The art of clay teapots

Tea wares need to be practical, but it can also delight the eyes.

From the diancha method of drinking tea to brewing and from tuancha (tea lump), a type of compressed tea, to tea leaves, Chinese tea culture underwent a slew of changes between the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.

Tea wares also changed correspondingly, shifting from Jianzhan, or Jian tea bowls mainly produced in Nanping of Fujian Province, to Yixing zisha (purple clay) teapots made in Yixing of Jiangsu Province.

Unlike Jianzhan, which has almost faded from sight these days, Yixing teapots are still in regular use and in rage.

Combining the aesthetic with the practical, the clay teapots are not only works of art but also famous for their excellent porosity and heat-handling properties. Improving the taste of tea, they are a must for most tea connoisseurs in China.

The earliest traceable teapot that has been found so far is one with a handle excavated from the tomb of Wu Jing in Nanjing. The eunuch died in 1533, the 12th year of the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty. It is now in the Nanjing Museum collection.

Bamboo-shaped teapot (1940s)

Purple clay teapots created in the Ming Dynasty were simple and unadorned, which reflected the aesthetic ideology of the time. This is mainly because the technology of processing raw minerals as well as craftsmanship was not yet mature. The teapots contained relatively large pieces of grit and their surfaces were rough.

Both design and technique greatly improved in the Qing Dynasty. Dragons, elephants and toads were among the many motifs featuring auspicious creatures which were used to decorate teapots.

In the mid-Qing Dynasty, painters, poets and seal-carving artists engaged in the making of Yixing clay teapots. Plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum symbols were commonly used to portray the nobleness of literati. Special techniques such as glazing, enameling, silver and gold inlay and painting by using powder — Famille-rose — were employed.

“Clay is the fundamental factor in the judgment of a teapot, followed by shape, craftsmanship, design and practicality,” says Huang Fudi, a veteran collector of Yixing clay teapots and founder of the Can Ya Xuan Museum of Tea Ware Art and Culture, which is part of the Shanghai Baoshan International Folk Arts Exposition.

Painted purple clay Wuyi kung fu teapot (reign of Emperor Qianlong)

Zisha (literally “purple sand”) clay is a mixture of kaolin, quartz and mica, with a high content of iron oxide. There are three kinds of unprocessed zisha clay — purple, red and green. Tuan clay, a common term in the field of Yixing clay teapots, refers to the combination of purple and green clay, which changes to bronze after being fired. Green clay turns to beige.

Yixing clay teapots of a variety of colors, like azure blue, dark green and gray, also exist. In order to achieve the colors, the potters mix different kinds of clay or add oxidized metal to clay powder.

Huang says although zisha clay can be found in many places, including Yan’an in Shaanxi Province, Changxing in Zhejiang Province, Jianshui in Yunnan Province, the teapots made of Yixing zisha clay mined at Huanglong Mountain are second to none.

“The minerals of Yixing clay contract when the teapots are fired at 1,100 to 1,200 degrees Celsius. A distinctive double-pore structure is created, which contributes to the Yixing tea wares being highly porous. Therefore, Yixing clay teapots are irreplaceable,” says Huang.

Due to its excellent quality, people were too enthusiastic about digging up the raw materials, which resulted in a shortage. To protect the natural resources, the mountain is now walled-off and guarded by police. Excavation of clay was once prohibited but now it has resumed under the guidance of the local government.

Snail-shaped teapot (2005)

Separating by color, drying, hammering, grinding into powder, sieving, adding water, stirring, pounding, wrapping with paper or plastic film and storing in a shady place, potters need to process Yixing clay before use.

“Some masters store Yixing clay at home for several decades. The longer the clay is stored, the better quality it is. Nowadays, fewer potters process clay themselves but instead purchase from factories directly which deal with clay by machines,” says Huang while using a dark red cloth to wipe a red Yixing clay teapot.

