What exactly is a tea pet and how do you take care of them?

tea pet three legged coin toad

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When I first heard the phrase “tea pet”  I thought for sure it was a typo.  A PET for tea?  Surely they meant tea POT.  

Well, I was wrong.  A tea pet is indeed a real thing.  A tea pet is a clay figurine, usually an animal, that sits on your tea table and joins you for tea.  A tea companion if you will.  

Traditionally intended to bring good luck, tea pets are made out of a variety of materials, but often sculpted with the same clay used for Yixing teapots, but left unglazed so they can better absorb the tea. 

History of Tea Pets

Tea pets date all the way back to 13th century China and the Yuan Dynasty. Originating in Yixing, the first tea pets were made out of the purple, zisha clay, for which the region is well known.

Considered a relatively mundane part of life, there is not much historical literature on tea pets themselves, but considering they are still manufactured today, they are definitely worth taking a look at.  While we don’t have much in the way of written history, we do however have an oral tradition to look to regarding their use.  

How do you use a tea pet?

Ok, so we know tea pets are a thing, but what is tea pet used for and how exactly do you use it? 

According to tradition, a tea pet is placed on your tea tray.  While enjoying your tea, a bit of tea is poured over the tea pet to “drink.”  Over time, you will see that the color and smell of your tea pet has changed, allowing you to recall all of the wonderful cups of tea you have enjoyed in the past. 

While it can sound a little hokey, a tea pet is actually a lot of fun and can be quite helpful. 

Once you have selected your tea pet, you are ready to start using it.  Begin with your usual tea ritual.  As you are enjoying your cup of tea, slowly pour some of your tea onto your tea pet.  Make sure to use enough tea to cover the pet evenly, but don’t drown it.  You can also use a tea brush to cover the surface and evenly distribute the tea. 

This act of evenly distributing the tea over the tea pet is called feeding.  The clay is rough and porous and is great at soaking up the tea.  As you continue to feed your tea pet, you will begin to notice that its color and scent will begin to change.  

Tea pets are intended to bring good luck, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be its purpose.  Think of your tea pet as a friend that is accompanying you on your tea journey, tasting and trying different teas together. 

Gong Fu Cha

Gong Fu Cha is a Chinese method of tea-making that translates to “tea with great skill.”  Unlike wine-drinkers who take the time to learn about the type of grapes and vintages, tea-makers must also make the tea itself.  The tea pet can be used in the Gong Fu tea ceremony as both a friend and a tool.  Some tea masters even believe that when first adopted, the tea pet has no soul and the act of pouring tea over it gives the creature its soul.

Using a Tea Pet to Test Water Temperature

A tea pet can be used to test the temperature of the tea water for perfect steeping. The most commonly used tea pet for this task is called “pee-pee boy.”  These tea pets have a small hole in them which is used to check the water temperature. 

The tea pet is immersed in cold water until it is filled half-way.  Hot tea is then poured over the tea pet.  If the tea water is hot enough, the cold water will begin to come out of the hole and the tea pet will begin to “pee.”  

Pee-pee boy may not be everyone’s…well…cup of tea, and a variety of other tea pets will get the task done as well.  One variation is the spitting toad. 

What can you “feed” your tea pet?

Feeding and caring for your tea pet is an important part of Chinese tea culture.  Traditionally, tea pets are fed any left-over steeped tea, the warm water used to warm up your tea wear, or the water used to rinse the tea leaves. 

Over time, the color and scent of your tea pet will begin to change based on the tea that you serve or “feed” it.  

Many tea aficionados recommend, using a different tea pet for each kind of tea you brew to maintain different scents and colors, but it’s really up to personal preference.  

Make sure you feed your color-changing tea pet regularly and care for it similarly to a Yixing teapot.  It can be rinsed with clean water but never used soap or detergent. 

How to Choose a Tea Pet

There are many different tea pets out there to choose from, ranging in size from small to very large.  They can have simple designs, or they can be very detailed.  

Choosing a tea pet, as with choosing any pet is a matter of personal preference. They come in many different forms but traditional tea pets are usually some form of animal. While all are associated with good luck, different types of animals can have specific meanings, so let’s take a look at some of the more popular tea pets and what they mean. 

Popular Tea Pets and Their Meaning

Maitreya Buddha

Mile Fo, or the Maitreya Buddha is one you have probably seen many times.  This fat-bellied Buddha has a big smile on his face and represents the Buddha of the Future.  He brings happiness and a joyous tomorrow.  This Buddha’s big belly accommodates everything ordinary individuals find difficult to tolerate and his constant smile makes every trouble disappear. 

If using this Buddha in a tea ceremony with friends, he should be facing your guest so he can share his joy with everyone.

Rabbit

The rabbit, a symbol of the Chinese zodiac represents good virtues such as kindness and grace.  The rabbit is also a symbol of good luck and creativity.  Drinking tea next to your rabbit tea pet will provide the tranquility that allows the space of creativity in your life. 

