Introduction to Yixing-Clay-Tea-Pot
An yixing teapot is an unassuming vessel.
Made of simple unglazed clay, a pot with a simple profile could hide unnoticed in a cabinet full of hand painted porcelain or gold gilded china. In the right hands, however, the yixing clay tea pot becomes one of our most beloved of tea tools.
On one hand, yixing tea pots grew as a symbol of resistance to the overly ornate ceremonies at court. On the other, yixing tea pots can now be worth more than their weight in gold. As other teaware trends come and go, yixing has remained solidly admired for hundreds of years, gaining an official place in tea ceremonies across China.
What is Yixing Clay?
Special mixtures of rock are mined from designated regions within Yixing and crushed into a fine powder. This powder is mixed with water in large troughs and allowed to sit and rest. The water and rock form a clay mixture that can be used alone as a “single origin” clay such as Ben Shan Lv Ni, or mixed to achieve a specific color, consistency, and luster by adding other clays or minerals to the clay. Some yixing craftsman do their own sourcing, scouting for the right rock deposits, while others work with trusted specialists.
As Yixing grew in popularity from the 1980’s onwards, many of the earliest deposits used have been mined out. “Vintage” clays can still be found in the workshops of older masters who have managed their own acquisition and aging program for fine clay, or in the workshops of their students.
Teapots made from old material tend to be more highly valued, but there is great innovation in seeking out new sources or mixing new combinations to make fine, lustrous clay.
How is it made?
Once the clay is sourced, blended, and processed into workable material, the yixing craftsman’s precise work can begin. Before the first piece is cut, shaped or smoothed, the artist first designs a piece and calculates the very precise math to make sure everything fits together. Because yixing has such a long history, each shape and each subtle curve are all evocative of historical forms.
From the shi piao (stone dipper) shape to pots shaped like gourds, oil lamps, or architectural columns, many of these classic shapes have long histories going back generations, and students spend years mastering these forms before making changes or developing new forms as each artist finds their own voice.
Any modern teapot needs to be fully aware of precedent, and the smallest change to the curves of a classic form is its own commentary and departure. The precision of the yixing artist demands planning and measuring to make sure the final product is in line with their original vision.
Usually, once a form is set and designed, it will be made several times a year for many, many years as the artist meditates on this form, utilizing slightly different clays or adjusting an angle, a sculptural accent, or carving in each iteration. Measuring and careful calculations allow the artist to control the variables in an art that demands perfect precision every time.
Once work is ready to begin, the clay is prepped, pounded, and smoothed. Unlike other popular ceramic arts in China, yixing tea pots are not thrown on a wheel. Instead, gallery quality yixing tea pot is entirely hand build, in a process that takes years to master. A top and bottom are cut from a carefully rolled sheet of clay. The side is connected into a band and shaped and smoothed to eliminate any lines connecting the piece to itself. The sides are slowly paddled into the desired curves before affixing the top, smoothing and then affixing the bottom and continuing to smooth. After drying slightly, the lid opening is precisely cut. Once the shape is set, minor adjustments can be made through further smoothing and filing. The handle and spout are separately hand-formed and meticulously attached along with any artistic detail. The final piece can take days to finish completely before firing.
The entire teapot is often filled with sand before firing to help protect it from warping and cracking under high heat. If the measurements were perfect and the pressure and humidity of the day in line with acceptable variation, the piece will come out unbroken and fit together with its lid. A perfectly fitting lid is nearly impossible to correct for, so it is a sign of care and precision to find on any handmade teapot.
what is it that makes yixing pottery so valuable?
The aristocrats who fell in love with the simple aesthetic of Yixing’s unglazed clay became even more enamoured by their new teapot tradition when it became clear that the region’s perfectly dense, slightly porous clay would absorb the natural oils in their tea and, over time, take on the flavor of the tea brewed in the pot.
These oils affected both the interior and exterior of the pots. Since hot tea was poured over the teapots to warm them to a suitable brewing temperature, tea lovers soon noticed that their simple, dull finish pots were becoming lustrous, deep and beautiful over many uses. Incedibly,
Yixing was discovered to be a perfect clay for Chinese tea ceremony, not only for a return to tea’s humble roots in nature, but also for its ability to become more beautiful and more adept as a brewing vessel over time.
Soon, well-seasoned teapots became signs of culture and refinement. When guests came to your home, a simple elegant tea ceremony with a well-seasoned pot showed not only good taste, but that your household had the refinement to drink tea year round; the patina of a well-used pot proved that tea wasn’t just a show for visitors.
As the tradition spread, yixing tea pots would be passed down as inheritance, and teapots that had been made by master craftsmen and used by master tea practitioners became talismans of culture and admiration.