|Yixing (pronounced EE SHING) teapots have been known for centuries in China for its unique tea brewing qualities and unusual appeal. Only in the last one quarter century has there been a resurgence of interest and great popularity with this art form among Chinese, as well as non-Chinese, art collectors and tea connoisseurs outside of China.
Hailed from the “Pottery Capital” of China, 120 miles northwest of Shanghai in the Jiangsu province, Yixing teapots were, and are, considered to be the “best vessel for brewing tea” by Chinese tea aficionados. Here, in Yixing, is where the world’s first teapot was created during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), and the only place where rare purple sand (“zisha”) or clay can be found to make these distinctive brewing vessels. In the late 17th century, Yixing teapots, along with the first tea shipments, were introduced into Europe, and these offered the blueprints for the earliest Dutch, German and English teapots.
During the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 AD), Yixing enjoyed a long period of prosperity. Pieces made by master potters were sought after like rare Rembrandts and Renoirs, and were valued as much. Some of the earlier master potters were Gong Chun, Dong Han, Zhao Liang, Yuan Chang and Shi Peng. The latter four being known as the “Four Great Masters” of Yixing pottery making. Gong Chun is the earliest known master potter whose work, if any are found intact today, are priceless. As early as the 16th century, these artisans marked their pots with inscribed characters and eventually, chop marks, or seals bearing their names, were used. To this day, chop marks can be seen on the bottom of the pot, under the lid or even on the handle, and they help to mark a high quality piece of pottery made by a skilled craftsman who had apprenticed many years under established masters.
The zisha clay, or purple sand, used to make Yixing teapots is actually a reddish brown color. Depending on the layer excavated from the ground and the degree of iron and other mineral concentrates in the clay, there are other natural occurring colors including cinnabar red, yellow, dark brown, green, blue and light buff. After firing, the clays turn into other brilliant colors including deep green, orange, brown and dark purple. The clay is naturally free of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other toxic materials. Teapots made elsewhere and claiming to be Yixing pots may contain some of these toxic materials. The clay is also naturally “plastic” enough to easily mold with the hands on a potter’s wheel without having to add synthetic “plasticizers”.
The uniqueness of the Yixing clay creates a teapot that does not crack at extreme temperatures, such as boiling water being poured in, and that is porous, since no glaze is added after firing. This porosity allows a tiny amount of tea to be absorbed in the interior when tea is brewed. This creates two effects. First, with perpetual use, a layer of tea sediment forms inside the pot with each brew, and one would eventually be brewing tea within tea, enhancing the flavor, color and aroma. Because of this, only one type of tea should be brewed in a particular Yixing teapot. So, if one drinks oolong and black tea, one would have two teapots, one for the oolong and one for the black tea. Second, the oils absorbed from the tea bring out a deep brilliance to the teapot’s color, increasing the beauty and value of the pot with age. A good shine and a layer of tea sediment are a couple of hallmarks that collectors and connoisseurs look for when determining the value of an old Yixing teapot. The more there are the higher the value.
By Western standards, Yixing teapots are considered very small, holding only 100-300 ml of liquid. Traditionally, this small size was designed so that each person would have his or her own, and with a proportionately sized small cup, drinking a hundred or more cups of tea a day was not considered excessive. Actually, the small size of the pots ensures the tea leaves do not steep too long and that tea is served fresh, hot and strong, unlike tea steeped in a large pot where bitterness can occur with over-steeped leaves standing in water. There is also less waste of used tea leaves. The small pot also allows one to brew the exact amount of tea with the desired strength and flavor, and each pot can be easily emptied of its entire contents after each brew. Enhancing the tea flavor further during brewing are the teapots’ snug fitting lids which conserve heat and inhibit oxidation. A built in filter at the base of the spout helps to eliminate the need for additional strainers or infusers.
Like cast iron pots that need to be treated before use, so do Yixing teapots. There are several different ways to do this, and with a bit of practice, you may find a method more suitable to your style. One method is to place the teapot and uncovered lid side by side inside a cooking pot or pan that’s large enough to hold water to cover the teapot and lid. Fill the pot with water so teapot and lid are submerged. Using the same kind of tea leaves that you will brew in this teapot, place some in the water and bring to a slow boil for an hour. Turn off heat after an hour and allow the teapot and lid to cool down and let soak in the water for 24 hours. After this 24 hours, remove teapot and lid, and rinse with hot water to remove any loosen clay residue. Repeat the slow boil with fresh tea leaves and let soak for another 24 hours. After rinsing well with hot water, the teapot is ready for use. Yixing teapots and teaware should never be washed with soap or detergents, just rinsed with hot water and air dried or pat dried with towels.
After the initial treatment and before each brew, you may want to wash and warm the teapot and cups. One easy way of doing this is to place the teapot and surround it with the cups inside a large bowl or a deep plate. Bring fresh cold water to a gentle boil and pour into the teapot and let it overflow. Put on the lid and pour more water over the pot and the cups until all are immersed. Then empty the water from teapot and cups, and they are ready to use. To brew tea: depending on the tea used, the strength preferred and the number of cups being served, put 2-4 teaspoons of high quality, loose tea leaves into the teapot. Pour boiling water onto the leaves in the pot until just overflowing, and immediately drain and discard only the water. This step washes the leaves. Again pour boiling water onto the leaves in the pot until just overflowing. Steep for about 30 seconds. Pour a small amount of tea into each cup in a circular fashion and repeat this pour with each consecutive circle until cups are filled. Drain and discard any tea left in the teapot. If more tea is desired, again pour the boiling water onto the leaves in the teapot until just overflowing and allow to steep for 60 seconds. Each time fresh boiling water is poured onto the leaves, increase the infusion time 30 seconds more. When tea drinking is done, remove the tea leaves from the pot and rinse all tea ware with hot water to clean. Remember never use soap or detergents to wash Yixing teapots and tea ware.
Today, very talented, young artisans are creating a spectrum of innovative designs in Yixing teapots as well as replicas of the old. Basic teapot designs are taken from nature, have a geometric shape, have a combination of nature with geometric shape, or have an individual artistic whimsy. Along with advances in technological processes such as color mixing, printed pictures, calligraphy, and inlaid gold, silver or other precious metal pieces, modern Yixing teapots have dazzling new shapes, themes and splendid workmanship, some even rival the old Ching Dynasty masters!
Mrs Lins Kitchen’s vast, and growing, collection of Yixing teapots and teaware offers a wide variety of traditional styles as well as many distinctive and modern selections to complement any personality or enhance any kitchen décor. Come visit us to find a Yixing teapot with your name on it!
||OUR 2001 NEWSLETTERS
One Pot Meal
The Emperor's Old Clothes
Full Steam Ahead: Air Pots are
Here to Stay!
Moon Cake and Moon Cake Festival
Sake Bombs Away!
Folding Fun with Origami
Yummy Sushi For Your Tummy
Rice Cookers can Cook
Chopsticks: A History and How to Use Chopsticks
Hot Pot Anyone?
MAY WE SUGGEST:
Dark Brown Contemporary Octagon Yixing Teapot (T2049)
Plum Blossom Beige Yixing Teapot (T2052)
Brown Traditional Village Yixing Teapot (T2047)
Frog on a Gourd Yixing Clay Teapot (T2043)