Tea pets are a delightful, if less well-known, element of tea drinking that most often feature in gong fu tea preparation. Made of yixing clay, tea pets (also known as tea mascots) absorb the flavour of tea because of the clay’s porous, unsealed nature. Yixing teapots often feature an animal on the body or lid, and sometimes the pot itself is an animal, but tea pets are different; they are independent entities. They can be animals, figures (most often a Buddha or monk), or even fruits! Each comes with its own symbolism: toads are thought to bring wealth, dragons are auspicious, cows symbolise devotion or hard work, pigs are smart and helpful, laughing Buddha brings wealth and luck…the list goes on.
In gong fu preparation tea is poured over the vessels and, if you have one, your tea pet. In addition to benefitting the preparation of the tea, the pouring seasons the yixing vessels (although other vessels can also be used) and “raises” your tea pet. The first steeping will often be poured over the pet as this steeping is solely to “wake up” the leaves, and is therefore discarded. The tea nourishes the tea pet, which is said to increase in value as it ages—this is value in terms of symbolic power, but some people also think that a well-raised tea pet fetches a higher price.
Although I own two yixing pots, one of which has a charming little frog on its lid, I do not own a tea pet…yet. Many people own numerous tea pets, but choosing a first tea pet feels like a significant decision that should be given due consideration and deliberation. So, as with other big life decisions, I want to take my time. Frogs are a consistent favourite with me as the frog on my yixing pot indicates. There are certainly plenty of frog tea pets out there, although toads are more directly associated with good fortune, and so tend to be more common (this one that I came across online changes colour when hot water is poured over it!). However, there is such a range of creatures and designs that I am tempted to branch out from my froggy inclinations. No matter what your totem animal, symbolic inclination, or aesthetic preference, be assured that there is a tea pet out there waiting for you!
See also: My Yixing Teapots
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