The gaiwan is the fundamental piece of teaware for the gongfu cha enthusiast. Elegant and simple, it holds the qualities of tea appreciation without elaboration. Literally gai translates to lid and wan to cup, and so it is a cup with a lid. You can put tea into the cup, and cover it with the lid, to keep it warm. At the most basic level, you could drink the tea straight from the cup. So, if you have a gaiwan, what else do you need? Usually the way that we use it, is to brew a steep of tea in the cup, and then slide to make ever so slight a separation to pour the broth through while holding back the leaves—decanting into a different cup. And thus having precise distinct steeps in the way of gongfu cha.
The design of the gaiwan has not changed since the Ming era. There is seldom in life something so consistent—without any significant change it remains a key facet of tea life. Compared to other teapots it is so very easy to clean, and extremely versatile for making any kind of whole leaf tea. Because of the shape, which like a cup is smaller at the bottom and larger at the top, there is plenty of room for any shape of tealeaf to open up and grow. What I like to tell people is that with a gaiwan, any tea you make will get to 80-90% awesomeness. If you have the right teapot, you can get your tea to 100%, but with a teapot you need to know more about how to make the tea, and how to match a pot with a particular tea—so you might also get a lower awesomeness level—- 50% for example. So the gaiwan is the great way to consistently get very delicious tea.
The simplicity of the gaiwan also brings an aide of freshness into the environment. It can easily be wrapped in cloth with a cup and taken for travel, to work, or out to the park. I love the feeling of not fussing, and still having a ritual and elegance in my day.