Intro to Yixing Clay Teapots
Function Elevated to Sculpture
The first pot designated specifically for brewing tea was the Yixing teapot, made during the 16th century. Prior to that, especially during the Sung Dynasty (960-1272,) tea was consumed not in teapots but in round bowls. The tea was a powder of ground tea leaves and it wasn’t steeped but whisked to a froth.
This whisking was so popular it led to contests among the aristocracy. When the teapot was introduced, along with steeping tea leaves, it also became the provenance of aristocrats and noblemen throughout China to the point that teapots became a highly sought-after collectible as many are today.
What is Yixing Clay?
The clay used for the Yixing pot then, as now, is from the highly-prized, pottery-making area now known collectively as Dingshuzhen where rich clay deposits around Digshan and Shushan have existed for centuries. This unique clay first came to use during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in the area west of Taihu near the great lake in Jiangsu (Kiangsi) about 100 miles from Shanghai. The clay is always unglazed, fired at high temperatures, and highly porous. This porosity is the main reason Yixing pots should be dedicated to only one type of tea, oolong or pu-erh, for example. Otherwise, teas will taste “off” from this combination of mixed aromas and flavors from different teas.
The clay of Yixing consists of three basic types: zisha, which is purplish-brown; banshanlu, buff-colored, and zhusha, a cinnabar or deep orange-red. Other colors and hues are manipulated by adding various colored ores or cobalt oxide and manganese dioxide to create black, blue-green, deep green or a light beige. Experiments with various firing times and temperatures in the kiln can also contribute to various hues of the clay.
Design shapes are legion. They can be geometrical, round, square, or cylindrical, or shaped like elements of nature, from bamboo to animals. Often the pots are plain to emphasize the sculptural essence of the pot and other times the pots are shaped simply but the decorations are elaborate, often using contrasting colored clay in the shapes of leaves, flowers, or bamboo. The possibilities of design depends only on the vision and style of the artisan.
Another teapot style is the shuiping hu, small, 2-3" teapots specifically created for gongfu tea, most often made from orange-red or cinnabar zhusha. It is exceptionally good for eliciting the most flavor from large-leaf oolongs. At first it may seem contradictory to squeeze so many leaves into a small area and brew it with so little water, but this produces an intense oolong fragrance and taste that is infinitely satisfying.
How They’re Made
The clay for the Yixing teapots are first pounded with a heavy wooden mallet into a slab then one of three techniques are used to shape the clay into pots: pre-molded for segmented teapots; paddled for round teapots, and the slab technique for square teapots. Artisans use a variety of tools for the fine hand-finishing and shaping, including bamboo, wood, horn, and metal, most of which are designed exactly as they were centuries ago.
Teapots created by fine artisans are completely handmade, using no molds, only fingers, tools, and the priceless imagination of the artist combined with exceptional craftsmanship. An artisanal pot is made by one person from beginning to end, and generally stamped with her or his name, although some collaborative creations are made and those contain more than one seal. Many artisans are women who’ve designed and created Yixing teapots for centuries.
Because of this intense handcraft, artisanal teapots command the highest prices. Even when an artisan makes teapots with the same design, the hand-made elements makes each slightly different. Just as the aristocrats did centuries ago, many of today’s Yixing pot buyers purchase artisanal pots not for brewing tea, but for collections either by particular artists, by style or a combination of both.
Today, it is not unusual for families to make teapots themselves to occupy themselves during the winter. Generally, these are for their own personal use and are made simply with function the most obvious characteristic. Among those sold commercially are moderately priced teapots made via slip-casting, a build-and-mold technique in which partially liquefied clay is poured into a mold. The pot is then hand finished to smooth edges and, often, details are hand applied. By using molds, the process is quickened, many pots of the same design can be made, and the cost can be reduced.
What to Look for When Buying and How to Use
Function. Balance is integral to a well-regarded pot, both between body and spout and spout and handle. It should have an appealing finish and all parts should appear as a seamless whole. In choosing a pot, consider first the type of tea you want to dedicate the pot for its use. Pu-Erh teas require a pot with a wide mouth and long twisted leaves work well in taller pots. When in doubt, opt for round or square pots with wide mouths. Prior to your first use, fill the pot with water to make sure it does not leak. Check that the spout produces a steady stream and easy for you to handle.
Season the Pot. Place a heaping teaspoon of tea you’d like to use the pot for and cover it with hot water. Steep for several minutes then pour out the liquor. Re-brew and pour out the liquor again. Discard the leaves. Pour in hot water only into the empty pot swirling it to heat the entire inner pot, then discard that liquid as well. Your teapot is now seasoned and ready for years of enjoyment.
Use the Same Type of Tea. Because of the porous clay, it is critical to dedicate the Yixing pot to a single type of tea: green, oolong or pu-erh, for example. Over the years, the clay will absorb the flavor. It is said that a teapot using pu-erh over 20-30 years will not even need tea leaves as the pot will develop an interior patina or coating that will retain that tea’s signature flavor. Hot water in the pot will taste like the tea used. After each use, discard all the leaves and rinse the pot thoroughly with freshly-drawn water only. Never ever use soap. Air dry upside down on a soft cloth with the lid off.
Store Carefully. To store, place your teapot on a shelf with enough space around it to make it easy to remove and replace without disturbing other items on the shelf. To protect it while stored, place a thin piece of soft tissue paper or cloth in between the lid and the pot, its weakest point, and your teapot should last decades.