Ceramic teapots have been made in Yíxīng area (Jiāngsū province) since V century BC. Local clay deposits are vast, and their quality is excellent. All of them are rich with kaolin minerals and iron oxides, though may slightly differ in chemical composition. These clays are extraordinarily soft, when burned they transform into light and strong, glossy waterproof porous ceramics. One of characteristic features of Yíxīng ceramics is its high baking ability - it doesn't require additional glazing. Established opinion is, an Yíxīng teapot is a necessary attribute of a tea master. For all their strictly practical purpose, Yíxīng teapots have been items to collect and objects to admire since they appeared. Their forms might be unusual and very original. Some masters were inspired by nature: a teapot would take the form of a flower, a fruit or a part of a plant (Pao Gua Hu, Lan Ce Hu, Shu In Hu). Other masters would take their images from legends and myths (Si Shi, Lung Dan, Zhung Tyan Hu), or real historical events, modelling things of previous epoques in clay (Chung Hu, Pang Gu, Han Wa Hu, Shi Pyao). Sometimes, a teapot would express an idea from geometry, or even absolutely off the ground (Byan Hu, Do Cyu Hu, Shui Ping Hu). The first cataloque of 20 classical forms of Yíxīng teapots appeared in XIX century. At present, there are hundreds of them, divided into 4 groups: Yuan Hu (round), Fang Hu (square), Qin Wen Ci (ribbed), Hua Su Qi (flower). For more details on Yíxīng clays and history of teapots "Zhi Sha", see our article "Yíxīng ceramics".
Yíxīng teapots were baked in the Dragon furnaces, and when ready sent to the Southern capital Nankin which was the cultural elite center of the country. Along with calligraphy, painting, carving and other masterpieces of high esthetic value they enriched the treasury of Chinese art.
Today Yíxīng is called the capital of Chinese pottery. Thousands of ceramists live and work here. Among them there are masters recognized nationwide as "Great masters of arts and crafts of China" - whose teapots can be seen in museums, and small town celebrities - whose works can be found in prestigeous art shops. But the majority of Yíxīng potters are certainly simple unknown craftsmen. A true recognized master would necessarily have students that would copy the teacher's works, exercise techniques and search for their own Path in art - exactly what the master himself had been doing before.
CHOOSING A TEAPOT
The main rule here, it is you whose taste the teapot must conform to. Just trust yourself: anyway you will choose the one which suits the present moment. Later, you might get other teapots, while this one will always remind you of the beginning of your Tea Path.
Technical parameters of the teapot: thickness of the walls.
Technically, a teapot has a practical purpose: brewing tea. For better performance, it should steadily keep the required temperature throughout the brewing process. To fully unlock the potential of Lao Cha, Shu Pu'er, Hei Cha, old Chang, red tea leaves and deeply fermented oolongs, is only possible with good boiling hot water of maximally hot temperature, rolling boil. That is why, the higher is your teapot's ability to keep temperature, the better it is going to fulfil its duty. For those tea grades take a massive teapot with a substantial base and thick porous walls. For mild-fermented oolongs, yellow tea and red gunfuhun buds, it is not the temperature itself that is important, but the maneuverability of its operation. This doesn't mean that a teapot with thick walls wouldn't work with them (since it is an all-purpose device). However, the esthetic side of things is often to be brought to the fore. A thin-walled, light and elegant teapot with speedy drain will be the best solution.
In case you are a big fan of Chang tea grades and give them preference, we recommend studying our collection of Qianshui ceramics. If after having it studied you still prefer an Yíxīng teapot, take a clay "duan-ni" or "beimaqe-ni" of light yellowish-sandy or light-brown colours. A porcelain gaiwan is the best choice for brewing green and white tea grades.
Technical parameters of the teapot: shape.
It is good if the shape of the teapot ideally suits the kind of tea. Oolongs from Southern Fuqian and Taiwan get much bigger in volume when brewed (sometimes up to 10 times) - that's why round and conic teapots with "their shoulders wider than the base" are considered the best for them. A wide open neck is very suitable for Wishan and Guandun oolongs, to prevent breaking the long rolled leaves. For young fluffy teabuds which might clutter the nozzle, it is better you take a teapot with a wide short nozzle that can be easily cleaned from inside. An unusual fanciful shape might look great, but it will lose all the attraction if it becomes an obstacle in use. Don't forget about the necessity to wash and dry your teapot thoroughly every time after use - and the more arty-crafty it is, the more complicated is the tending process (see below).
