Yixing Clay: Zisha Purple Sand Teapots Jiangsu Province, China
Unglazed Yixing teapots have held a special place in Chinese tea culture for over 500 years. These small teapots were first used in China during the late Song dynasty. As tea and tea culture continued to develop throughout the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Yixing clay teapots became even more important. Hongwu Emperor (r.1368–98), first emperor of the Ming dynasty, began his reign by instituting an historic change in the method by which tea was manufactured, prepared and drunk in China. He decreed that tea was no longer to be made in a wide-rimmed tea bowl from whipped powdered tea scraped from a small compressed cake of tea.
Instead, he ushered in a more naturalistic method that called for steeping whole tea leaves. New tea wares were needed for this different method of tea preparation. Potters working in the Yixing pottery kilns turned their skills from making functional household potteries to crafting small, utilitarian vessels to hold tea leaves and hot water, and which could also easily pour the tea liquor into drinking cups without spilling. Later, by the reign of the Ming emperor Zhengde (r.1505-1521) Yixing teapots had advanced into fashionable and artistic objects of desire. A fine balance was reached between the artistic and the practical. In much the same manner that the tea literati of the Song dynasty fueled the production of fine, richly glazed tea bowls and other pieces of equipment necessary for scraping compressed tea cakes, Ming tea drinkers sought artistically rendered Yixing teapots by master potters for use at their tea gatherings.
By the later days of the Ming dynasty teapots were made from other materials, too. The Jingdezhen kilns became famous for producing thin, hard white ceramics that were finished with a clear, shiny glaze – porcelain. Unlike Yixing clay teapots, glazed porcelain teapots do not contribute to the flavor of the tea, nor do the teapots become ‘seasoned’ with use. While there is a strong tradition in China, Japan, and Korea for unglazed teapots and tea cups, some essential items, such as Chinese gaiwans and elegant, thin-walled tea drinking cups, are made from fine porcelain.
But among connoisseurs of Chinese tea Yixing teapots have a strong appeal. There is a two-fold reason for this.
1. The appearance of the teapot. The seemingly endless array of Yixing teapot designs is inspiring and dazzling, and more than one hapless admirer has ended up becoming a passionate collector of these small beauties. Well-designed Yixing teapots have a simple elegance and an overall warmth that is very appealing. The unglazed surfaces of the teapots project a rich sense of beauty that focuses on the shape of the teapot and the color and texture of the clay. The best Yixing teapots are built by hand from slabs of clay that the potter prepares before creating the teapot. ( Less expensive pots are assembled from pre- molded pieces of clay and the least expensive pots are made from a slip or mud that is poured into a mold and then seamed together with applied handles and lid ). Some potters break down small pieces of Yixing clay rock to make and them age their clay; other purchase finished clay from clay makers. Approximately 125 steps are necessary to build one Yixing teapot by hand ( Yixing clay is not thrown on a wheel ), using only small wooden and metal tools to assist the artist in cutting, smoothing, flattening, trimming, polishing and refining the pot. Some teapots feature a few lines of calligraphy from a famous poem or simple etched flower or bamboo designs on one side. Others might be shaped like a tree trunk or other element of nature, while many pots are strikingly plain and speak with a strong voice. These teapots are intentionally small in size to correspond with the Chinese style of tea drinking: small teapots, small cups, multiple infusions of the same leaf. The shape of the teapot is conducive to steeping tea and the parts of the teapots – body, handle and lid – are in harmony and scale to one another. The balance and pouring ability of the teapot must be confident and sure, providing control when being used. Most new Yixing teapots have a matte finish. Over time, this smooth surface will develop a soft, lustrous patina from use and handling.
2. The special nature of the clay. The raw material for Zisha clay teapots is mined in the Dingshu district of Yixing City. This clay occurs naturally in five different earth colors: red ( Hong Ni ); black ( Hei Ni ) ; purple ( Zi Ni ); yellow or greenish ( Duan Ni ); green ( Lu Ni ). By mixing these clays ( or not ), adding certain minerals and varying the firing method and temperature, potters can achieve a wide range of appealing earth tones. Each teapot is fired at a high temperature ( but below that of porcelain ) so the clay remains slightly absorbent and has an ‘elastic ‘ quality that keeps it from cracking when hot water is added. It is important to note that Zisha clays are lead-free, which is critical because the clay interacts with the tea while it steeps. The characteristics of this clay allow the teapots to ‘breathe’ which is beneficial to the flavor and aroma of tea steeped in it. Yixing clay is unique in the world. Teapots made with this clay are odorless and impart no off ‘clay’ taste to the tea. But the nature of this clay allows the teapots to ‘cure’ from constant use. In fact, part of the joy of owning one of these teapots is the notion of ‘raising’ one’s own teapot. This means having the teapot develop from a newly made piece to a ‘cured’ or ‘seasoned’ teapot. Seasoning occurs from repeated usage and handling, and it ultimately affects the color, smoothness, patina and feel of the teapot. And since Yixing teapots are unglazed, the clay will absorb the characteristics of the tea that is put into it. So, it is advisable to always use your Yixing teapot with only one type of tea. For example, tea enthusiasts who enjoy dark oolongs will have a Yixing teapot just for those, and ‘raise’ a different pot to use for steeping ‘green’, less oxidized oolongs. The same logic applies to maintaining separate teapots for sheng and shou Pu-erh.
Teapots by Wang Jian Ying
Please take a moment to appreciate the beauty of our Yixing teapot selections from a respected teapot artist. We have chosen three teapots by a female potter – Wang Jian Ying – who has national recognition and has earned the title of Master Craftsworker. The surface of her pots are smooth and uniform from careful burnishing and the overall feeling conveyed by these teapots is one of quiet elegance. Her clay is an unusual one named Da Hong Pao which was a popular and highly regarded clay during the Qing dynasty. This clay has high density and and a large percentage of iron oxide which gives the pots a distinctive crimson color after being kiln fired. Choose from 3 classic styles: Duo Qiu, Wen Dan, and Duo Zhi. Wang Jian Yin signs her teapots in four places: on the bottom of the teapot, on the underside of the handle, inside the lid and also inside the body of the teapot, which is unusual. She also inscribes on the bottom of each teapot that the piece is entirely built by her by hand from this special Da Hong Pao clay. All of these Yixing teapots are round in shape and have enough room for the tea to expand to its full leaf size. Each are a perfect match for steeping green semiball-rolled oolongs such as Tieguanyin and Tung Ting, dark strip style oolong such as yan cha, and Pu-erh.