The word “coffee table” is about as common as words like Kleenex and Band-aid. We say it, but we don’t think about it. Coffee tables are those short, long tables where you put big books of pictures that so-and-so gave you for Christmas because they were 50% off. What if I say tea table? Perhaps we imagine some fine lacquered piece, or a civilized gathering complete with scones and a tea cozy. Today I want to talk about what “tea table” means in China.

Tea Table Varieties

A tea table is a specific tool, and an integral part of any Chinese gongfu ceremony. Their function is to collect the water that spills from the tea pots, and tea cups during the washing and steeping process.  Water is even poured over the teapot to make sure it is extremely hot in preparation for steeping tea. Because of the heat, and the quality of clay in yixing clay teapots, this water evaporates off the pot, leaving it dry to pour tea. This water and spillage must be collected. There are two basic ways to do this. One is to use a tray, usually crafted from interlaced wood panels. This tray will have holes for water to fall through, and be collected underneath by a slide-out pan.


The second type of tea table is the one used by professionals, which collects water at a drain, and lets it fall into a bucket through a rubber tube. This allows for more continuous use than a tray with a water pan. These professional tables come in many forms. Some are slabs of solid rock, with elaborate carved scenes, bridges, and multiple levels for placing cups. Some are pieces of carved walnut tree, full of gnarls and sometimes, decorative patterns. These slabs of wood or rock range from the size of a laptop to the size of a twin bed. The same shapes are also seen as yixing clay tablets, whose colors change over years of use.

The most elaborate for of all is the full tea table. These are usually only seen in tea houses, prospering tea stores, or wealthy tea aficionado’s houses. When a hardwood tree, especially a great old walnut tree dies of its own accord, the root system is carefully dug out of the ground and thoroughly rinsed. The root is then studied carefully, as a master carpenter must take advantage of its natural form in crafting the table. The knots and burls of the wood are used to the carpenters advantage as some roots are cut to form levels on the table and others are left intact to add to the aesthetic quality of the piece. The finished product is generally root-side up, meaning, what used to be the root system has been cut and carved into a multi-tiered surface. The lowest point on the table will be the large flat area used by the tea master to prepare tea. The higher points will be cut levels for individuals to place their tea cups. The large flat area will be sanded in a way that all of the water drains to one point, where a hole is drilled in the wood and a plastic tube carries the water out from the board and into a bucket out of view of the guests.

Tea of the Month Tea Board

The Value of Craftsmanship

These tables are not often seen for sale in China, as the wood used to make the tables is so valuable. It is common to see smaller tables (about the size of an average coffee table) for sale made from a cheap pine wood. These are easy to spot as the wood is all the same color, and is missing the burled and knotted quality of a walnut tree that died of old age. The most desirable tables come from the oldest trees because their root systems are more developed. Some examples are as large as a king-sized bed, and are a clear symbol of the extreme wealth of the owner. A medium-sized piece made from an average wood costs around 10,000 RMB, which at the time of writing, comes to about 1,500 dollars. If you ever consider buying such a table, know that inferior woods are subject to cracking when exposed to regular high heat of boiling water. Only walnut wood keeps its natural shine and resists water damage.

If you are ever lucky enough to go to China, be sure to find a teahouse with one of these beautiful tables and admire the craftsmanship. The traditional aesthetic of tea objects in China is similar to the Japanese idea of beauty in imperfection. The finest tea tables will be the ones where the natural shapes of the wood are allowed to come through, and the imperfections in coloring and shape are celebrated and brought out, not hidden. The tea table itself is an extension of the objects of contemplation found in a scholar’s studio.

If you live in the Minneapolis area, you can check out the beautiful wood and stone objects of contemplation in the Asian wing of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Here you will find a wonderfully-reconstructed studio and examples of fine Chinese wood-craftsmanship, along with unchanged natural objects like root burls that were treasured as inspirational to poets and calligraphers.

Like all elements of the tea ceremony, the tea table itself can be read like a book. When we examine it closely, we will understand not only its nature, but the nature of tea as a way of life. Every cup, pot, and tool points towards the ultimate philosophy of tea, something we will continue to explore in this Encyclopedia from as many angles as possible in the hopes of approaching more closely the truth.