My first exposure to a tea mascot was at New Century Tea Gallery. As the owner prepared and served tea gongfu style, I noticed an inexplicable yixing sculpture hanging out on the table and accepting a wash of tea and water every so often during the course of the tea service. I was told that this was a “five-kind animal” and that he brought good luck. In most Chinese teashops and tea houses you will find one of these objects on the table where they serve gongfu cha. I have found little reliable information in English about them and can not determine what the Chinese call them as a group, so in the absence of a traditional Chinese term I have taken to calling them “tea mascots.”
During the course of the tea ceremony, tea and hot water are poured over the tea mascot. Over time this helps to create a nice patina. The sculptures are generally representations of traditional Chinese symbols and are incorporated in order to bring good luck and/or accumulation of wealth.
The tea sculptures assume many different forms, from human babies to the animals of the Chinese zodiac to mythical creatures. The most common type is probably the three-legged money frog with gold coins on ropes leading from his mouth. An explanation of the origins and uses of the money frog (or toad) can be read here.
Some of the types of tea mascots have additional aspects to them like clay balls that roll between lion paws when liquids are poured over them or streams of liquid coming out of naked little boy figures onto the tea table.
The figures are sometimes made from the same zisha clay used in yixing teapots and sometimes from a coarser, more mottled-looking clay. The two examples that I have are very different from each other. One is a rounded, somewhat stylized foot with two spider-like insects on it. I do not know what the symbolism of this object is. The other one is a rat sitting on a bag of money. He meant to be a bearer of prosperity, as he will open up his bag to give money. I just like the way he looks.
There are tea shops where these sculptures can be purchased. Both of mine came from New Century Tea Gallery. There are also shops on eBay that sell them, but they can be tricky to find using search terms. The three shops below all have a decent selection of them:
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