Closer Look: Lai Xiaohong

Taking a closer look at Yixing clay tea pots from artist Lai Xiaohong

October 16, 2020

Originally shared in our Tasting Journal Newsletter, 12/04/19

This article is excerpted from our Daily Deal Newsletter.
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We’ve been getting lots of great questions on yixing clay recently – where it comes from, what type is best for what teas etc. The foundation of Lai Xiaohong’s career is the quality of the clay she uses. While many artists in Yixing may be content to purchase clays from workshops, Lai Xiaohong wants complete transparency and complete control of her supply chain.

With many older sites like Huanglongshan around Yixing are now protected from further excavating for natural conservation, many are worried that there won’t be any modern teapots like “the olden days.” Of course, in an area like Yixing known for natural deposits ideal for clay, there is more than one site with high quality material. Lai Xiaohong has spent much of her career surveying sites all around the hills of outside of Yixing, finding her own clay deposits, excavating small quantities of high quality natural material, crushing it and mixing it with water herself and allowing clay to form in troughs at her workshop. She does not add any colors, chemicals, etc. Like her pots, her clays are a work of passion, a sign that far from Yixing drifting away from “the olden days,” it is a living culture that has the capacity to keep improving with passion and dedication from craftswomen like Lai Xiaohong.

 

 
 

 

Lai Xiaohong’s work with clay means that her pots are tactile, and deep. Clays with added colors are “flat” and opaque, while her’s are full of depth and subtle mottling. As they grow a patina over time, they become even more lustrous.

As far as the million dollar question – what clay is best with what tea? – we’ve talked to dozens of artists in Yixing including nationally recognized masters, along with museum curators and private collectors. The constant answer we get is that the qualities of each clay are most important to the artist in determining ideal firing temperature, moisture levels and thickness, but that if the artist executes a piece perfectly, it should be perfect for whatever tea you want to brew.

Of course, perfection is no small ask, but Lai Xiaohong delivers.

There are some qualities in teapots that matter when selecting the right pot for a tea.

For example, teapots with very small lid opening are better for shu pu’er, rolled oolongs and other teas that can fit in the opening, while wider-mouth pots are more flexible for very long or fluffy teas.

Pour time matters, too – a long pour time is totally fine for shu pu’er, black tea, and rolled oolongs, but a shorter pour time can be critical for controlling the brew on teas you want to pack with lots of leaf and have short infusions for like sheng pu’er, Wuyi Oolong and Dancong. Generally, I’d recommend around 12 seconds or less for those more demanding teas.

If you have a vision for the color and patina you are looking for, pairing clays and teas can influence your acquisition decisions, too. For example, lighter clays get shinier and more lustrous with lighter teas like sheng pu’er and dancong, while darker teas will bring more red and brown shades to a light clay pot. Di Cao Qing clay becomes more red with light teas and more purple with dark teas. Either way, consistent brewing and care can yield beautiful results.

 

By the way, in case you didn’t see all of Lai Xiahong’s recent awards, she sent on a new certificate with an updated CV. Here is an excerpt of her recent accolades (see below)

Needless to say, her work is becoming more sought after and valuable in China.

If you need any advice on yixing, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

2009 “Feng Ming” Jiangsu Arts “Yi Bo Cup” Competition Gold Medal
2009 Awarded the 11th Chinese National Art Masters Bronze Medal
2011 “Yi Li Zhu” Gold Medal at the Shanghai National Folk Art Exhibition
2012 “Zhou Pan” Gold Medal Art and Craft Exhibition
2012 “Shi Piao” Jiangsu “Hai Long Cup” Masterwork Grand Prix awarded first place
2013 “Zhu Yun” Tenth Chinese Arts Festival Shandong Gold Medal
2013 “Xi Shi” Gold Medal for original concepts at Chinese Arts and Crafts Culture Exhibition
2014 Featured in China People’s Daily  Special Arts Edition
2014 Featured in Yixing Pottery Masters Yearly Edition
2015 The Seventeenth Chinese Arts and Crafts Masters Exhibition, awarded Original Concept Medal
2015 “Wei Miao” Awarded Gold Medal at the Seventeenth Chinese Arts and CRafts Masters Exhibition for traditional fine art
2016 Awarded the historic Bai Hua Honor at China’s 12th Annual Arts and Crafts Exhibition
2016 “Yi Hua Yi Shijie” Gold medal at the “Da Di Cup”
2016 “Shan Zhu” Awarded at the 2016 Arts Exhibition Original Concept Gold Medal

 

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