According to Chinese tradition, certain teas have medicinal and therapeutic value. For example, pu-erhs (pronounced "poo-airs") have long been used to ensure regularity, cut cholesterol, and treat the effects of overindulgence. Dragon Well (Lung Ching), a well-known and popular green tea, has been drunk for its cooling effects in hot weather; jasmine tea traditionally has been used to combat diarrhea.
Increasing scientific interest in the health benefits of tea has led to contemporary health claims that all kinds of tea -- both hot and iced -- aid digestion, are antibacterial, and contain anti-aging properties. Green tea, which contains fluoride, may combat osteoporosis; it is also a promising cancer-preventative, as it may be good for blood vessels and tooth care. Both oolong and pu-erh teas are said to be good for the heart and for reducing high cholesterol. They are also used successfully as part of slimming and weight-loss regimens.
The Art of Ceramic Teapots
While tea and ceramics have gone hand in hand in Chinese history, it wasn't until the change from powdered to leaf tea that teapots were born. Ewers with spouts and handles had existed in China since ancient times. When the custom of infusing tea leaves took over, the ewer shape was adapted for tea use. The teapot of the time was generally broad at the base, with a large spout (to prevent tea leaves from clogging it) and a handle opposite the spout. The pots themselves were small, made for individual use. The cups were also small, holding little more than several tablespoons.
Around 1500 near Yixing (pronounced "yee-shing"), an area situated 120 miles northwest of Shanghai in Jiangsu province, a monk created the first teapot of Yixing "purple sand" zisha unglazed stoneware. Soon thereafter, Gong Chun, "the father of the Yixing teapot," began creating his masterpieces. A six-lobe pot bearing his name and the year 1513 can still be seen today. This tradition of marking the pots with clearly inscribed characters (or stamping them with a seal bearing the potter's name) continues today and serves as a reminder of every teapot's individuality and craftsmanship.
Yixing teapots gained wide popularity in China when it was noted that stoneware keeps tea warmer than porcelain and better withstands sudden, extreme temperature changes. The teapots were also exported in large quantities to Japan, where they were widely imitated. In 1610, the Dutch first imported tea into Europe and introduced Yixing teapots to the West.
Today, as in certuries past, the artisans making Yixing teapots serve a long apprenticeship under established masters, receiving rigorous training in all aspects of their craft. Each teapot is 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, and the joints are strengthed with a spatula. When the decoration, if any, has been cut into the clay, the teapot is then taken to the kiln master for firing.
For hundreds of years, tea aficionados have extolled Yixing teapots as superior to all other types for brewing tea. Minute pores produced in the clay during firing retain both heat and flavor. In addition, 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. These pots are also prized by tea connoisseurs because a seasoned teapot acquires a flavor of its own, which enhances the tea. Beyond their simple functionality, Yixing teapots are coveted by collectors for their whimsical and imaginative beauty, an example of which is the Bamboo Chair teapot. While modern artisans continue to produce replicas of old pots (such as the Ming Dynasty and Lotus teapots), they are also creating new and innovative designs (shown here in the Turning Handle and Dragon Egg teapots), lending individual character to each teapot. Many aspects of the Chinese tea culture are beautifully brought to life and preserved for future generations through the medium of these treasured works of art.
Rae Stimler is a partner at Holy Mountain Trading Company, an online catalog company specializing in gourmet teas and Asian teaware. Visit the website, http://www.holymtn.com, or call toll-free (888) 832-8008.