Pig

The pig is a symbol in the Chinese zodiac that represents wealth, good fortune, and generosity.  In Chinese farming society, horses, pigs, sheep cattle, dogs, and chickens represent the “six livestock.”  A home without a pig is not even considered a home. 

Pig Tea Pets represent good luck and good fortune.  Usually shown to be happy and plump, the pig symbolizes happiness in the home as well as the home itself. 

Bat

In Chinese culture, the bat is a symbol of great luck.  As a matter of fact, the “fu” in bainfu, which means bat, is pronounced the same as the word meaning good luck in Chinese.  Many Chinese homes have an inverted “fu” surrounded by four bats on the wall.  Bat tea pets represent luck, prosperity, and wealth. 

Carp

The carp is a traditionally loved spiritual fish in Chinese culture that represents good luck and serves as a symbol of opportunity. The carp is often seen adorning Chinese homes and businesses. 

On opening day, many shops will keep a tank with carps in it, representing a “good market,” and carps are seen at festivals throughout China.  Keeping this little guy as a tea pet just makes sense, after all, fish love water!

Bird

Birds often represent wisdom, peace, and happiness.  A bird tea pet will help you open your mind to receive information.  Birds are also great conversationalists.  Think about how they tweet all day.  Have a little chat with this little guy and glean wisdom and understanding. 

Monkey

The monkey is another Chinese zodiac sign that represents curiosity, wit, and intelligence.  Monkey tea pets come in several different forms, but most commonly in the form of the Three Wise Monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.  These wise monkeys come from the Analects of Confucius.

You will also find tea pets of the monkey riding the horse which symbolizes promotion, and the mother monkey carrying a baby on its back, symbolizing good luck and generations of fortune. 

Frog

Frogs are traditionally symbols that attract wealth and ward off evil. The most common of these tea pets is the Golden Toad.  This three-legged, auspicious creature is often made from yixing clay and usually has a coin in its mouth. 

There is an old Chinese story that Liu Hai, one of the gods of wealth, saved the golden toad from a well by throwing a cord of gold coins to it.  This lucky frog is often seen adorning almost any prosperous Chinese establishment and comes with a number of rules regarding its placement. 

The coin frog should never be placed facing the door but should be placed facing you during the tea ceremony.  If the toad does not have a coin in its mouth, place it facing the same direction as you.  This symbolizes that it will wait and attract wealth to come. The golden toad should also never be touched by anyone but its owner, as not to disturb its spirit. 

Turtle

The turtle is a symbol of longevity. The ancient Chinese believed that turtles could absorb the aura and spirits of mountains and rivers.  The turtle was thought to bring prosperity and tranquility. Today, the turtle is thought to be the perfect balance of yin and yang.  

The long lifespan of a turtle is symbolic of longevity and health and a turtle standing on another turtle’s back is indicative of blessings for generations to come. 

Elephant

The elephant tea pets are quite popular among tea lovers.  Not only is the elephant a strong, gentle, kind, intelligent and peaceful animal, but according to Feng Shui, it also symbolizes water and wealth.  

Like the coin toad, the placement of the elephant is just as important as the animal itself. Elephants should be placed in places filled with light, life, and plants. Be sure to add a plant or two when placing the elephant on your tea table. 

Qilin

Similar to the three-legged coin toad, the qilin, or lion dragon is a mystical tea pet. 

This symbol of good luck stems from Chinese mythology and has the head of a dragon, the body of a lion, and a horn on its head. The qilin only appears at times of peace, so placing the qilin tea pet on your tea table brings peace and kindness into the tea drinker’s life.

Cabbage

In recent years, vegetables have become popular in the world of tea pets.  While I admit, it is difficult (for me anyway) to see a vegetable as a pet, when you look at what they symbolize it makes total sense to have these little veggies adorning your tea table.  

The Cabbage, pronounced “Bai Cai” in Chinese sounds similar to “one hundred kinds of wealth.”  This cabbage symbolizes a hundred years of wealth, and in Feng Shui, this cabbage is a familiar statute in business establishments.  Cabbage tea pets are typically made of precious stones like jade instead of clay, since a jade Chinese cabbage, the Yu Bai Cai sounds like “coming across a lot of money.”

Peanuts

The word peanuts is spelled using two Chinese characters “hua sheng.” The second of these characters when used alone means to give birth.  It is no surprise then that peanuts are associated with fertility and longevity.

Making tea pets in the shape of peanuts is a relatively new phenomenon and when made well, they often look like the real thing. 

Final Thoughts

Tea pets may not be for everyone, but these cute, quirky, and sometimes just plain weird little guys can make your tea time a little more fun.  So embrace this centuries-old tradition, pour yourself a cup, and feed your new friend too.  You can even have a little chat with your pet.  Why not? They are so cute after all!

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