1. For personal use
While European teapots were designed to serve aristocratic parties, the Chinese teapots that preceded them were popularized by common working men, who carried their own personal pots with them during the workday during the Ming Dynasty.
Prior to this, tea was an a scholarly pursuit, powdered and whisked with artful technique, much like modern matcha. But as whole leaf teas became the new standard (thanks to an imperial edict), teapots made brewing easier with built-in filtration, and common people began to adopt tea into their daily lives. Small pots fit conveniently into a pocket or satchel, ready to use at any opportunity.
2. For brewing multiple infusions
Despite it’s growing popularity, tea was still a precious commodity, and whole leaves released their flavor much more slowly than the old powdered styles. In an effort not to waste any valuable flavor, Chinese tea drinkers began using the same tea leaves more than once. Many teas, they found, even tasted better on the second or third steep than they did on the first.
Rather than creating a large batch of bitter, stewed tea on the stove, tea drinkers stowed a serving of leaves in their small, portable teapot and simply added hot water for each tea break throughout the day. Short infusions limited bitterness in even the lowest quality teas, and multiple brews allowed for the maximum use of every tea leaf.
3. For better temperature control
Small quantities of water also allowed for more careful temperature control. Short steeps ensure the tea is still hot when poured, while small volumes allow the tea to cool quickly for drinking. In many ways, small pots simply allow for more precision in the brew, since the water is infused with flavor more quickly, and can be drained from the leaves all at once.
All of this extra control helped to limit bitterness in the finished tea and maximize flavor, eventually culminating in the gong fu cha process we use to test teas today. Small pots allow us to brew a concentrated infusion (akin to an espresso) that help us taste subtle flavor differences and determine the overall quality of any tea.
4. For an excuse to socialize
Today, many Chinese tea drinkers steep their leaves in a modern travel thermos or large mug, just like many westerners. But the small teapot lives on in the gong fu cha brewing method, where it is used to serve several small cups. Again, those accustomed to a European-style tea service may find the small volumes impractical, or even stingy, but on further inspection it becomes clear that the invitation to sit and chat lies not in the sipping, but in the pouring.
In fact, the small size of the pot encourages the whole group to stay and continue the conversation throughout several short infusions, no matter what the topic. Small cups are refilled as soon as they are emptied, ensuring each guest has as much or as little tea as they would like. And finally, the superior control that a small brewing vessel offers allows the host to adjust the brew as they go, allowing everyone to forego additives like sugar.
Ironically, the small teapots that have fueled everyday brews for centuries are now often seen as niche tools for tea experts, while the large pots developed for aristocratic European tea parties are widely accepted as items for everyday use. And luckily, it is your privilege as a modern tea drinker to choose the size that works best for you!