Yixing clay, also known as Zisha, Purple Sand, or Five Colors Clay, is a type of clay from the region near the city of Yixing in Jiangsu Province, China. Yixing teapots, traditional vessels used to brew tea originated in China dating back to the 15th century, are made from Yixing clay. Yixing teapots are not only famous for their unique material, extraordinary look, exceptional craft, time-honored history, and culture but also well-known for the special strong aroma and lively lingering taste that they offer for the teas. Among the finest Chinese teapots, Yixing teapots are considered to be the best. For tea lovers, those who own and use Yixing teapots tend to feel more like the pot is their friend than a piece of pottery used for brewing tea. Why Yixing teapot is so famous and popular among tea connoisseurs? Here are five aspects to figure out this question.
Yixing teapot is potentially the best material for brewing tea. The reason for this is the distinctive mineral content of Yixing clay. The clay is rich in iron, quartz, mica, kaolin, hematite, isinglass, in addition to many other trace minerals. The iron contained in the clay helps sustain the temperature of the heated water, allowing for a very rich and complex infusion of tea. The quartz and other components leave mineral remains after the clay is fired at 1100-1180 degrees Celsius. This creates a distinctive double pore surface. This highly dual porous structure is the key element that makes Yixing teapot indispensable for fine tea drinking.
Yixing clay teapot is pleasant to touch, with a grainy surface, a sandy texture, and a smooth feeling. The secret of Yixing clay lies in the “sand”, the sand that has a different molecular structure compared to other clay types. This special clay is mined principally at Huanglongshan and Zhaozhuangshan, mountains located at the west of Taihu, the great lake in Jiangsu province.
Yixing clay is also multi-colored, and the colors are entirely natural. Usually known as “Five Colored Clay”, Yixing clay has three most important clay types, which are purple clay (Zini), red clay (Hongni or Zhuni), and green clay (Lvni). However, the appearance of Yixing products, such as its color or texture, can be enriched and altered through the addition of various metal oxides into the Yixing clay, through the manipulation of firing temperatures, and also from regulating the kiln environment (oxidative versus reductive). As a result, there are various colors and variations for Yixing teapots.
The shapes of Yixing teapots are rich and beautiful, and they are probably the most versatile and splendid among all the teapots in the world. Since Yixing clay is also known as Five Colored Clay, there are many original and mixed colors for Yixing teapot. Coupled with a variety of decorative techniques, such as pottery carving, decals, and clay painting, Yixing teapots have both pragmatic and aesthetic values.
Over hundreds of years, the shapes of Yixing teapots have been inherited and evolved. From the Shi Piao (stone dipper) shape to pots shaped like gourds, oil lamps, or architectural columns, many of these classic shapes have long histories going back generations. When craftsmen or artists who have spent years mastering these forms, they are possible to make changes or develop new forms to express their own ideas. Here are some common shapes: (image credit: Verdanttea)
Though versatile in shapes, Yixing teapots have two basic shapes: high profile and low profile. The choice of these two basic types is based on what types of tea leaves you want to use. A varied shape will allow certain leaves to expand. For instance, if you are brewing Taiwan oolong tea or Tie Guan Yin, you will likely want a high-profile pot. Whereas, if you are steeping Wuyi oolong tea or Pu’er tea, a low-profile pot will be more fitting.
The opening of the teapot is also important. Broader openings at the top will allow the fragrance of the tea leaves to drift into the air, while smaller openings will keep the fragrance of the tea inside the teapot. A broader opening is great for aromatic Taiwan oolong teas or Tie Guan Yin, while a smaller opening works better with black tea or Pu’er tea that tends to have low aromatic elements.
