A tea boat is a small size “tea table” that is usually no more than around 10cm high and has about the dimensions of a regular serving tray in width and length. It is thereby not really a table in the narrower sense, but in fact is rather put on a (real) table for use. The top of a tea boat will in most cases have a pattern of holes and/or slits, through which excess fluid, may this be tea or just water, can run off into a liquid tray inserted right below. At this, the actual surface materials can vary: tea boats will often be made of precious woods (e.g., the Chinese Jichimu wood) possessing the required characteristics to resist hot liquids. More cost-efficient versions of similar aesthetical and functional features are available made of bamboo, while even cheaper designs will be made of less precious woods or even plastic, the latter mostly more or less compromising on either looks or functionality.
For obvious reasons, the actual liquid tray hidden below the top will usually be made of either hard plastic or metal, the second coming with the benefit of greater endurance, while we often see plastic trays being the first thing being damaged or broken from intense use, thus considerably diminishing the functionality of the tea boat in its wholeness, while liquid trays in matching size and shape will usually not be available as spare parts, so while the optical features of a liquid tray are indeed negligible due to its hidden character, its robustness and potential for endurance are factors that should indeed be considered with the purchase of a tea boat.
Tea boats will vary in size, design and functionality mainly depending on their intended sphere of utilization, which may be the use as simple home or tea room decoration objects, in rather private contexts of tea preparation, or in any professional settings of tea degustation and/or tea-related events. So, for example, tea boats preferably used in professional settings will tend to be of larger size in order sufficient space to accommodate (aroma) cup sets for multiple persons as well as larger sized tea and hot water pots and extended tool sets. Often, they will also have an additional drainage hose connecting the tea boat’s liquid tray with another, larger liquid container (such as a simple plastic or metal bucket) positioned invisibly below the actual table on which the tea boat is placed, thus allowing for uninterrupted extensive use during a tea show case or degustation event.
As for the question of rather simplicistic or alternatively rather ornamental design, this is an exclusively aesthetic feature and thereby completely left to the individual taste of each user.
Tea boats are often specifically related to the tea ceremony (Gong Fu Cha) by western users, but this attribution is not really correct, or at least not representative, because tea ceremonies will often be conducted without a tea boat in the narrower sense, but using some sort of table mat or wooden board instead, while many tea lovers will embrace the idea of using a tea boat even for their most private tea preparation settings or small-scale tea events that will not necessarily aim at being tea ceremonies in the narrower sense. However, the custom of pouring over of vessels such as tea pots and tea cups with the hot water and the disposal of a first “washing infusion” before the actual first drunk infusion of a tea makes tea boats being particularly prone for use with the tea ceremony.
Apart from the above-mentioned functional features, a tea boat provides a clear spot of order, compactness and focus to any tea preparation application, while offering a broad spectrum of decorative and ornamental options at the same time, thus enabling and supporting a highly individual layout of any tea preparation or tea ceremony. While designs can be influenced by and based on regional, ritual and/or cultural particularities, the tea boat, being a focal point in any tea preparation setting, will in all cases represent an aesthetical and/or philosophical attitude, namely that of its user.
When shopping for a tea boat, practical and/or functional considerations should by all means play a role apart from individual aesthetical aspects. What the Chinese philosophy says about chains just as well applies to tea boats to a significant extent: the whole will be just as strong, or weak, as its weakest part and/or link! So, watch out for the robustness of materials used for each component (in particular the liquid tray, which seems to be an element neglected all too often) and the actual functionality of features, e.g. the question, whether the said hole and/or slit pattern in the top will allow spilled liquid to drain off in an optimal manner.
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