World's most excellent teapots

By Miao Qing

Shanghai Star. 2005-04-14

``I LOVE tea, love the teapot." For most teapot fans and collectors, this saying is quite true. In China, where tea originated as early as

4,700 years ago, teapots are regarded not only as containers but also as a craft which has contributed greatly to tea culture. Among the various different kinds of Chinese teapots, Yixing teapots, called "Zi Sha Hu" in Chinese (purple sand teapots), are widely considered to be the best kind due to the distinctive material used to make them.

Yixing teapots are named after a small city located in Jiangsu Province, where a very rare and special kind of iron ore is exploited for the manufacture of the teapots. This raw material - called "soil of five colours" - is what makes Yixing teapots so distinctive.

Unique origin

"Yixing teapots are so special because they can only be produced in Yixing," said Wu Yanzuo, who has collected nearly 200 Yixing purple sand products. The local iron ore gives the teapot a porous molecular structure thus allowing the aeration of the tea inside. Compared to china teapots, Yixing teapot can keep the tea inside fresh much longer. "What's more, the tea brewed in a Yixing teapot smells especially good," Wu added.

The oldest Yixing teapots unearthed date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which is when they were first exported to Europe. But - as recent archaeological investigation reveals - the history of Yixing teapots can be traced back much further, at least to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) from which period remains of an ancient kiln containing teapot residues has been found. Since the Ming Dynasty, distinct patterns of Yixing teapots have emerged and gained popularity in different periods. "The pattern is one criterion used to judge the age of a teapot. But the teapot's overall appearance, which reflects the material it is made from, always provides a more reliable guide," said Wu.

Wu has some antique Yixing teapots on display at his teapot store on Zhongshan Xilu. A deep purple-red cylinder teapot without a lid (above) was an inchoate type of Yixing teapot, made during the Ming Dynasty, according to Wu. It had four symmetrical rings on its "shoulder", which could be linked by strings to make a handle. A circle of brown dots provided decoration. Two rings of concave markings were engraved on its base and shoulder. Wu said Yixing teapots made during the Ming Dynasty were very valuable, but he wouldn't give a precise price.

Another exhibited teapot (left below) was made in the form of an ancient Chinese stamp wrapped in cloth. It was a typically quadrate teapot with a square spout and square handle, made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Its cover was especially delicate, presenting the ties of the cloth package. Wu said this teapot was made by a person named "Hu Chi" (teapot fan). Another piece of Hu Chi's work is exhibited in the Nanjing Museum.

A deep brown Yixing teapot (right) featuring an ancient censer was said to have been made at the beginning of the 20th century. It had traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy engraved on its body and four "feet" on its base for support. An orchid painting was carved with a four-word inscription added alongside to show the outstanding taste of the owner.

In China, intellectuals are closely related to tea and teapots, serving to further promote Chinese tea and teapot culture. "It is because most of them drank tea and devoted their interest and emotions to tea and teapots," said Wu. It is recorded in various works of literature that 17 scholars during the Ming Dynasty and 37 during the Qing were involved in the production of Yixing teapots. The ordinary items used in their daily lives inspired their ideas for teapot design. These intellectuals also applied their philosophies of human conducts, reading and study, making friends and drinking tea to teapots by engraving images and writing on them.

"Teapots are like toys for adults, especially those who drink tea," said Wu, who began to collect Yixing teapots for fun after he retired and now manages a teapot store in Shanghai. "The entire appearance of a Yixing teapot is splendid, embracing shape, design, pattern, style and decoration. Moreover, its material feels quite slippery and smooth, making it delightful as a tactile object," he said.

Copyright by Shanghai Star.