Clay parameters: colour, glossiness, sound.
The colour of a teapot doesn't have a direct connection with the type of tea that is going to be brewed in it. It would be good if they compliment eah other, but this isn't a rule and more up to the owner's taste and preferences. There are many nice combinations: i.e. oolong Da Hun Pao from Wuishan and red clay with the same name, Te Guanin and the classical purple "qe-ni", Shen Pu'er and "beimaqe-ni" etc. In general, the deeper is the level of fermentation, the more suitable are darker colours of clay.
Glossiness is not a criteria of quality of the clay, which means there is no relevance between the shine of a teapot and its price. The shine appears either immediately after baking, or over the course of time, while in service. It might be clear and bright, or "damp as sweat". The main thing is the subtle beauty rather than the shine itself. Some teapots acquire this beauty in 2 - 3 weeks of service, others never do even after years.
Each Yíxīng teapot makes an articulate sound when knocked - the firmer the pot, the clearer the sound, and the higher its heat conductivity. An experienced ear can tell a lot about the inner structure of the walls. However there is another structure of the walls. However there is another sound which appears when the teapot is filled with water: it starts to "sing" quietly. The singing doesn't cease until all the pores are filled with water from inside. Unfortunately, not all Yíxīng teapots do this.
Price of the teapot
The price on the outer side of the bottom, and sometimes on the inner side of the body and inside the lid. Very rarely, a stamp is put on the handle (Chinese stamps have a very interesting history indeed, which deserves a separate article). Sometimes, a stamp of a recognized mas depends on quality of the clay, complexity and subtlety of the work, uniqueness of the piece, and name of the master; in this very order, so the last factor affects the price most of all. There is a certain level after which an item of household purpose becomes a piece of art. Then, its practical value steps back, and the price goes right up to the level "unexpectedly high" for a common user.
The master's name is on his personal stamp which can be usually found ter can be found on his disciples' works. Anyway, a hand-made teapot will surely have a stamp on the bottom. However, a person not familiar with Chinese language, whose interests are far from collecting art, and not aware of the list of recognized Chinese potters, can hardly extract any information from it. The best guidance in estimating the price\quality level while choosing an Yíxīng teapot will be to look for subtlety of the work. One work might take from several days to several weeks. It depends only on you - how you personally appreciate the result. As far as the uniqueness is is concerned, every hand-made teapot is always a little bit different.
The price of clay affects the final price of a teapot, but not very much. Hereditary potters of Yíxīng have many tons of excellent clay in stock, and it is getting more expensive in the course of time. There are two reasons: first, plasticity grows as the years go by, and second, those old mines where the best quality clay was produced are made a national asset nowadays, and are closed for digging. That is why the price for good clay is actually measured in hundreds of thousands of yuans per ton. While to make one small teapot only takes 250 - 500 g of clay.
Purchasing a teapot.
When exploring the teapot you would like to buy, take it into your hands and concentrate on tactile and kinetic sensations - how pleasant and convenient is to hold it? Try to take the lid off, would it be possible without burning yourself? Then, consider the geometry (whether the nozzle and the handle are straight, or were bent during the baking, does the teapot stand steadily on the leg\legs), check how tight the lid is, and how the water lock works (when the hole in the pearl on the lid is closed, water should not run out of the nozzle). And finally, estimate the draining speed.
Tending to your teapot.
"Yan hu" - nurturing, or cultivation of a teapot - is a purely cultural non-material phenomenon. The longer you cultivate a teapot, the "denser" becomes its "energy body", and it starts to grow a history of its own - together with you. Every time you brew tea in it, or stroke it with a soft brush and observe how the thin layer of water evaporates from the surface, or polish it while it's drying, - you nurture it with your live attention, the only essence which can animate this inorganic object for the time being. Time after time, the total amount of this attention accumulates, and all invisible changes in its texture, weight, colour, tactile sensations, even sound, transcend into a new quality - a little wonder happens.
In terms of practicality, a teapot (as well as any other tea facility) should be properly washed without using synthetic soap. In case you need to remove lime scale or tea coat - use some soda. A clean teapot should be properly dried - first upside down, then with a partly open lid. In order to gradually cultivate the gentle gloss on the surface, polish your teapot with a clean cotton or linen cloth while drying or before use.