Chinese Teapot Renaissance

yixing 1 Yixing (pronounced ee-shing) teapots, renowned for their superb tea brewing qualities, offer a rustic elegance of beauty. Designs may follow traditional lines. Some are copies of old, famous works. Other more contemporary styles portray natural themes incorporating flowers or animals. Chinese calligraphy is often used as well. They are enjoying remarkable growth in popularity in North America today as a result of exploding consumer demand for high quality specialty teas.

For thousands of years, the unique qualities of the clay deposits in Yixing, near Shanghai, have made this province the “Pottery Capital of China.” It was here during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) that the world’s first teapots were created. During the years that followed, the distinctive reddish stoneware teapots of Yixing came to be considered the “best” by Chinese tea aficionados. In the late 17th Century, Yixing teapots were introduced to Europe, along with the first tea shipments, becoming the model for the earliest Dutch, German and English teapots.

yixing 2Yixing teapots bring out the best in fine teas. There are several reasons. When tea is brewed in teapots made from “Zisha,” a purple-sand clay found only in Yixing, a tiny amount of tea is absorbed into the pot. After prolonged use, the pot will develop a patina coating that retains some of the taste, scent and color of tea, along with an unusually attractive luminescent quality. Because of its absorbency, only one type of tea (green, oolong, etc.) should be used with each teapot. It is for this reason that one should never wash a Yixing teapot using soap. After use, it should simply be rinsed with fresh water and allowed to air-dry.

The teapot’s snugly fitted lid conserves heat, further improving the brewing process, and tends to keep the tea hotter than porcelain. It has a built-in filter at the spout, and is usually unglazed to enhance the natural color of the clay.

Yixing enjoyed long periods of prosperity during the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 CE). During the early Republic (1911-1938), Yixing wares were exported in quantity to Japan, Southeast Asia, Europe and North America. The great turmoil of war and revolution in China during the 1930s and 1940s brought the production of Yixing teapots to a halt. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Chinese government established communes for the purpose of gathering together the old master potters to recruit and train a new generation of potters, thus insuring that the great traditions would be preserved. This process continued despite the difficulties of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. By 1979, the Yixing Purple Sand Factory #1 employed 600 workers. Still, only a handful of potters were master artisans. Most produced utilitarian wares for the domestic market.

yixing 3In the mid-1980s, the reopening of China brought a “rediscovery” of Yixing teapots by Chinese art collectors and tea connoisseurs outside of China. With this infusion of enthusiastic patronage, the artistic potential of the new generation of Yixing potters burst into bloom. Hong Kong became the focus for international exhibitions with collectors drawn from Chinese communities in Asia, particularly Singapore and Taiwan. In 1988, an exhibition entitled “Innovations in Contemporary Yixing Pottery” was presented by the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong. Over 200 of the finest works by leading potters were presented.

This splendid display of form, theme and workmanship created by the new generation of potters was absolutely dazzling. Some works equaled and even surpassed the efforts of the great master potters of the Ching Dynasty. This outpouring of innovation and artistry has continued with an enthusiastic following of knowledgeable collectors eagerly awaiting each year’s abundant harvest of new designs and re-creations of the old ones.

Interest in Yixing teapots is growing in North America as well. Over 100,000 people took the opportunity to view the superb Dr. K.S. Lo Collection of Yixing Teaware during its 1990-92 Tour. The exhibition was held at the Phoenix Art Museum, the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco, the Indianapolis Art Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Yixing teapots tend to be small so the entire contents may be quickly emptied after each infusion. This method assures that the tea is served fresh, hot and without the bitter after-taste that occurs when the tea leaves are left to steep too long in a larger pot.

yixing 4One of the most distinctive features of the Yixing teapot is its “chop” mark. The potter places his or her personal mark or seal on the bottom of each piece. It serves to identify its creator, reflects the potter’s pride of workmanship and provides collectors with the satisfaction of attributing a work according to its potter and time period. It also reminds the tea drinker of the care and individuality that went into creating the teapot.

Yixing prices vary widely, from around $20 for ordinary machine-made teapots to thousands of dollars for those that are collectible, intricately detailed and handmade by famous ceramic artists. Plan on spending $40 to $100 for a good 12 ounce capacity teapot.

Two reputable sources for Yixing teapots are TrYeh (www.tryeh.com/Yixingteapots.html) and Yixing.com (www.yixing.com). Many teashops offer quality teapots as well.

When purchasing one, give some thought to its capacity in ounces. The general rule of thumb is one teaspoon of tea (3 grams) per six ounces (177 ml.) of water. If  you are buying one from a store, make sure the lid is snuggly fitted to the pot, and inspect both the interior and exterior for surface cracks, scratches and chips.

Most of all, whether buying a Yixing teapot online or from a store, prepare yourself for a great tasting cup of tea. For added measure, after placing your tea inside the pot and adding the recommended amount of hot water, place the lid on top and pour some hot water over the outside surface. If you are lucky, the hot steam rising from inside the pot may cause your lid to chatter a bit. The Chinese call this “Teapot Laughing.”

by ITMA Certified Tea Master Chas Kroll

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