Tea has always been a commodity in China, where it has been grown for thousands of years. Early in Chinese history, tea was brewed mostly for medicinal and herbal purposes, but gradually, it came to be appreciated for its delicate flavors, in addition to its health benefits. As tea became an everyday beverage, the process of brewing tea required less extensive equipment that could easily be utilized in the home. Thus, the teapot was born.
The earliest Chinese teapots were quite simple. Made of common clay, they were left unadorned and often, unglazed. It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) that porcelain was invented and came into use as a ceramic material in China. With the arrival of blue cobalt from the Middle East, Chinese ceramics makers began to incorporate designs onto their clay, particularly the white kaolin clay that has become so synonymous with Chinese porcelain. Thus, blue and white porcelain was invented and Chinese pottery took on more delicate forms.
Porcelain is today a prized material for both teapots and other tableware. During the 18th century, Chinese porcelain reached a high status among European collectors and has remained a valued material today, with most Western families owning a “China cabinet” to display their fine porcelain tableware.
European styles of porcelain tea sets and tableware mimic the original Chinese styles, many displaying the ornate blue and white porcelain, and others being painted with intricate designs in delicate colors. European porcelain tea sets differ from Chinese tea sets. A typical European tea set consists of a teapot, handled tea cups, saucers, a sugar dish and milk service, and small plates; while Chinese porcelain tea sets usually only have tea pots and round unhandled cups or bowls, and sometimes saucers or lids.