I am mystified over the difference between an English tea cup and a Chinese tea cup. The difference is that a chinese teacup does not have a handle/"ear" while an English teacup does have a handle/"ear."

English teacup

enter image description here

Chinese teacup

enter image description here

What is the reason for this difference? I am looking for answers from a user experience perspective and not from a history perspective

  • 16
    For one thing, they're infinitely easier to store since they can be stacked. For another, they are just a smaller version of a traditional chinese bowl, not as common in England as in China. But seriously this is a question for historians of kitchenware, not UX. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 17:30
  • 3
    I wouldn't consider this a UX question, and more of a cultural thing. Both English tea and Chinese tea have their own individual customary. I am more familiar with the Chinese tea, and less about English. Since it's more a custom and culture thing, I wouldn't apply UX considerations to this. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 18:06
  • 1
    I really like this question, but I have a feeling that @theGreenCabbage might have something with the cultural reasons. Can anyone find any research on this? Maybe the better question would be if one has a better UX? Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 19:31
  • 10
    I've found it quite handy to be able to have a UX conversation about cup design up my sleave, as often one is trying to sell UX in a meeting room situation when cups are the things one has to hand.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 22:31
  • 2
    It bothers me that you put image description under the images. "English teacup" is closer to the picture below too. Took me a while to understand what's going on. Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 4:04

11 Answers 11



When the Chinese tea cup was originated, it was much easier to fashion a cup without handles. It made it much easier to stack and ship, and they were often shipped as ballast for relatively cheap. Additionally, the size of the traditional tea cup made handles impractical.

Contrary to popular belief, tea in the Orient originally was served at a much lower temperature. High temperature tea was a European custom, as it would dissolve the sugar much faster.

It was a Western custom to start putting handles on cups, and for a long time adding handles to existing cups was a business.

  • 24
    The temperatures were actually vitally necessary for decent tea. Green tea, oolong tea and white tea (all popular in China) taste best when brewed in water around 70-80 degrees celsius, and can turn unpleasant or bitter any closer to boiling point. The European black tea, however, often brews best around 95 degrees (i.e. just below boiling) and simply wouldn't taste very good at lower temperatures. Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 4:27
  • 1
    @doppelgreener: Ok, but even 70 - 80 °C (or anything close to it) would be too hot to touch. So, even though the cup might not become quite as hot as the liquid inside, it still becomes (too) hot even for green tea. Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 7:27

I can only think of one reason, but I wonder: are there any other plausible reasons?

The reason why Chinese tea cups do not have handle/"ears" is that it forces the user to hold the cup. Hence:

If it's too hot to hold, it's too hot to drink.

  • 5
    When I first got Chinese cups I immediately realized the value of this. I don't know if it was intended but I have yet to burn my mouth. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 21:42
  • 2
    But what if I want to transport the cup? Now I have to wait for it to cool down.
    – totymedli
    Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 0:10
  • "If it's too hot to hold, it's too hot to drink." If I drinking tea with a handle cup, I can hold it till the end of last sip.
    – Pradeep
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 5:00

This is absolutely a legitimate UX question! - Albeit more on the side of industrial and human factors design as it lacks a digital user interface (which is how many people define "user experience"). Nonetheless, it's always a great design exercise to study existing artifacts and how their affordance affects the way people will perceive or use them.

East Asian style tea cups don't need to have handles - if you take a closer look, the cups are generally made of thicker material (perhaps also makes etching/carving easier), especially the bottoms of the cups. This design may insulate the hot liquid better without use or need for the teacup's saucer plate. (If you look at the thinner material versions, I think you will often find that the top of the cup will have a "lip" that opens out slightly - probably also for making it easier to hold a hot cup.)

Culturally, I believe it's also considered more polite/traditional in Asia to serve/hold the cup with both hands. Right hand holds the top edge, left hand's fingers support the bottom.

  • It could also be considered ergonomics.
    – Tim Huynh
    Commented Jan 23, 2014 at 5:45
  • 1
    @TimHuynh isn't ergonomics a factor of UX? Commented May 21, 2016 at 15:21
  • Unfortunately, I have burnt my fingers a bit too often on East Asian style tea cups to believe in any of the claims about the thicker material and the better insulation of the hot liquid. Of course, it is possible those factors were the original idea, and - as it happens - producers have forgotten about the reasons for certain features and thus unwisely dropped them. Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 10:00

Because in old times, Chinese liked symmetry.

