Charles Pouring a gaiwan and Laurie looking worried

Don't Drop the Gaiwan!

The gaiwan has a short history in the US, and within that time, we’ve seen many ways people hold it, pour from it, and even sip from it.

A gàiwǎn 盖碗 is a small lidded cup (gài = lid, wǎn = bowl) used many times with a saucer to steep tea.

One thing is for sure, there are Certainly Do’s and Don’ts for etiquette reasons and for… wait for it, wait for it, BANG! yes, for safety reasons.


Charles (the man in the above photo) is a good tea friend from Everson, Washington. Even though you dazzled me with your gaiwan balancing act, you nearly made me faint! Just think what “NesTea” would say if she (gender unknown?) were sewn together then?! (an inside joke) No, holding a gaiwan like this is not only a juggling act, it’s a cry for help!

Three Popular Ways to Pour from a Gaiwan

Charles holding a gaiwan his special way
Charles holding a gaiwan his special way
holding gaiwan with one hand
holding gaiwan with one hand in a more traditional & common way
holding a gaiwan with two hands
An odd two handed method, a bit uncomfortable for me

Well, is there really a certain way to hold a gaiwan? If you look at a gaiwan, you can figure out quite a few ways to hold it.

  1. As Charles does here in the photos. Hold the saucer with the Digits and the lid with the Pollex (thumb).
  2. Grasp the rim with fingertips, and hold the lid with the middle or forefinger.
  3. Hold the bottom of the saucer with one hand and use the other to grasp the wan and lid in order to pour.

Three Ways to Drink from a Gaiwan
(which it was ‘originally’ designed for)

  1. Hold the saucer with one hand, and the lid with the other… use the lid to hold back the leaves while you raise the gaiwan to your lips & sip.
  2. Leave the gaiwan lazily on the table and sip like a crazy man.
  3. Obama’s peculiar technique
    1. Yes, by discarding the lid and using the gaiwan like a plain cup, Obama does something maybe not rude, but unsightly: He also sticks his finger in the gaiwan and ‘man-handles’ the leaves! Tsk Tsk!

So, there are not only odd ways to use a gaiwan but unsteady ways too. Call some rude, crude and otherwise unacceptable if you like, but there is no official code for a gaiwan or etiquette. If You are doing something unsanitary or possible dangerous / accident prone, please change your ways!


But apart from disrespecting Chinese culture, perhaps we should think about what not to do for ‘Safety’s Sake.’

  1. Don’t fill the gaiwan too high with water.
    1. You might overflow it and spill when you place the lid on.
    2. If you fill it with hot water to high, grasping the gaiwan sides might be too hot for comfort, it will be too hot to hold onto mid-pour and you may end up dropping it.
  2. Don’t pour from the gaiwan from very high.
    1. This also applies to any steeping vessel. Pouring from too high allows the tea to form a long stream to the cup or pitcher. This stream is exposed to air and cools down the tea very fast. One may think this a good thing, so you can serve right way without having the tea too hot for one’s mouth, but cooling down tea too fast can ‘hurt’ the taste and texture.  It’s the same reason why we pre-heat our teaware, including the cups and pitcher.
  3. Don’t fill too low.
    1. A gaiwan is very good at NOT retaining much heat; one reason it was developed. Filling the gaiwan too low will cool off the steeping tea too fast and you may end up with a weak or perhaps a poor taste and texture.
  4. Don’t pour like Charles.
    1. Charles is pouring while holding the dish.  This is a balancing act that could result in a nasty spill.

There are many more, but I would place such don’ts as: don’t pour directly on the leaves, as a don’t for steeping reasons, not for a gaiwan reason.

But What About a Few Do’s?

  1. Do keep the lid on while steeping.
    1. Like mentioned above, the gaiwan doesn’t retain heat too well. Keeping the lid off will drastically cool down the steeping tea. If you need cooler water, then start with cooler water.
  2. Do use the lid.
    1. When pouring from a gaiwan it seems like a “no duh” to use the lid, but perhaps it seems too cumbersome or simply in the way when you sip from a gaiwan.
  3. Feel free to sip without the lid, if you want to follow the ways of Obama. But you’ll find keeping the lid as close as possible to the rim will be very helpful in keeping the leaves from entering your mouth
  4. Keep the lid on while NOT steeping.
    1. Unlike a teapot, a gaiwan releases a lot of heat quickly when idle. For green teas, keeping the lid on a teapot between steeps may sometimes “cook” the leaves because there is still a lot of heat in the teapot. And so, one removes or tilts the lid, so heat can escape. But because a gaiwan releases heat so quickly, it would be wise to keep the lid covered even with green teas so that your leaves do not get cold which can hurt subsequent steeps.

What exactly is the crime?

OK, there really is no real Crime here. But the major thing to learn is “Play it Safe.” One thing I find unsettling about Charles’s pouring technique is that it strikes up some anxiety within me thinking that he might drop it. BUT, Charles is an exception; I’m sure he has poured a gaiwan like this long enough to know what he’s doing.

So, if you do anything dangerous or worry your guests, you may still end up in jail but feel free to collect $200.

Special Thanks to Laurie Dawson and an uber double thumbs up thanks to Charles Dawson for being cool with this post!

I am THE Tea Sleuth! Born & raised in St. Louis, he longs for a more tea thriving environment. Once a lonely soul, now one destined for Nirvana, all thanks to ChaQi!