectable snacks, immerse yourself in the blissful moments that unfold, indulging in the flavors and embracing the essence of nature.

Japanese Tea Tray

In Japanese tea ceremonies, a range of tray styles are utilized, which include:

Hakkebon (八卦盆): This is a round tray with a black lacquer finish adorned with mother-of-pearl inlay featuring the eight symbols of Chinese divination.

Yamamichibon (山道盆): A round tray characterized by an undulating rim resembling a mountain path, or “yamamichi.”

Yohōbon (四方盆): As the name suggests, this tray has a square shape and is used in tea ceremonies.

These different tray styles not only serve functional purposes but also add aesthetic value to the tea ceremony. Each tray style brings its own unique visual element, contributing to the overall ambiance and experience of the tea ceremony.

Cleaning and Maintain Tea Tray

To ensure the longevity and cleanliness of your tea tray, it’s important to follow proper cleaning practices. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Clear the tea tray immediately after drinking tea: After enjoying your tea, remember to promptly remove any tea leaves and residual tea water from the surface of the tea tray. This prevents tea stains from forming as the tea dries.
  2. Wipe the tea tray with tea-infused water for a plump and moist appearance: After removing tea stains from the tea tray, wipe it gently with tea-infused water. This helps maintain the tray’s plump and moist texture. Over time, this process can even create a radiant protective film on tea trays.
  3. Keep the tea tray moist and develop a protective film: If you use the tea tray infrequently, you can keep it moist by periodically wiping it with tea. To do this, submerge the tea tray in water and use a soft towel dampened with water to evenly wipe the tray’s surface, surroundings, and sides. Aim to perform this maintenance every 2-3 days to ensure the tea tray retains its moisture.
  4. Submerge the tea tray in water for less frequent use: For tea trays that are used less frequently, it’s recommended to keep them submerged in water. This prevents tea stains and simplifies the cleaning process.

Removing stubborn tea stains

If your tea tray has stubborn tea stains that are difficult to clean, follow these steps:

  • Evenly sprinkle disinfectant powder on the tea tray.
  • Cover the tea tray with paper towels and lightly sprinkle some water to help the disinfectant powder adhere better.
  • Let it stand for approximately 10 minutes.
  • Remove the paper towels and thoroughly rinse the tea tray to wash off the disinfectant powder.

Additional tips for cleaning tea trays

  • To prevent severe localized tea stains, consider placing a small towel or plastic sheet at the bottom of the teapot when brewing tea. This will also help maintain the teapot’s condition.
  • After drinking tea, make it a habit to carry out a final cleaning process. Empty the tea set onto the surface of the tea tray, rinse it with warm water, and wipe it clean with a wet towel.
  • This cleaning routine serves three purposes: avoiding long-term tea immersion and resulting localized stains, keeping the stone tea tray’s surface clean and hygienic, and promoting the formation of a patina through gentle friction during the drying process.

By following these cleaning practices, whether you’re enjoying a cup of tea or caring for your tea tray, you can ensure the longevity and cleanliness of your tea experience. Remember to make regular cleaning a habit for optimal results.

Tea Trays Around The World

Tea trays are widely used and appreciated around the world, with different cultures embracing their own unique styles and designs.

Taiwanese Tea Tray

In Taiwan, tea trays, referred to as “chápán” in Mandarin Chinese, play a significant role in tea service. Typically crafted from bamboo or wood, these trays serve as platforms for presenting and organizing tea utensils and accompanying snacks during tea ceremonies.

Moroccan Tea Tray

In Moroccan tea culture, tea trays known as “Sinya” in Moroccan Arabic are commonly used. These trays, usually made from metal or wood, serve as functional and decorative pieces. They hold and showcase tea glasses, as well as other traditional tea tools, adding an aesthetic touch to the tea experience.

Russian Tea Tray

In Russia, tea trays, called “Podstakannik” in Russian, have a significant role in traditional tea culture. Typically made of metal or glass, these trays are used to hold and showcase tea glasses and other tea utensils. They add an elegant touch to the tea-drinking experience in Russian customs.

Iranian Tea Tray

In Iran, tea trays, referred to as “Sofreh” in Persian, are commonly employed during tea service. Made from materials like metal or wood, these trays serve as platforms for displaying tea utensils, as well as offering space for presenting snacks and sweets alongside the tea. They enhance the aesthetic appeal and functionality of tea rituals in Iran.

The Sofreh is an important element of Persian tea culture and is often decorated with intricate designs and patterns. It is usually placed on a low table or on the floor, as it is customary to sit on the ground while drinking tea in Iran.

Turkish Tea Tray

A Turkish tea tray, also known as a “çay tablağı” or “çay servis tabağı” in Turkish, is a traditional tray used in Turkey when serving tea. The tray is usually made of metal, wood, or plastic and is designed to hold and display tea glasses, teapot, sugar, and other traditional tea accompaniments.

The çay tablağı is an essential element of Turkish tea culture and is often decorated with intricate designs and patterns. It is usually placed on a low table or on the floor, as it is customary to sit on the ground while drinking tea in Turkey.

British Tea Tray

In British culture, a tea tray is a flat surface, usually made of wood or plastic, that is used to hold and display tea items, such as teapots, cups, saucers, milk jug, sugar bowl, and biscuits or cakes.

In British homes, it’s common to serve tea on a tray when having guests or during teatime. The tray can be decorated with a tea towel or a doily and arranged with a teapot, cups and saucers, a milk jug, sugar bowl, and a plate of biscuits or cakes. The tray is usually brought to the guests by the host or hostess and placed on a table or on the coffee table in the living room.

The British tea tray is an important element of British tea culture and reflects the country’s long-standing tradition of tea drinking and hospitality. It’s often associated with the idea of “afternoon tea,” a traditional British practice of serving tea, sandwiches, and cakes or scones in the afternoon as a social gathering.

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