As a tea drinker plumbs deeper into tea, the tunnel will seemingly split. On path leads to exploration of different, more unique teas. The other opening takes the spelunker through the corridor of discovering the effects of different teaware on tea. Even though a dedicated tea drinker may choose one path for a while and then backtrack to the other, they ultimately both lead to the same treasure-grotto. When it comes to deeper enjoyment of teas, the right teaware contributes to that deeper appreciation.
Which leads to a consideration of Yixing teapots.
Choosing an yixing teapot can be an intimidating task. There are many things to consider:
- Am I paying a fair price?
- How well will the pot “season” or develop with use?
- How do I pair the right tea with the right pot?
- Is the pot’s design and construction sound and functional?
That first question is ultimately left to the tea drinker, but more light can be shown upon the others.
Getting the right yixing pot depends upon an understanding of:
1. Materials Used
2. Construction- Who and How
3. Evaluating and Using a pot
Generally, the original clay used for yixing pots was taken from mountains known to have sedimentary silt-layers with preferred ratios of kaolin, mica, quartz, and iron. Different kinds of clay (ni) are mentioned: bai 白 (white), duan 段 or tuan 团 , jia 甲, zi 紫 (purple), lu 绿 (green), hong 红 (red), hei 黑 (black), huang 黄 (yellow), zhu 朱 (cinnabar). There is some overlap in these names, and usage depends on who/where the clays are being talked about.
Once these clays are mined, they are pulverized. The old way often meant allowing the slab to crumble gradually over time. But it is also possible to speed this process along. Afterwards, the clay gets sifted/mixed for consistency of color and texture.
Construction- Who and How
Given the nature of the clay and the shape of the pots created, most pots are not thrown and shaped on a potter’s wheel. Most are either shaped by hand, or slip cast.
Hand shaping pots is an art that takes lifetimes to perfect. It means using hand tools to create consistent, symmetrical shapes and even thickness throughout the walls of the pot. It also can mean that that a master can use a dryer clay with lower density. With a good quality clay in their hands, an artisan hand crafted pot is potentially more porous (and therefore more likely to “season” well) than a slip cast pot.
Master pot makers create treasures. As such, they often receive national honors in addition to their prestige among artists and collectors. Nowadays, climbing the ladder of seniority can mean progressing through several degrees of master status while overseeing the work of apprentices.
Many of the pots on the market today are slip cast. Slip casting requires pouring a wetter, denser clay into a mould. The result is a pot that some say looks denser, with less porous surface.
It would be wrong to say that a handcrafted pot is by default superior to a slip cast pot. It is possible to have a good mould with a superior clay create a pot that outshines a poorer quality handcrafted pot.
Evaluating and Using a pot
Even if a person dug into the details of the chemical composition of the clay, its source, and the method used to create the pot, dissapointment could still be around the corner. For many, the real value of the pot comes from the aesthetic qualities combined with the pot’s ability to enhance the tea it creates.
There are functional considerations. For some the real test is what happens when tea leaves and water are placed in the pot. After a pot has been properly cleaned, some will serve water (some cool, some boiling) through the pot to discern how the elements and pores affect the taste of water. Again- clay and construction is one factor here. A handmade pot is more likely to have more or larger pores that interact with the tea and “season” the pot. The next step may be to experiment with different teas until the right match is found between the needs of the tea and the abilities of the pot in making the tea brighter, or sweeter, or moderating some other flaw. Once a match has been made, some will dedicate that pot to that specific kind (e.g. da hong pao) of tea. Others (like the reknowned pot collector Lim Kean Siew) are content to keep to the broader bounds of the tea’s category (e.g a pot dedicated to wulong teas in general).
