Unearthing the Holy Grail of all teaware

American author James Norwood Pratt perfectly captured the world's love of tea when he said: "Tea is quiet and our thirst for tea is never far from our craving for beauty."

American author James Norwood Pratt perfectly captured the world’s love of tea when he said: “Tea is quiet and our thirst for tea is never far from our craving for beauty.” And in saying so, the writer, of The Tea Lover’s Treasury, also seemed to touch on the aesthetic wonder of the vessel, which holds the refreshing drink, the teapot. 

Tea has been a great subject for many literary artists. Wordsmiths, poets and dramatists have waxed lyrical over the centuries about one of our favorite hot drinks — but rarely has the splendor of the teapot been a topic, which proudly brings us on to the Yixing teapot. 

The Yixing teapot is made from a purple brownish clay and is widely regarded as the Holy Grail of all teaware and a sine qua non of Chinese tea culture.

Yixing, now a small city located in east China’s Jiangsu Province, and about 200 kilometers northwest of Shanghai, began to produce teapots more than 1,000 years ago after taking advantage of its proximity to the world’s only source of a special kind of clay, zisha, which literally means “purple sand” in Chinese, for its purple brownish color after going through the firing process.

Unearthing the Holy Grail of all teaware

The Yixing teapots usually are decorated with engraved Chinese drawings and calligraphy.

Zisha features unique properties, which make it ideal for brewing tea. Zisha can breathe because of its porous nature. This quality helps teapots made of zisha to retain heat and absorb the flavor and smell of the tea and keep it from going stale over a long time.

This is probably why many tea drinkers believe you can make a cup of tea by simply pouring boiling water into an empty well-used or “well-seasoned” zisha teapot without putting any tea leaves into it because the inside of the teapot has already stored tea flavor from previous brewing. But the breathing nature of zisha certainly explains why craftsmen never coat the inside of zisha teapots. They don’t glaze the outside as well, but this has more to do with displaying the natural beauty of zisha elegant color than adding to the tea flavor.

It was not until nearly 600 years after its first appearance that the zisha teapot began to gain popularity with people who gradually came to appreciate its simple beauty and unique tea brewing qualities.

Later, zisha teapots were exported to Europe, where they were deemed as the predecessor for the first generation of teapots in countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany.

Local artisans tried to make their own zisha teapots in Europe, but they couldn’t find the unique purple clay anywhere else in the world.

Zisha teapots are usually handcrafted and it’s a long process.

The first thing is to mine and prepare the clay. The zisha clay can only be found in an area near Taihu Lake. The extracted clay needs to weather outdoors for about a year and then be dried, pulverized and carefully sieved to remove any stones or impurities.

The clay powder is then put into containers filled with clean water and deposited in cellars to be “cultivated.”

Eventually, when the clay is ready, it will be cut into blocks.

Teapot makers can either prepare the clay themselves or purchase good-quality prepared clay from clay miners.

The teapot makers will then spend two to three more days to repeatedly knead and pound the prepared clay in order to squeeze out any possible air pores and to make its texture extremely dense and consistent.

Then the clay will be rolled into flat sheets before being used to shape the walls, bottoms and lids of teapots.

Through the centuries, generations of zisha teapot craftsmen in China have created numerous teapot shapes that can fit anyone’s imagination. They may look like a miniature pumpkin, cabbage, bamboo basket, inverted bronze bell, pagoda, straw hat as well as various plants, flowers and animals.

Also, the teapots will be decorated with engraved Chinese drawings and calligraphies.

At the end of the creation process, the craftsman usually put his signatures or seals on the bottom of the finished products to serve as a symbol of high quality and exquisite craftsmanship.

Since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), zisha teapots have widely been deemed as a unique form of art in China.

In history, many famous Chinese painters, calligraphers and seal carvers have been involved in one way or another in the zisha teapot business. In the eyes of Chinese tea aficionados, a good zisha teapot is at least as important as the quality of tea itself, if not more important.

Unlike common teapots, which are made to serve several people, zisha teapots are usually small and intended for individual use. Sometimes, it’s so small that one can easily cradle it in one palm. So traditionally, one would drink tea directly from the spout of one’s own personal teapot.

While nursing the tea, one would often fondle the teapot and appreciate its beauty. After long time use and fondling, the teapot would become “seasoned” and a seemingly antiqued patina would then cover its outside. By that time, a zisha teapot is no longer simply a piece of teaware, but also its owner’s treasure.

The prices of zisha teapots can vary greatly, from just under 100 yuan (US$15.12) up to 7,000 yuan. If a zisha teapot bears the signature of a famous master potter, it can easily carry a price of up to half a million yuan.

According to media reports, a 1948 squat-shaped zisha teapot made by Gu Jingzhou (1915-96), a contemporary master potter and artisan, was auctioned in Beijing in June 2010 for a record 12.32 million yuan. The teapot also features engraved calligraphy by Wu Hufan (1894-1968), a leading traditional painter and bamboo carvings by Jiang Handing (1903-63), also a famous Chinese artist.

Today in China, most tea aficionados, as well as collectors still cherish zisha teapots as superior to all other types of teaware.

In 2006, the Yixing zisha pottery-making technique was inscribed on China’s first list of national intangible cultural heritages.

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