Chinese gaiwan (l) and Japanese tea bowl (r) ©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer
While for centuries western women have enjoyed afternoon tea, men hear the word "tea cup" and think of a dainty porcelain cup covered in flowers. For this reason alone, a lot of men have been turned off by tea. This came to my attention when the 14-year-old son of a friend became interested in tea only after being introduced to Chinese tea. He had to be bribed into coming to Chinatown for tea, sporting a pair of dark sunglasses, just in case a friend of his might see him at the teashop. But then something great happened: the gaiwan appeared. A Chinese man deftly steeped and poured tea from the gaiwan into a serving vessel. "Cool," the kid said, non-committally. By the third steeping, he was fully engaged, focused, and fascinated.
Originating in Chinese tea culture, "gaiwan" means "covered bowl", and is a three-piece set comprising a saucer, vessel, and lid. It is perhaps the most ubiquitous teaware in the world, considering the great number of Chinese people who prepare and sip tea with it. Gaiwans are cool, masculine even in contrast to my grandmother's Limoges teaware. This is "real men's" teaware. No flowers, frills, or obviously feminine lines. I could see Clint drinking from a gaiwan, raising his squinty-eyed, chiseled face in stoic silence through the hot steam and hissing a line as quiet and rich as the steam itself.
Chinese gaiwans as well as Japanese tea bowls and Moroccan tea glasses could be put in the hands of any man without necessitating the extending of a pinky, and with few exceptions, are monochrome, neutrally glazed, or covered in dragons. What guy could feel like a sissy with these in his hands?
The vast majority of Asian tea masters are men, and in fact, the tea industry itself is known as a "gentleman's" business. Women might drink much of the tea in the western world, but men are usually the ones buying and selling it in the wholesale market.
Most people think of a delicate Asian female serving tea when they think of the classical Japanese tea ceremony, but in truth, the most prominant Japanese tea masters are men. One of the biggest surprises at a Japanese tea ceremony class at the Urasenke Foundation in San Francisco was the male-dominant ratio of students in the evening classes--and none of them were Asian. More and more American men are inspired and engaged by Asian tea culture, which is mutating and fusing in the landscape of the "new world".
All of this is great news for American tea culture. The influence of Asia is bringing the tradition of gender-neutral or male-leaning tea culture and teaware to our shores, and this makes for a great balance. Go to any non-British tearoom, where doilies and flowery teaware cannot be found, and you will find highly educated, well-healed, masculine men imbibing in the best of teas. Check it out. Throw off all notions of tea parties, and join in the old tea traditions finding new inroads in America.