Processing of Yixing teapot includes several steps and needs sophisticated craftsmanship. For the preparation, raw Yixing clay is removed from the underlying strata, dried under the sun in open stalls, and then pulverized into powder. The clay powder then undergoes air screening to isolate clay particles of the finest grit size. The screened clay is then mixed with water to a thick paste, piled into heaps, and vacuum processed to remove air bubbles, in addition to some moisture from the clay mixture. The quality and quantity of water in Yixing clay is critical in that it determines the quality of the produced stoneware. The clay mixture can be used alone as a “single origin” clay such as Di Cao Qing, or mixed to achieve a specific color, and luster by adding other clays or minerals to the clay. After this processing, the resulting clay is then ready to be used.
Once the clay is ready, the Yixing craftsman’s precise work can begin. Almost all the Yixing teapots are hand-made, as opposed to being thrown on a pottery wheel. The exceptionally hard clay is pounded with a heavy wooden mallet and then formed into the teapot by using three essential techniques: the first one is called segmented teapots that are press-molded; the second one is to procure pieces of the teapot molded and then hand-assembled; the third one, also the preferred method which requires a high level of skill and artistry, is to create the teapot entirely by hand. Tools made from wood, bamboo, metal, or horn are used during the hand-crafted process.
Here are the details for the hand-crafted process. A top and a bottom are cut from a carefully rolled sheet of clay. The side is connected into a band and shaped and smoothed to eliminate any lines connecting the piece to itself. The sides are slowly paddled into the desired curves before affixing the top, smoothing, and then affixing the bottom and continuing to smooth. After drying slightly, the lid opening is precisely cut. Once the shape is set, minor adjustments can be made through further smoothing and filing. The handle and spout are separately hand-formed and meticulously attached along with any artistic detail. The final piece can take days to finish before firing.
Yixing teapot is a unique Chinese art form that developed during the Song dynasty (960-1279), and then reached the height of its fame during the early Ming Dynasty (960-1644) through the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). According to Chinese legend, Gong Chun, who learned the craft from a monk of the Golden Sand Temple, was the ancestor of the Yixing clay teapot.
Yixing teapot symbolizes a return to the humble, natural roots of tea. The teapot is made entirely of natural materials and artfully crafted by hand. Often passed down as family heirlooms, these teapots are stunning works of art and perfect for brewing tea with a cultural flair. This very elegant, but simple style of earthenware had become popular among scholars before it became famous among everyday individuals. Chinese culture elements, such as calligraphy, drawing, and seal, are commonly embedded in the processing of Yixing teapots.
The unglazed and uncolored Yixing teapot proved it could best capture the real color and fragrance of tea. Besides, its aesthetics reflect the cultural and philosophical thoughts through different periods. Transcending its purpose of brewing tea, the Yixing teapot has become a symbol of simplistic beauty and Chinese culture.
Yixing teapots are smaller than their western counterparts as the tea is often brewed using the Gongfu style of brewing: shorter steeping durations with smaller amounts of water and smaller teacups (compared to western-style brewing). Traditionally, the tea from the teapot is poured into either a small pitcher, from which it is then poured into a teacup that holds approximately 30 ml or less of liquid, allowing the tea to be quickly and repeatedly ingested before it becomes cooled or into several teacups for guests.
As mentioned in the “Material”, many microscopic holes inside the Yixing teapot not only allow the pot to adapt to drastic changes in temperature, but also allow the tea to breathe which in turn brings out the fragrance, color, and taste of the original tea leaf. The tea’s delicate oils are absorbed into the walls of the pot, creating yet another enhancement of flavor.
Therefore, one famous characteristic of Yixing teapots is their ability to absorb trace amounts of brewed tea flavors and minerals into the teapot with each brewing. Over time, these accumulate to give each teapot its unique interior coating that flavors and colors future brewings. Many tea connoisseurs will steep only one type of tea (preferably dark-colored teas such as oolong, black, or Pu’er) in a particular Yixing teapot so that future brewings of the same type of tea will be optimally enhanced. In contrast, brewing many different types of tea in a Yixing pot is likely to muddy the taste of future brewings.