Yixing Purple Clay Pottery
Yixing County, in the southern part of Jiangsu Province in East China, has been the center of Chinese teapot production since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The high quality Yixing clay, refined and fired at a high temperature, produces a slightly absorbent pottery highly regarded by tea lovers. The particular qualities of this clay set Yixing pottery, which has a history of over 600 years, apart from other unglazed earthenware teapots.
There is an ancient legend about its origin:
In ancient times, Dingshu was merely an ordinary village on the lakeshore of Taihu. Villagers went out to farm when the sun rose and went back home at sunset, making jars and pots out of pottery clay for daily uses in their leisure time.
One day, however, a wandering monk of unusual appearance came to the village. He shouted while he was walking, "Rich and noble clay! Rich and noble clay!" The villagers were curious and watched him. Seeing their hesitation, the strange monk shouted in a louder voice and walked on with quicker steps. Some wise old men followed him, moving towards the Huanglong and Qinglong mountains. Suddenly, the monk disappeared around a corner.
The old men looked around, catching sight of several freshly dug hollows that held various-colored clay. They carried the clay home and after pounding and firing it, unexpectedly got a totally different color than from the clay they had used before Thus, the reputable purple clay came into being.
Yixing pottery is made from Zisha, literally purple clay, despite the fact that it is not always purple in color, fired or unfired. The purple clay is a kind of rare mineral resource from compressed sedimentary lake deposits, found throughout the Yixing region.
There are actually three main varieties of purple clay. The most common is the Zini or purple clay. The other two more rare clays are known as Zhuni(red clay), and Banshanlv (buff yellow/greenish) clays. Chemically, all are composed primarily of quartz, kaolin and mica and contain high amounts of iron oxide, which lends the clays their purple-red color.
The high content of metallic oxides in the clay resulted in wares ranging from purple to red and buff yellow (greenish), the variation in color being caused by differences in kiln temperature and atmosphere.
Each purple clay ware is a handmade work of art and it may take years for artisans to develop and mature their skills and techniques. Traditionally, the making of Yixing pottery involves more than a hundred hand-made tools and goes through many processes including clay slicing, clay-body flapping, inlaying, clay-body joining, sculpturing, polishing, carving and decorating.
The purple clay is highly fired yet totally unglazed to retain its natural porous qualities, which helps the pots absorb the flavor and aroma of the tea.
The designs and shapes of clay wares can be classified into three main types: natural, geometric or artistic. Another way of classification is simply to define them as plain teapots or decorated teapots. In addition, calligraphy, painting, intricate carvings and sculptures are also incorporated into the teapot, making this art form a unique expression of Chinese art.
Unique Quality in Brewing Tea
Teapots made from Yixing purple clay are extolled by aficionados as superior to all other types of teapots for brewing tea. This is attributed to the unglazed nature of the teapot after firing which retains its porous nature, which is excellent at absorbing the flavor and aroma of tea. After prolonged use, a patina will gradually develop on the interior of the teapot, enhancing the taste, color and aroma of the tea. It is said that if a purple clay teapot has been used for a long time, one can simply pour hot water into the teapot to brew a cup of tea.
Externally, the unglazed surface absorbs oils from the tea so the appearance of the teapot will become more and more lustrous with age and use.
Even at its simplest, the Yixing teapot is a thoroughly appealing vessel, blending seamlessly the function of brewing with the elegance of exceptional design.
The purple clay is a rare mineral resource. Because of years of exploitation, the pure red and buff yellow clay materials are now short in supply and some of them are even almost gone.
Zisha ware is made from the Yixing region's unique clay, which is fine and contains much iron content. Porcelain made of this kind of clay is mostly red brown, light yellow, and blackish purple. Zisha porcelain was popularized in the period from the Song Dynasty to the mid Ming Dynasty, due to the change of the ways of brewing tea.
People at that time brewed tea instead of boiling it, thus raising the need for teapots. In use, people found that the Zisha teapot was not only well designed but also a good choice for tea brewing. The body of the teapot could absorb some fragrance of the tea and keep it for a long time. The longer the teapot was used, the better the tea flavor was.
The Zisha teapot had no glaze or bright color, a plainness that fit the aesthetic views and tastes of the higher classes, helping to make the teapot prevalent all around the country. In addition, the Zisha crafts absorbed the characteristics of the bronze craft of that time and also reflected the same style of the furniture.
Focusing on practical use, the Zisha teapots in the Ming Dynasty mainly adopted geometric designs that were simple but harmonious. The rough grains of the clay highlighted the plainness as well as the elegance of the vessels. Blemishes could always be found on the surface of the vessels because of the underdeveloped techniques at that time, while the colors of the vessels were always reddish brown and purple gray due to the material used and the firing time.
To Chinese connoisseur, such teapots is regarded as the "ideal teapot". The material, called zisha (purple sand), is abundantly available in the locality. Although not as white or as fine as kaolin, it needs no glazing and, after firing, the product is solid and impermeable, yet porous enough to "breathe". A Yixing teapot enhances the tea brewed in it with respect to colour, smell, and taste. Its walls seem to absorb the tea and keeps its fragrance. In summer, it keeps tea overnight without spoiling. With hot tea inside, it does not scald the hand with purple sand being a slow heat-conductor. But in winter, it may serve as a handwarmer and may be left on a low fire to make certain types of tea which need simmering.
What's more, yixing teapot that is make from Zisha clay which is free of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic materials.The Yixing teapot has a fine and solid texture, a four percent water absorption rate, a very low thermal conductivity, and a double air hole design which enhances the pot's brewing properties. Statistics in China shows the mineral deposits are very healthy for people who has high blood pressure, high cholesterol. It promotes longevity.
Purple sand teapot should never be washed using detergents, but with water only and it's better to use each tea vessel for one kind of tea (white, green, oolong, or black) or sometimes even one variety of tea only.