“I bought this teapot about a month ago. It was made by the granddaughter of master Wang Yinxian. Although the ‘nurturing’ time is not long, the surface of the teapot becomes darker, oilier and smoother, which is exactly because the clay had been stored for a long time,” says Huang.

In the online forums, there is talk of the methods used to “nurture” Yixing clay teapots, including boiling them with firm tofu or tea leaves and pieces of sugarcane. However, in Huang’s opinion, these practices are unnecessary.

“It really depends on the quality of clay and the firing temperature. An excellent teapot will change in a short time. However, if the clay isn’t good or the firing temperature is too low, no matter how long the teapot is ‘nurtured,’ it is still almost impossible to see the changes,” Huang says. “For newcomers, there are a few things you need to remember in the use of Yixing clay teapots.”

Water receptacle shaped like a longevity peach (1848)

First, the unglazed surfaces of the teapots absorb the aroma of the beverage, and therefore, each teapot can only be used for one variety of tea, and detergents should never be used to wash the teapots, just water.

Second, different sizes and shapes of teapots are recommended for different types of tea. For example, a tall teapot with a small opening is a wise choice for brewing black tea, which keeps the aroma inside. Brewing green tea requires a lower water temperature, so tea connoisseurs would choose an oblate teapot with a big opening which allows hot water to cool down quickly.

“I love Yixing clay teapots deeply. I once only had 10 yuan in my hand but spent 9.9 yuan on a teapot. I even sold an apartment for a teapot. People might think that I am silly, which is true but I just can’t live without it. I believe that my deep love for the teapots is in my blood,” says Huang.

Huang has collected over 1,000 Yixing clay teapots through the ages, of which 200 are displayed at the museum.

Can Ya Xuan Museum of Tea Ware Art and Culture

Opening hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 9am-4pm
Tel: 5604-2007
Address: 2/F, 4788 Hutai Rd (near the No. 1 Gate of Gucun Park)
How to get there: Take Metro Line 7 to the Gucun Park Station and get out at Exit 3. Then, take bus No. 527 or Baoshan No. 3 to the Jingpohu Road and Hutai Highway stop. Or take Metro Line 7 to the Shangda Road Station and get out at Exit 1. Then, take bus No. 528 or 963 to the Gucun Park stop.

Roundish brown teapot with bamboo-design spout, handle and lid

Time: Late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Height: 20cm
Width: 20cm
Capacity: 1,500cc

Shi Dabin (1573-1648) was a master in making Yixing clay teapots of the Ming Dynasty. He created the method of mixing sand with pug, which was a milestone in the history of Yixing clay teapots. 

Inspired by scholars, Shi changed the size of teapots from big to small and endowed the teapots with literati spirit.

The teapot was inscribed with “February grass on Wushan Mountain, home of three friends.” The spout, handle and lid were crafted in bamboo shape.

Half-ladle-shaped teapot of Mansheng style

Time: Qing Dynasty (reign of Emperors Jiaqing and Daoguang from 1796 to 1850)
Height: 8.5cm
Width: 15.6cm
Capacity: 290cc

Known as one of the “Eight Masters of Xiling,” Chen Mansheng (1768-1822) was a renowned painter and a seal-carving artist of the late Ming Dynasty.

Integrating teapots with literature, painting, calligraphy and engraving, Chen pioneered in the direct engagement of literati in the making of Yixing clay teapots.

The teapot, simple and elegant, was inscribed with “plum rain, wet footstone, unruffled mind, fresh tea bubbles.”

Squat teapot shaped like a lantern

Time: Qing Dynasty (reign of Emperor Qianlong from 1736 to 1795)
Height: 10.3cm
Width: 23.4cm
Capacity: 650cc

The original lid was lost and the current one was made by Wang Yinxian, a master in making Yixing clay teapots. 

A saying goes that the potters would rather make three teapots than a lid as it is extremely difficult to make the lid fit exactly on the top.

The teapot witnesses the teacher-student friendship between Wang and Huang.

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