China Daily (Hong Kong)
City built worldwide reputation for unglazed ceramic teapots
Whether your favorite tea tipple is colored green or black, the receptacle that is perfect for pouring it from may well be purple or some other color. For that is the color of the teapots produced in the city of Yixing, Jiangsu province, known all over China for its production of its exquisite ceramic wares.
Thousands of craftsmen and women make these unglazed ceramic teapots, known as Zisha pots, in studios, factories and boutiques throughout the city.
No one seems to know exactly how many teapots and cups are produced in Yixing, but in any case it is often a figure of a very different kind relating to this purple ware that makes the headlines in China: its price. At an auction in Beijing in 2015, for example, a 10-piece purple clay tea set made by the artisan Gu Jingzhou set a record for the price of such art, fetching 92 million yuan ($14.3 million).
Made from clay taken from local rock mines, Yixing purple clay teapots, named of course after their signature color, are largely handmade.
Craftsmen and women spend years learning to press wet clay into a perfect flat piece, before turning it into a pot. The few tools they use include spatulas, small hammers and needles made of bamboo, wood or steel.
Craftspeople in Yixing often sell their own creations. Although the best of them, 30 of whom are recognized as national masters of purple clay art, often have their works sold for millions of yuan, the local trade union, like others in the dark on the matter, says it is impossible to put a figure on teapot sales.
Yixing, more than 2,000 years old, is in the center of the Yangtze River Delta, on the western bank of Lake Taihu, and is a countylevel city of Wuxi city. It has a rich cultural heritage, nurturing many renowned academics, authors and artists, and became a ceramics center just 600 years ago.
That was with the founding of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), says Zhou Xiaodong, director of the Yixing Ceramics Museum.
The first Ming emperor made Nanjing the dynasty’s capital, and the ambitious new rulers began building up the economies especially in nearby cities such as Yixing. The city began to specialize in producing pottery and ceramics, at first to meet burgeoning demand from the capital.
In the same period Chinese people changed the way they drank tea, Zhou says.
“Hard-pressed tea was replaced by loose leaves, and people no longer boiled the tea on the stove, but simply poured hot water into the pot and let it brew.”
The teapot thus took on greater significance in China’s tea drinking culture, and artisans in Yixing began to make names for themselves with their creations.
“The special mineral combination of Yixing clay makes the ceramic surface look grainy, but it feels smooth,” Zhou says.
After the clay is baked it becomes waterproof ceramic, but is porous, allowing air in.
This helps to maintain the aroma of the Chinese tea, and it keeps its color and taste for a long time.
“For centuries tea drinking has been an important part of
Chinese culture,” Zhou says.
The fine-crafted teapots of
Yixing became widely sought after by the literati and the wealthy. Some names of the finest teapot artisans, such as Shi Dabin (1573-1648), Chen Mingyuan (born about 1680) and Shao Daheng (1796-1861), as well as their creations have endured long after they passed on.
A renowned ceramics maker of more recent vintage was Gu Jingzhou (1915-1996), 30 of whose pots and tea sets fetched more than 10 million yuan each in the auction market over the past decade.
Gu was one of seven master artisans in the 1950s recruited by the Yixing authorities to train new generations of purple clay ceramics artisans. Now the seven — six men and a woman — are widely known as the “seven great masters of purple clay”.