The Gaiwan and its Overlooked Associate

Gaiwan. The meaning is all there in its name, Gài meaning Lid and Wǎn, Bowl… well almost. A slightly newer invention than a teapot and a modern gizmo next to the chawan (tea bowl), the gaiwan was and still is an important addition to tea’s ways. Morphing and adapting in accordance with society’s needs and desires, it’s still pretty much the same shape as it always has been. Perhaps the most versatile steeping device; it’s elegant and sloppy, easy and hard, and can be used many ways. I will always use a gaiwan. I will rue the day my hands are no longer willing to manage even the simplest of gai and wan. But what about its friend?

Gaiwan and saucer / Tuo
Gaiwan and it’s Tuo (saucer)

The Silent Associate

Left out of its name is a nifty addition most gaiwans have… a saucer. Originally having no official name but perhaps茶托 (chá tuō) “tea rest”, it is intended exactly for that. Embraced with one’s hand it is lifted to their puckered lips for a sip and often an accompanying slurp. A gaiwan can often get uncomfortably hot, so the saucer is an excellent appendage acting much like the handle of a teapot. Separated from the heated wan, both the saucer and a teapot handle are there for us when we steep teas with water hot enough to scald us.

Is It Necessary?

A big question I often ask myself is why bother to make a saucer for it at all? Most gaiwans used in the US are handled much like teapots steeping and decanting into a pitcher or directly into the cup(s). I use a dedicated tray for my tea and I am not afraid to spill a little, which I would assume the saucer would be best at containing.  Even though I practice the “clean method” and don’t slop my tea willy dilly, I find the gaiwan much less prone to drips than a teapot.

Needed for Some Gaiwans

Larger gaiwans, too big to handle with one hand, are indeed found all over, but their use is or should be for drinking from. In this case, the saucer is a necessity. We hold the saucer with one hand, the lid with another and sip. If no saucer, the wan get’s pretty hot and so like the man in the photo, we would leave the gaiwan on the table and awkwardly lean in and sip. It makes for a good photo, but a stiff neck.

The Lone Shiboridashi

Shiboridashi or shibo
Shiboridashi AKA “shibo”

Let’s look at a similar vessel, the shiboridashi, or “shibo” for short.  It’s basically a gaiwan but with a lip for pouring. And because of this dedicated pouring spot, the lid is stationary, and the entire pot is pretty much easier to pour. I have noticed that all shibos do NOT come with saucers and yet, with its lip, more prone to dripping. So why not make a saucer (tuo) for these?

Heat Can Be Damaging

Another reason I can think of for the saucer to come with smaller gaiwans is heat distribution. Placing a very hot gaiwan directly on top of a nice table is not a great idea.  So much like a cup holder for a hot mug of coffee, the saucer can act as a heat buffer.

What I Do with Them

I do feel that when a gaiwan is on display, it looks better with a saucer. I keep my gaiwans’ saucers, in the cabinet to display them when not in use, and so I remember which gaiwan goes where. I wouldn’t say it’s the most pleasing look though. If I were a potter, which I am certainly not, I would like a tall foot for the gaiwans I use for steeping and decanting and keep the saucer for the larger gaiwans for their functionality.

What are your thoughts?


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!