"A teapot is like a woman," Ping Yu (虞萍) says, holding up a teapot she made. It’s small and plump, hued a deep orange-red. She brushes her finger on the handle's curvature from bottom to top, taps the lid, and gently touches the spout. "She should be proportional; the lines should match up."
Yu—part of an artisan community in the city of Yixing, in the Jiangsu province of eastern China—has been making teapots for 20 years. The city, modest by Chinese standards at 1.24 million residents, is responsible for producing China’s most important tea vessel: the Yixing teapot. Fashioned from purple clay, or zisha (紫砂), the Yixing teapot is China's gold standard when it comes to brewing equipment.
Tea enthusiasts says that, thanks to the clay's porous nature and its rich mineral content, tea brewed in a Yixing pot develops a richer flavor, enhanced with kaolin, quartz, mica, and most importantly—high amounts of iron oxide. The high iron content not only contributes to the clay's texture but gives the teapot durability.
"The zisha teapot is a vessel of beauty and is legendary for its permeable composition," tea instructor Shanshan Guo, who owns a tea studio in Shanghai, says. "The pores enhance the flavor of tea."
Further, zisha keeps the tea warm for longer periods of time as compared to porcelain, and the pot’s compact size and sturdiness make it portable and practical. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), tea drinkers especially valued the zisha pot’s simple design. It was far different from the gaudy gold and silver porcelain pots prized by the vulgar rich.
The history of Yixing as a pottery town dates back to Neolithic ages, but written records of its crafts didn’t appear until the late Yuan and mid-Ming periods, around the 13th century. Zisha teapots took off in the Ming Dynasty when rolled tea leaves replaces crushed leaves, and teapots became requisite for steeping.
During the 16th century, a man named Gong Chun (供春) popularized zisha teapots. A native of Yixing, Chun was preparing for imperial examinations at a temple when he spotted old Buddhist monks making teapots with local clay. Inquisitive, he gave the craft a try, fashioning a pot that mimicked the porous texture of the gingko tree, an ancient species native to China. Chun was quick to learn, and he eventually went on to start a trend of making small-sized teapots. Nearly 500 years later, the town of Yixing is still synonymous with teapots, and these venerable receptacles are now exported worldwide.
"Everyone who grows up here has some basic knowledge of teapot making," says 30-year-old Yafang Jiang (蒋亚芳), as she works on a pot in her shop. Jiang started her craft six years ago, and can make one pot from scratch in four to five days, which is the norm. Today she’s working on a pot using zhuni (朱泥) clay. Zisha clay comes in three basic varieties: zini (紫泥), benshanluni (本山绿泥), and zhuni (朱泥). The combination of the clay plus pigment additives yield five different color permutations: purple, red, green, yellow, and black. Zhuni is the most rare variety and also most difficult material to manipulate.
Nearly 500 years later, the town of Yixing is still synonymous with teapots, and these venerable receptacles are now exported worldwide.
Jiang’s headphones are plugged in. Her multitasking skills are impressive; she’s fashioning a lid with a chisel while watching a Chinese soap opera on an iPad. Her clay is a muddy yellow, but once it is fired, will turn into a rich red.
"This pot will also shrink when it’s fired," she says. "This will make it very dense." And it’s this very density and clay composition that makes the pot special. Zisha clay is obtained from red ore deposits at Huanglongshan (黄龙山) and Zhaozhungshan (趙荘)山, two mountains located just behind Dingshan (丁山)—the area in Yixing where most artisans work and reside. Unfortunately, the clay is a natural resource that is being mined to exhaustion. In 2006, a provincial-wide law was passed to protect the ores.
Artisans, however, aren’t so worried. "In each teapot, only 500 grams of pure clay is used," Yu says. "We have a hundreds of years left."
For the town's inhabitants, pottery isn’t just art, it’s is a way of life. "If you can’t send your kid to a top university, making teapots is the practical way to go," Yu explains. "Even if they practice for a year, a basic teapot can sell for 300 RMB or $46." Teapot making, it seems, is an immediate means of employment.
Today, most artisans aspire for their own practice. According to another veteran teapot maker Shunzhen Chen (陈顺珍), who has been a potter for 16 years, the industry used to be primarily dominated by factories.
... teapot artists are now required to take an annual test for certification ... only 12 people can hold [the top] title at once.
"A lot of the factories ended up closing because individuals began to open up their own shops. The industry changed completely and that’s when I decided to open my own store," Chen states.
Because of the sheer number of independent craftsmen, teapot artists are now required to take an annual test for certification. According to Yu, there are seven levels. The very top level is a national certification and only 12 people can hold that title at once.
"The only way to get up there is if one of the 12 dies," Yu says.
But for the customers on Dingshan Road in Yixing, where hundreds of teapot shops and artisans line the street, it isn’t prestige that people are concerned with—it’s craftsmanship.
It takes a distinguishing eye to be able to navigate the maze that is Yixing. The entire city is infiltrated with teapot shops. There’s even a teapot museum. Pot quality, naturally, is extremely diverse.
"A lot of the shops have teapots made with molds or by machines; only a select number of shops have completely handmade pots. To tell the difference, you have to look at the inside of the vessel," Yu explains. "If you can feel or see a seam in the interior, that means it’s handmade."
... in a town where everyone is fluent in the art of pottery, is also fiercely competitive.
For a teapot’s main body, potters cut out rectangular sheets of clay and seal them together. A handmade pot will have remnants of that seam; a pot made with molds will not. The lid, spout, and handle are designed separately and then joined to the body. Everything has to fit perfectly. A pot has to be functional, as well as attractive.
Yu emphasizes the flow of the tea. "See if it flows smoothly from the spout," she says. "Does the cap fit perfectly? The proportions are also very important. When we take tests, our teachers will measure out our pot."
She brews up a serving of black tea and, as she pours, she notes that all artisans start out by studying under a master, adding that, in her two decades of work, she’s produced so many teapots she can no longer keep track. It’s a lifestyle that takes heart, and in a town where everyone is fluent in the art of pottery, is also fiercely competitive.
"The style of pottery is always changing," Yu says. "When I started out, 20 years ago, we stuck to very classical styles." Yu points to her own collection. It’s minimalistic and sleek, without any fanciful adornments. "Young people these days aren’t following the old patterns anymore. But I suppose, at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter. It’s about the potter’s relationship with their work."
She adds, "Every teapot has a soul."