It is said that if you use a Yixing teapot for many years, you can brew tea just by pouring boiling water into the empty pot.
This is just one of the many wonderful properties of these poetic little teapots. For hundreds of years, aficionados of the many varieties of tea found in China have extolled Yixing (pronounced yeeshing) teapots as superior to all other types for brewing it. The special zisha clay (containing iron, quartz and mica, and found only in Yixing) from which they are made absorbs the delicate flavors of the tea and the teapot becomes more seasoned with each use.
Yixing ware teapots have an interesting history that dates back to the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279) when purple clay was first mined around Lake Taihu in China. Their unpretentious earthy tones and subtle beauty flourished and matured in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1573 – 1911). Along with the earliest tea shipments to Europe came distinctive red earthenware teapots, initiating a tea drinking tradition that continues today. A traditional favorite of local scholars and artists, the pots are made from the signature clay of Yixing, an area situated 120 miles northwest of Shanghai in Jiangsu province. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, scholars variously praised, made, inscribed and collected this renowned classic Chinese art form. Now as then, each piece is shaped by hand on a potter’s wheel and left unglazed, both because it makes better tea and because doing so allows the color of the clay to shine through.
Highly prized for its porous nature, which is excellent at absorbing the flavor of tea, Yixing clay occurs naturally in three characteristic colors: light buff, cinnabar red and purplish brown. Other colors are created by mixing these three or adding mineral pigments; for example, the dusty black color is obtained by mixing in cobalt oxide and the blue color is made by mixing in magnesium oxide. A principal factor in determining the depth of the color is the concentration of iron in the clay. All the characteristic Yixing colors are called zisha, but the most celebrated of all Yixing wares is its zishayao, or purple sandware, in which a relatively high concentration of iron produces a deep purplish brown color, sometimes called “pear-skin.” Western tastes tend to run to a wider range of colors other than the prized zishayao.
One of the special attributes of a zisha teapot is its ability to retain heat. Minute pores produced in the clay during firing retain both heat and flavor, and the low shrinkage rate of Yixing clay allows the skillful potter to make a closely-fitting lid that inhibits oxidation thus heightening the tea’s flavor.
Traditionally, Yixing pots were small so that each person might have their own. The tiny cups were proportionate to the pots, so that drinking 100 miniature cups a day might not be considered excessive.
The Yixing teapot is free of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic materials. Because of the unique properties of the Yixing clays, Yixing ware is unlike other unglazed earthenware teapots. The Yixing teapot has a fine and solid texture, a four percent water absorption rate, a very low thermal conductivity, and a double air hole design which enhances the pot’s brewing properties. The principal standards for evaluating a teapot’s brewing quality are the color of the tea soup produced and the level of tea phenol, caffeine, and aminophylline. The performance of the Yixing teapot is far superior to that of the standard teapot with respect to all four of these criteria. Hence, not only are Yixing teapots beautiful and unique works of art, but they are excellent brewing vessels.
One type of Yixing clay, which is soft and yellow in its natural state, changes to cinnabar red during the firing process. There are also deposits of white clays and blue clays. The clay is originally mined in large rocks which are allowed to weather outdoors for approximately a year. After extraction, the clay is dried and then pounded into a powder. The powder is passed through a bamboo sieve to remove any stones or impurities. The powdered clay is then placed in a five-foot-deep rectangular tank pool filled with fresh water. Three days later it is removed to a similar pool and allowed to dry out in the sun. The clay is then cut into blocks which are placed in a vacuum processor to extract excessive moisture before being sold to potter artisans.
The artisan further prepares the clay blocks by pounding them with a heavy wooden mallet, adding water from time to time in order to work the clay into the right consistency. This process usually takes about two days. The clay is ready when a knife cut through the clay shows its interior to be completely smooth and shiny, with no trace of air pockets.
The teapots are built by the hands of a single potter artisan, who beats a lump of prepared and aged clay into a flat sheet. The walls, bottom and lid of the teapot are all cut from the clay sheet, sometimes with the aid of templates. The pieces are assembled on a simple, hand-turned wheel, stuck together with a mixture of clay and water, the joints strengthened with a spatula. Round pots are beaten into shape, and smoothed out and polished with tools made of wood and buffalo horn. Many motifs and patterns exhibit the use of multiple colors which are customarily applied or inlaid in various colored clays, rather than brush-painted with glazing pigments. Glazes are not used on the teapots, and no chemicals or other additives are added to the clay during its production. The application of glazing agents is considered by some collectors to render the pot unsuitable for any purpose other than display. When the decoration (if any) has been cut into the clay, the teapot is then taken to the kiln masters for firing. Originally Yixing teapots were made in “dragon kilns,” so called because at night the hot kilns looked like a glowing dragon hugging the mountain. Today electric kilns or diesel-driven kilns are used. Unlike porcelain artware, Yixing clay pots are fired at somewhat lower heat and demonstrate the highly desirable character of withstanding sudden extreme temperature changes. As early as the 16th century the artisans marked their pots with clearly inscribed characters or, later, stamped them with seals bearing their names. This tradition continues today and serves as a reminder of every teapot’s high quality and craftsmanship.
The artisans making Yixing teapots serve a long apprenticeship under established masters, receiving rigorous training in all aspects of their craft. Many of today’s Yixing teapots reflect contemporary themes; modern artisans produce not only replicas of old pots, but continually create new and innovative designs, their inspired imaginations lending individual character to each teapot. Many aspects of the Chinese culture are beautifully brought to life and preserved for future generations through the medium of these treasured works of art.