Tea pets are a joyful and sentimental piece of Chinese tea culture. They are drinking buddies, usually made out of a clay (ideally purple clay) that can develop a patina from both the oils in tea and the action of pouring tea on to it. We believe tea has a soul, and purple clay has the potential to gain a soul. So, by joining us for tea, these tea pets are gaining their souls.
Our friend, Michael Alpiner, wrote a children’s story about a tea pet who learned he had a soul after being inspired by spending time in our East Village tea house. Michael is a poet, fiction, and travel writer living in Queens. He is also co-producer of luxuryalive.com.
When Ying first opened her tea shop in New York City, she proudly displayed upon the shelves metal tins of tea, delicate cups, Yixing teapots, and round cakes of the aromatic leaves from various regions of China.
Along with all the accessories she would need to serve her customers and display her passion for tea, Ying gradually received a small collection of tea pets from her friends, relatives and business contacts. Tea pets are small clay figurines, usually animals, chosen for their sentimental value, which sit upon a table as one drinks tea, keeping that person company.
Ying reserved a long shelf within her shop where she could display her tea pets, allowing her customers to select a pet to set alongside their cup as they enjoy their tea. The shelf was home to tea pets that depicted a toad, elephant, dragon, monkey, turtle, bat and carp.
The tea pets also get fed. Before the customer is served, Ying pours the first brew over the chosen tea pet so its porous purple clay can absorb the tea, giving the tea pet its deep color and earthy fragrance.
For the tea pet, this process means so much more.
The tea pets earn their own deep color from years of tea showers, and take on the aroma of the tea leaves whose essence seeps into the porous clay. It is believed, as well, that each tea pet has a soul that is also fed by the warm and comforting tea.
2020 was the year of the rat in Chinese zodiac or Sheng Xiao. Though the rat symbolizes monetary success and living a peaceful life, 2020 were not these things for Ying. Instead, 2020 had been the year of the pandemic when stores all around New York City were locked down for public safety. Viruses, like the one that started the 2020 pandemic, do not care about the calendar, and so the troubles continued into 2021.
In early 2021, after months of struggling to keep the store open, Ying was forced to close her store for a while until business and safety returned to New York City. Just prior to the closing, Ying received a gift from a satisfied customer. It was a tea pet, different than the ones she had lined up on the shelf. This one was a small piglet with a wide smile, shaped more like a river stone than a pig. Its oval body lacked the long snout and stubby legs, as if it were still developing into an adult pig.
Ying placed the little pig at the end of the line of other tea pets, and with a sorrowful expression glanced once about the store. As she did every night, Ying addressed the tea pets.
“Goodnight, my friends. Sleep well.”
Then she stepped outside, closed the door and locked up until it was safe to return.
Within a few minutes of silence, once they were sure that their privacy would not be disturbed, the tea pets began their nightly ritual.
“Good evening, Elephant,” said the toad.
“Good evening, Toad,” said the elephant.
“How is everyone tonight?” added the monkey.
“Just great,” answered the turtle.
Craning his long neck to peek at the end of the shelf, Dragon asked, “Hey, who is the new guy?”
All eyes turned to the little pig, whose permanent dimples and wide smile betrayed the trepidation he felt in his new surroundings.
“Hey there, young one, how are you doing?” asked the bat.
“Um, ok, I guess,” came the pig’s shy reply.
The carp joked, “Nothing fishy here…I am just a carp…haha”
The pig turned toward the group. “Thank you. You all seem so nice, and very, very happy.”
Then the toad hopped toward the pig, and said, “We are all quite happy because we have everything we need here. Miss Ying is extremely kind and gentle, we are always handled with care, we get to meet new people every day, and we get to share in moments of joy.”
“Then there is the tea,” croaked the toad. All the others spoke with one voice, “Ah, yes, the tea.”
The toad continued, “You see, the best things about that moment when we get showered by the tea, is the warmth, the feeling of inclusion, and way the tea feeds our souls.”
