What makes them so special?
Even most tea aficionados probably would not have heard about the Yixing teapot. However, these special teapots have been gaining popularity over the years due to their special characteristic of enhancing fine teas as well as being works of art.
For centuries, the populous city of Yixing has prospered with its abundance of natural resources but ultimately, it is their purple clay (known as Zisha) teapots that propelled them to fame.
These centuries worth of pottery traditions in Yixing is attested by the presence of many historical kilns in the town of Ding Shu, Yixing; there were 5 Neolithic kilns (5000 years ago), 3 Han Dynasty kilns (before 206 – A.D. 202), 3 Six Dynasty kilns (AD 420 – 581), 9 Sui and Tang Dynasty kilns (A.D. 581 – 907), 20 Song and Yuan Dynasty kilns (A.D. 960-1368) and 60 Ming and Qing (sometimes spelt as Ching) dynasty kilns (1368 – 1911).
Unlike teapots made from china, the porous nature of the Yixing teapots allows it to absorb a bit of the tea. Over time, a blackish sheen develops on the inside of the teapot, which are the aromatic oils found in the tea. This patina improves the overall taste of a tea, creating an unrivalled, refined taste. All Yixing teapots only need a rinse with hot water to be cleaned. If soap is used, all subsequent brews will taste of soap. This unique characteristic is also the reason why one Yixing teapot is used for only one type of tea. Otherwise, the flavours will overlap, creating an unpleasant taste.
The father of the Yixing teapots is generally regarded as Gong Cun, a servant to a scholar named Wu Yu Shan. He studied the art of pottery under the tutelage of a monk when they stopped to rest at the Jing Sha temple in Dingshu. The monk was self-taught in the art of pottery and only made wares for his own use. Technically, this monk could have been named the founder of Yixing teapots but sadly, none of his wares were ever found. Gong Cun used an old tree at the side of the temple as inspiration and made a very unique teapot, which is unsurpassed in craftsmanship, thereby refining the techniques in making a Yixing teapot. Over the years, the cover was lost but the Qing Dynasty master craftsman, Wang Yu Ling crafted another cover for it.
In Nanjing city, an ancestor of the Yixing teapot was unearthed at the tomb of Wu Jing, a eunuch of the Ministry of Rites in the Jia Jing year of the Ming Dynasty (1533). Another similar teapot was uncovered in an ancient well at the Nan Chen temple in Wuxi. Though they were not made using fully Zisha clay, the two teapots bear great resemblance in terms of material and method of creation. While these teapots were not used for brewing tea but rather for boiling tea, it showed the beginning of a transition in the Chinese tea culture. For instance, the tea bowl being replaced by the tea pot, tea leaves were in favour rather than tea cakes and the Yixing teapot experiencing a boom in popularity.
The Qing dynasty was regarded as the golden era for the Yixing teapot. The emperor Kang Xi ordered the export of Yixing teapots and tea to Europe, making the Yixing teapots the precursor for the first generation of Portuguese, Dutch and German teapots. Kang Xi did not allow any artisans to stamp their mark on the teapots and only stamps bearing the name of the reigning emperor was allowed. This trend continued throughout the early Qing dynasty. He also bears a preference for colourful teapots and all of the teapots that were in the palace during this period were decorated with vibrant hues.
The emperor Yong Zheng had a short lived reign (13 years) but he made a mark in Yixing teapot history by ordering people to produce porcelain, silver and copper tea ware based on the purple teapot.
Emperor Qian Long was such a loyal patron of tea that he was said to drink tea throughout his whole life. He ordered people to carve his poems onto the teapots, making his poems a popular design in the palace during this era. During his 6 inspection tours of China, he even brought his tea vessels along so that he can enjoy a drink whenever he wants to.
A teapot which is decorated with one of Qian Long’s poem.
The Fall of the Qing Dynasty and the Modern Yixing Teapot
The War and Revolution period of China (1930-1940) led to a decrease of the production of such teapots. As such, the craft of Yixing teapots was endangered since no new masters were coming up. The Government of the Republic of China took heed of this and established communal quarters where old masters would train new generations of Zisha potters.
Though difficulties were encountered during the 60’s Cultural Revolution, production continued. Most of the teapots produced during this era focused on practicality and not artistic value.
The 1980’s saw the reopening of China to the world, bringing about a new wave of Yixing teapot enthusiasts. With so many patrons, a new generation of contemporary Yixing potters sprung forth. Hong Kong became a hub for international exhibitions which attracts collectors from Chinese communities all over the world, particularly in Singapore and Taiwan.
One exhibition of significance was organized by the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong. Entitled “Innovations in Contemporary Yixing pottery”, it showcased many of the finest works by leading modern potters. Some works were said to equal or even surpass the level of artistry shown in the Qing dynasty.
The growing community of Yixing teapot collectors proves that the art of Yixing teapots are continuously improving and are excellent as collectibles because their value only increases as time goes by, making each handmade piece, no matter the age, a truly wonderful piece of art.