As I sat down to write this newsletter I thought about my first Yixing tea pot. I was leaving my job to open Teas Etc. and my co-workers bought me a Yixing pot as a farewell gift. Despite the question that they all asked "WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?", it was obvious by their gift choice that they "got it" on some level. That beautifully shaped Buddha Yixing pot has been the source of inspiration and many a delicious cup of tea.
Personally, I have not acquired a tremendous amount of Yixing. As a matter of fact, Nathan, our web manager, has 10 times more than me! After my visit to Yixing while in China, I became more interested in this exquisite tea ware, which motivated me to dig a little deeper.
Yixing clay, as it is often referred to here in the U.S., is actually Zisha clay. Zisha translates to "purple sand" and is only found in China. Yixing, located west of Shanghai, is in central China's Jiangsu Province. The city itself dates back thousands of years and has long been associated with tea culture. The first Yixing tea pot, handcrafted by Jiangsu, a monk studying at nearby Jin Sha Temple, was functional and elegant. Utilitarian design and artistic expression found in those initial motifs are still present in pots made today.
Yixing pots made their appearance in Europe by way of Dutch traders who recognized the sturdy materials and practical shapes. Yixing pots, unlike Europe's Delft earthenware of the era, can withstand rapidly changing temperatures and can hold boiling water without cracking. The influence on western ceramic production is evident in the unglazed stoneware of European pioneers like Wedgwood who welcomed the classic and natural elements of the Yixing designs.
Purple clay is a product of weathering rock from mountains worn away by erosion. The disintegrated rock settles in estuaries, lakes and deltas where it is ground due to its interaction with water. Gradual geological upheaval lifts the clay for retrieval. Authentic purple clay possesses unique properties. These properties are best recognized in the very layers of the earth in which they are created.
Seventy five percent of the earth's surface layer is made up of Silica and Alumina, the essential elements of purple clay. Numerous trace minerals are also found in the surface layers of the earth and subsequently in Zisha clay tea pots. These all natural, wholesome brewing vessels aid in the purification and activation of water and contribute to our consumption of trace minerals, a critical, often overlooked, element of a healthy diet. True Zisha clay does not contain lead and is approved for consumable use by the FDA.
These high quality pots differ greatly from any other brewing vessel. The strong molecular bond created by carefully controlled temperatures while firing makes Yixing pots extremely durable. The fine texture and porous finish allows each vessel to absorb the essence of the teas brewed within creating a character and uniqueness to each individual pot.
This time honored art form, passed from one generation to the next, is alive and well in present day China. Skillful hands use thin plastic scalpels to create patterns both classic and stylized. Shapes like pumpkins, aged tree trunks and everyday items such as bamboo steamers and luggage represent some of the changing attitudes in design over the past two decades. The round, well balanced shapes are more traditional and provide a glimpse into classic variety of long ago.(View Yixing Tea Pot Styles)
I was intrigued while in Dingshan, the area just south of Yixing city where most of the actual potter's showrooms and workshops are housed, to discover that it's not necessarily the more elaborate pots that demand the highest price. The artists creating the pot, who they apprenticed with and the number of prestigious awards and recognitions they have received all help to determine the price of their works. Another important price factor is the authenticity in which the artist re-creates famous pot styles.
The unglazed pots are shaped by hand on a potter's wheel and fired in kilns. Although many pots are still created by hand, growing popularity and high demand has necessitated mass production of some Yixing tea pots. While still authentic Zisha clay, some of these lower priced pots may be made with molds as opposed to on a potter's wheel.
Zisha clay comes in 3 varieties;
- Zini, the most common, ranges from rose to brown
- Banshanlu, more rare, ranges from creamy white to light brown
- Zhuni, also rare, are the rich red tones.
Blending of the clays is how some of the more attention-grabbing colors are created like blues and greens.
The longer you have a Zisha clay pot the more beautiful it becomes. Using these pots brings out a rich, shiny patina created by the oils and moisture of human hands. Because the clay is porous, it is best to utilize one pot for a particular tea or tea group, depending on your personal preference and intention. The legend is that over time these pots will brew tea without adding leaves revealing their own unique taste from the tea or teas previously brewed in them. I was also told that using Zisha clay will eliminate any stomach discomfort sometimes associated with green tea consumption, which I experience from time to time.
Pots range in price from a few dollars to thousands of dollars whether you are in Dingshan or the U.S.. One pot dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that is currently on display in Beijing's Palace Museum has an estimated value exceeding $100,000.