One can have a dish with a lip underneath, and hold it like this:

enter image description here

By the way, 3000 years ago chinese cup (not for tea, for alcoholic beverages only)

enter image description here

  • Second link is broken Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 16:34

I think the the reason ,Chinese cups (the gaiwan) don't have handles due the

etiquette of drinking tea

the gaiwan


1. In China ,good etiquette dictates that tea drinkers cradle the cup with both hands and enjoy the tea’s aroma before taking a sip.about.com

2.To drink from the gaiwan, use the thumb and index finger of your left hand to hold the lid by its knob, and let the other three fingers follow the curve of the gaiwan, Tilt the lid slightly away from your lips so that it serves as a filter holding back the leaves as you drink the liquid. The cup is never removed from the saucer.etiquettescholar.com

Considering the etiquette if both hands are used to drink a tea and lid need to be on top of cup to preserve aroma and considering smaller size of cup, having handle does not make sense.


Before the age of ceramics, cups/holders was made from stone hand carving. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_jade). I think they choose to not include handle because by using hand carving you cant make precisely same handle.

After inventing ceramic procedure, they follow the old technics apperance, since it is a traditional matter.

I suggest that by refering turkish culture. There is an old song in Turkey citing "they carve cup from stone (fincanı taştan oyarlar)" . Also this is some images, inner cups have no handle but, they make outer metallic (copper) shell with handle enter image description here


I once asked this question at a sushi restaurant and the answer was, if it's too hot for your finger then it's too hot for your lips.


I don't hold with the view that it's not about UX.

Take me, for example. Short stubby fingers that rarely fit comfortably in/around the handle of a delicate china cup. The Chinese way would suit me down to the ground.

Plus, I think it's more refined (like the way Geisha support the tea cup by the base as well as the rim) than the dreadful (British?) custom of pointing one's pinkie finger in the air!

  • 3
    This answer is a good example of why it's a historical question and not a UX question. You personally feel like Chinese cups are better to use, but to find out how they came to be that way, you need the historical context - i.e. do Chinese have smaller/stubbier fingers? Who created the cups? Why haven't English adopted Chinese-style cups or vice versa?
    – elemjay19
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 18:53
  • @eleanor.mal: "you need the historical context - i.e. do Chinese have smaller/stubbier fingers" - since when are physical attributes of users "historical context"? Isn't the consideration of finger size of a reference group, such as the group the original creators belonged to, and the realization that this reference group may not be representative for other groups, spot-on with what ergonomics is about? Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 10:11

Taking materials into consideration.. Chinese tea cups are made out of thicker material where it doesn't conduct heat so probably design need not required any ear to it.

  • "Chinese tea cups are made out of thicker material where it doesn't conduct heat" - I have burnt my fingers too often on Chinese tea cups to believe in that. Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 10:02

I'm coming from a Central Asian nomadic culture (Kazakh), north of China. We share many components of nomadic culture, including the pottery. Rounded cups have been known in the region since second half of 1000 BC. Our cups are called kese [keseh].

The ergonomic factors of kese are exhaustively defined by the nomadic tradition.

One, the shape has to allow for a compact storage.

Two, most importantly, nomadic way of living means moving around constantly. All parts of the culture are defined by this: clothes, food, even pottery. The region's climatic zone is steppe-desert, in which the soft dusty and sandy soil is prevalent. When a nomadic person makes a stop to eat, such cups, especially if the bottom is rounded, are stable if thrusted in the sand or soil. They don't fall over even on the uneven ground. If there was a handle, an effort to stabilize such a cup in the ground could break the handle or break the cup altogether.

enter image description here


China has a tradition of ceramics since ancient times. Ceramic insulation is good heat dissipation, the cup will not need to ears (to). Europeans since ancient times the use of metal and glass to do drinking fountains, because these objects heat fast, or as a grand (no easy to slip off), so accustomed to ears. Then the Europeans in the customization of tea to China, it is required ears.

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