The pig looked from one tea pet to the next and noticed that their clay bodies all possessed a bold and dark shade. Shuffling closer to the toad, he sensed a rich aroma coming from toad’s body. It excited his developing snout with the earthy aroma of the mountainside, and the sweet essence of tea. Pig noticed that his outsides were still light, and one sniff was evidence enough to prove he lacked any smell at all.
The little pig looked at the rest of the tea pets and solemnly said, “I guess I don’t have a soul. Look at me. I am all pale and have no rich and earthy smell.”
“Nonsense,” said Toad. “The minute your clay was baked and cooled, and the moment your creator held you with pride, you had a soul.”
“But I can’t feel I have a soul,” said Pig.
Monkey chimed in. “A soul is not something you feel. It is just something you are born with.”
The pig thought about this, and asked, “If I cannot feel, see or smell something, how do I know it is there?”
The carp swam over to the pig and tried to explain. “That is called faith. It is like the way I swim along the bottom of the river, trusting that there is food up ahead, imagining the world that exists above the surface of a lake.”
Dragon gave his insight next. “Perhaps I can explain.” Dragon thought for a moment and then said, “I know I can breathe fire, but here I have no enemies, and therefore have no need to use my power. Yet, I trust it is always there, my power, my special gift.”
“A soul is connected to memory,” stated Elephant. “It is said that an elephant never forgets, which is sort of true. My memories are part of my soul, part of what forms who I am.”
The bat explained, “It is like flying in the dark, seeing with sound, guided by something inside of me.”
Finally, the turtle lumbered forward. “A soul is like a hard shell of protection. Without it, I am vulnerable. Yet, it is the part of me that makes me strong.”
As the days and weeks went by, though the group spoke of many things, their favorite teas, the many people they’ve met, and, especially, how much they missed Ying, every so often, the discussion returned to the subject of soul. The little pig heard the advice given to him by his new friends, but there was still something missing. Each morning he woke to pale skin and the lack of a rich aroma.
Then, one morning, all the tea pets heard a jingling of keys and the rattle of the front door. In walked Ying, smiling and holding a banner that read, “Grand Re-opening!”
“Hello, everyone. We’re back in business.” The tea pets had never seen Ying look so happy.
That very afternoon and evening, as customers started to sit down eager for a cup of authentic Chinese tea, the tea pets waited with great anticipation as Ying invited the patrons to select a tea pet to accompany their service. Toad was selected first, but soon after, a sweet old woman who regularly visited the shop, selected the little pig, stating, “Oh, I like this one. He looks new, and his smile makes me smile, too.”
Then Pig felt the warmth of the woman’s hands, the safety he felt being passed from the old woman’s wrinkled hands into the soft and smooth comfort of Ying’s. She placed him over the thin slats in the table, separated just the right amount of Yan Cha cliff tea, and placed the tea into the kettle of hot water. There the tea swirled and began its process of turning the water into an aromatic elixir. Ying then filled three small cups, and with the skill of a virtuoso, ceremoniously poured the three cups of water over the little pig, turning its pale clay a slightly darker hue.
Though he couldn’t show it, pig felt his smile grow wider, and his little snout began to sense a fragrance, earthy and regal, a tea called Da Hong Pao, bathing him in warmth and giving him purpose. The old woman looked at the piglet with fascination, and something about that moment bonded them together, the old woman’s smile, Ying’s intent look as she meticulously showered the piglet in tea, and his own uncontrollable grin at this new and spiritual experience.
This experience was repeated several times that day, and by the time Ying was cleaning off the tables and shutting the store down for the night, Pig had come to understand what his friends had told him that first evening when he was scared and confused. A soul is there from the beginning, but little by little, it is fed with tea, with friendship and with love. The more it is fed the more its effect is evident to others.
The moment Ying snapped the outside lock closed, and turned to head home, Pig spun toward his friends and yelled, “Yay - I have a soul!”