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Yixing Teapots: Chinese Teapot Renaissance

It's a Beautiful Thing

by Chas Kroll
Dragon Egg Yixing teapot
Dragon Egg

Renowned for their superb tea brewing qualities, Yixing (pronounced yee-shing) teapots offer a rustic, elegant beauty. They have been a tea staple in China for centuries, and thanks to an exploding consumer demand for high quality specialty teas on this side of the Pacific, they are enjoying a remarkable growth in popularity in North America.

The World's First Teapots — And Possibly the Best

Yixing teapot design ranges from traditional, perhaps copying an old, famous work, to contemporary, portraying natural themes that incorporate flowers or animals. And while many tea drinkers are attracted to these teapots solely for the way they look, their history is equally enticing. For thousands of years, the unique qualities of the clay deposits in Yixing, near Shanghai, have made the province the "Pottery Capital" of China. In fact, it was here during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) that the world's first teapots were created. During the years that followed, the distinctive reddish stoneware teapots of Yixing came to be considered the "best" by Chinese tea aficionados, and when, in the late 17th century, Yixing teapots were introduced to Europe along with the first tea shipments, they became the model for the earliest Dutch, German and English teapots.

Cycle of Life Yixing teapot
Cycle of Life

Yixing enjoyed long periods of prosperity during the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 CE), and during the early Republic (1911-1938), Yixing wares were exported in quantity to Japan, Southeast Asia, Europe and North America. Then the great turmoil of war and revolution in China during the 1930s and ‘40s brought the production of Yixing teapots to a halt. It wasn't until 1954 that the Chinese government established communes for the purpose of gathering together the old master potters to recruit and train a new generation of craftsmen, thus ensuring that the great traditions would be preserved. Despite the difficulties of the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s, the process continued, and by 1979, the Yixing Purple Sand Factory #1 employed 600 workers. Still, only a handful of potters were master artisans. Most produced utilitarian wares for the domestic market.

In the mid-1980s, the reopening of China brought a "rediscovery" of Yixing teapots by Chinese art collectors and tea connoisseurs outside of China. With this infusion of enthusiastic patronage, the artistic potential of the new generation of Yixing potters burst into bloom. Hong Kong became a hub for international exhibitions with collectors drawn from Chinese communities in Asia, particularly Singapore and Taiwan.

In 1988, an exhibition entitled "Innovations in Contemporary Yixing Pottery" was presented by the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong. Over 200 of the finest works by leading potters were presented. This splendid display of form, theme and workmanship created by the new generation of potters was absolutely dazzling. Some works equaled and even surpassed the efforts of the great master potters of the Ching Dynasty. This outpouring of innovation and artistry has continued with an enthusiastic following of knowledgeable collectors eagerly awaiting each year's abundant harvest of new designs and re-creations of the old ones.

Look for the "Chop" Mark

Blue Dragon Yixing teapot
Blue Dragon

Yixing teapots bring out the best in fine teas for several reasons. For example, when tea is brewed in teapots made from "Zisha," a purple-sand clay found only in Yixing, a tiny amount of tea is absorbed into the pot. After prolonged use, the pot will develop a patina coating that retains some of the taste, scent and color of tea, along with an unusually attractive luminescent quality. Because of its absorbency, only one type of tea (green, oolong, etc.) should be used with each teapot. It is for this reason that one should never wash a Yixing teapot using soap. After use, it should simply be rinsed with fresh water and allowed to air-dry.

Further improving the brewing process is the teapot’s lid, which fits snugly to conserve heat; therefore, these pots tend to keep tea hotter than porcelain. In addition, they have built-in filters at the spout, which are usually unglazed to enhance the natural color of the clay and tend to be small so the entire contents may be quickly emptied after each infusion. This method assures that the tea is served fresh, hot and without the bitter aftertaste that occurs when the tea leaves are left to steep too long in a larger pot.

One of the most distinctive features of the Yixing teapot is its “chop” mark. The potter places his or her personal mark or seal on the bottom of each piece. It serves to identify its creator, reflects the potter's pride of workmanship and provides collectors with the satisfaction of attributing a work according to its potter and time period. It also reminds the tea drinker of the care and individuality that went into creating the teapot.

Purchasing Your Teapot

Yixing prices vary widely, from around $20 for ordinary machine-made teapots to thousands of dollars for those that are collectible, intricately detailed and handmade by famous ceramic artists. Plan on spending $40 to $100 for a good 12-16 ounce capacity teapot.

Two reputable sources for Yixing teapots on the Internet are Necessiteas.com (www.necessiteas.com) and YiXing.com (www.yixing.com). Many teashops offer quality Yixing teapots as well.

When purchasing one, give some thought to its capacity in ounces. The general rule of thumb is one teaspoon of tea per six ounces of water for each person. So, a six-ounce pot is ideal for one person, a 12-ounce pot for two tea drinkers, and so forth. And if you’re buying one from a store, keep the following in mind: make sure the lid fits snugly into the pot, and inspect both the interior and exterior for surface cracks, scratches and chips.

"Teapot Laughing"

Most of all, whether buying a Yixing teapot online or from a store, prepare yourself for a great tasting cup of tea. For added measure, after placing your tea inside the pot and adding the recommended amount of hot water, place the lid on top and pour some hot water over the outside surface. If you’re lucky, the hot steam rising from inside the pot may cause your lid to chatter a bit. The Chinese call this “Teapot Laughing,” and it’s sure to bring a smile to your face.

Chas Kroll, Managing Director of Royal Dynasty Tea, is dedicated to promoting daily tea consumption to people everywhere for its health benefits. His company is an online wholesaler and retailer of many of the world's finest premium-grade, loose-leaf teas. He is a tea master, professionally-trained coach, gifted intuitive, author, speaker, soft-spoken motivator, empowering leader-by-example, self-trained gourmet chef, former restaurateur and black-belt in Kung Fu.

© Copyright 2005. Royal Dynasty Tea. All rights reserved


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(Updated: 12/22/10 CT)


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