Ideally, the pot should have some elegence and convenience of use. The handle should be positioned well for holding and pouring. General alignment and symmetry can make the pot easier to use. I have heard this called the 3-level rule. This often refers to the rim of the open pot, the tip of the spout, and the top of the lid are level. Ideal symmetry refers to a prime meridian going in a north-south direction (top of the pot is North), slicing through the spout, the body of the pot, and the handle to create perfectly identical eastern and western hemispheres. But above all, elegance and convenience count when pouring. A poorly positioned spout, or one that doesn’t allow water to flow swiftly enough can result in tea that spills out of the lid. A well crafted lid doesn’t shift and slide normally. But even a well-fitting lid can allow tea to drip out if the flow rate is off. Low flow rate can also mean that tea does not exit according to the spout’s trajectory and instead dribbles down the lower side of the spout to drip off the base of the upturned pot. Messy and awkward.
A pot may have seams. Handmade pots often have a seam going from top to bottom of the pot. Depending on the degree of craftsmanship, seams can be visible on the inside or outside of the pot, often below the spout or at the handle. It is also possible to simulate seams through other techniques to make the pot appear handmade.
For some, the glossy character of a pot is an indicator of its value and construction. Depending on the degree and tone of the pot’s sheen, the pot may be an older, seasoned pot. It could also be a slip cast pot. Some note that the denser character of the clay in a slip cast pot gives it a more brilliant surface. Other pots have been artificially treated with an agent to give it a seasoned look. It often takes an experienced collector/user to recognize more intricate deceptions.
I have heard of people evaluating a pot by floating the empty pot in water. The idea being that a symmetric pot with consistent thickness in its walls will balance level in water. While this may have some merit, it does not seem to be the highest priority of consideration.
Another avenue used to verify the pot’s quality is the identity of the maker. This is often done in several ways. For one, a chop is placed on the bottom exterior of the pot. Sometimes this chop is repeated inside the lid or at the bottom of the lower end of the handle. Of course, the evidence of a chop itself does not carry enough value without proper context. Chops can be counterfeited. Many cheaper pots have chops that only have the four characters for “Yixing China“. The chop needs to complete the story of clay quality and level of craftsmanship to be a reliable bona fides. In more recent decades, artists and factories have begun issuing certificates of authenticity that include a photograph of the artist with the teapot. Although a certification paper itself isn’t that novel, owners can now match the pot’s photo with info on the artist, the clay used, and copies of the chops present on the pot.
It is worth repeating that learning about and collecting yixing teapots will be a journey of trial and error. Even the most expert collectors were fooled at least once along their journey. Regardless of whether you consider an yixing pot to be a long-term artistic investment or a vessel for delivering better tea, the process of acquiring the “right” pot requires time, humility, and patience.
Web resources for further reading:
Flickr: krugrose1982′s Photo Stream.
Pinterest: Yixing Board.
TeaChat: How to tell if an yixing pot is slipcast?
Teachat: Seasoning Yixing Clay.
Teachat: Suggestions on First Yixing Pot.
TeaChat: What is the problem with slip cast yixing pots?
TeaChat: Yixing Showoff.
Wikipedia: Yixing Clay.
Wrong Fu Cha: Evaluating Yixing Teapots.
YeYoung Tea: Zisha Teapots.
ZiShaTeapot.co: Images and info on handmade pots.
Print resources in Chinese:
Han Qilou and Xia Junwei: ZHONGGUO ZISHA MINGHU ZHENSHANG. (Connoisseurship of Famous Chinese Purple Clay Teapots).
Han Qilou: JIANSHI ZISHA HU. (Appreciating Clayware Teapots).
Han Qilou ed: ZISHA HU QUANSHU. (A Comprehensive Book on Yixing Teapots).
Tang Yun ed: ZISHA HU JIANSHANG. (The Connoisseurship of Purple Clay Teapots).
Wang Jianzhong et al: ZISHA HU: ZHIZUO JIFA. (Clay Teapots: Production Methods).
Wu Shan ed: YIXING ZISHA CIDIAN. (A Dictionary of Yixing Zisha Wares).
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