Yixing Clay Teapots

As a product designer and avid tea drinker I am interested in China’s long history of tea drinking and the paraphernalia that goes along with it. One particular item that interests me is the Yixing teapot, which is made from special zisha clay.

(The eastern province of Jiangsu, where the City of Yixing is located.)

The earliest Yixing teapots date back to around the 14th century but no one is entirely sure when the practice of making teapots from the zisha, or purple, clay found only in the Yixing area of China first originated (there is some evidence of the clay being used from as early as the 900s). At first glance a Yixing teapot may appear to be a pretty standard teapot, usually comprising of rounded body; looped handle on one side and a small spout on the other. But Yixing teapots are unique in that they are made using fired but unglazed zisha clay which has; a very fine texture, is excellent at keeping heat in and has a naturally beautiful colour.

(An antique Yixing clay teapot.)

The other interesting thing about the Yixing teapot is that the longer you use it, the better the tea it makes. This is because the zisha clay is very porous (has lots of microscopic holes in it) and therefore every time tea is brewed in it, it absorbs some of the flavour and oil of that tea. This means that the more tea you make in it, the more flavoursome it becomes – it is said that a Yixing teapot which has been used for many years can brew tasty tea with hot water alone. It is for this reason that the teapot should only be used to brew one kind of tea, so that the flavours absorbed into it do not mix to create an unpleasant tasting tea. It is also said that a Yixing teapot should never be washed with anything other than warm water as using soap would almost certainly ruin the taste of the tea brewed in it. Traditionally Yixing teapots were made not much bigger than fist sized and would be used to brew oolong and pu’er teas.

(Some oolong and purer tea, the sort traditionally brewed in zisha clay pots.)

Zisha clay has a red-purplish colour, which darkens, and becomes more beautiful over time and with use. Each pot would be made by hand on a potter’s wheel by a traditional Chinese craftsman and marked under the lid or on the bottom of the pot.

(An example of a more modern Yixing teapot done in a traditional style.)

For centuries the Chinese have practised the art of tea ceremonies as a way of relaxing, focusing the mind and bonding socially. The ‘rules’ for these ceremonies vary depending on teas, areas in China and the equipment used (amongst other things). However, the ethos of the ceremonies rarely differs from one of respect, peacefulness, humility and equality. To begin the tea filled pot is filled with water until over-flowing, this first brewing is used to wash the tea leaves, the teapot and the cups which will be used. The teapot is then filled again with boiling water, brewed for around 10 seconds (depending on the tea) and poured into each of the participants’ cups. The cups used, much like the Yixing teapot, are miniature in size and are designed to be drunk in 2 or 3 sips whilst also allowing the drinker to smell the tea to enrich the experience. Sometimes an aroma cup is also used, the tea first being poured into the aroma cup, then into the drinking cup – leaving the odour of the tea in the aroma cup for the participant to smell. This process will be repeated many times (usually around 10 or 15) still using the original tea leaves. As the ceremony continues, each pot of tea produced will gain a subtly different flavour to the last, getting stronger towards the middle and weaker towards the end when the brewing time is increased to get the most out of the leaves. Yixing teapots are ideal for this kind of ceremony as each steeping of the leaves produces the perfect amount of tea for a small group. Yixing teapots are also ideal as the equipment used in the ceremony is also very important and zisha clay pots are considered to be amongst the best in China (and the longer you’ve had it, the better!).

(The equipment needed for a Chinese tea ceremony.)

As Yixing pots are considered to be some of the best, their value in todays China has escalated rapidly (owing mainly to the booming Chinese economy). Like so many Chinese antiques in recent years the older and more ornate ones have become especially valuable. Recently a single Yixing teapot, made by master craftsman Gu Jingzhou, fetched more than 12 million Yuan at a Chinese auction (around £1.2 million). But does this escalation in price undermine the whole philosophy behind tea in China? Tea in China is associated with equality and a sense of humbleness so this modern extravagance kind of goes against what tea drinking is really all about. However, there are of course still reasonably priced good Yixing teapots in China that most families can afford and enjoy.

(The Gu Jingzhou zisha teapot that sold for more than 12 million yuan last year in China.)

I feel that the Yixing clay teapot is great example of an ancient Chinese production process that is still used to this day. Yixing teapots are incredibly functional and aesthetically pleasing but they are also a symbol for a simpler more humble way of life, which is something that I think is should be cherished in today’s rapidly growing China.