An yixing teapot is an unassuming vessel.
Made of simple unglazed clay, a pot with a simple profile could hide unnoticed in a cabinet full of hand painted porcelain or gold gilded china. In the right hands, however, the yixing clay tea pot becomes one of our most beloved of tea tools.
On one hand, yixing tea pots grew as a symbol of resistance to the overly ornate ceremonies at court. On the other, yixing tea pots can now be worth more than their weight in gold. As other teaware trends come and go, yixing has remained solidly admired for hundreds of years, gaining an official place in tea ceremonies across China.
As Yixing grew in popularity from the 1980’s onwards, many of the earliest deposits used have been mined out. “Vintage” clays can still be found in the workshops of older masters who have managed their own acquisition and aging program for fine clay, or in the workshops of their students.
Teapots made from old material tend to be more highly valued, but there is great innovation in seeking out new sources or mixing new combinations to make fine, lustrous clay.
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, and students spend years mastering these forms before making changes or developing new forms as each artist finds their own voice.
Any modern teapot needs to be fully aware of precedent, and the smallest change to the curves of a classic form is its own commentary and departure. The precision of the yixing artist demands planning and measuring to make sure the final product is in line with their original vision.
Usually, once a form is set and designed, it will be made several times a year for many, many years as the artist meditates on this form, utilizing slightly different clays or adjusting an angle, a sculptural accent, or carving in each iteration. Measuring and careful calculations allow the artist to control the variables in an art that demands perfect precision every time.
above: four different shi piao pots from four different artists
Once work is ready to begin, the clay is prepped, pounded, and smoothed. Unlike other popular ceramic arts in China, yixing tea pots are not thrown on a wheel. Instead, gallery quality yixing tea pot is entirely hand build, in a process that takes years to master.
A top and 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 completely before firing.
The entire teapot is often filled with sand before firing to help protect it from warping and cracking under high heat. If the measurements were perfect and the pressure and humidity of the day in line with acceptable variation, the piece will come out unbroken and fit together with its lid. A perfectly fitting lid is nearly impossible to correct for, so it is a sign of care and precision to find on any handmade teapot.
So, what is it that makes yixing pottery so valuable?
The aristocrats who fell in love with the simple aesthetic of Yixing’s unglazed clay became even more enamoured by their new teapot tradition when it became clear that the region’s perfectly dense, slightly porous clay would absorb the natural oils in their tea and, over time, take on the flavor of the tea brewed in the pot.
These oils affected both the interior and exterior of the pots. Since hot tea was poured over the teapots to warm them to a suitable brewing temperature, tea lovers soon noticed that their simple, dull finish pots were becoming lustrous, deep and beautiful over many uses. Incedibly,
Yixing was discovered to be a perfect clay for Chinese tea ceremony, not only for a return to tea’s humble roots in nature, but also for its ability to become more beautiful and more adept as a brewing vessel over time.
Soon, well-seasoned teapots became signs of culture and refinement. When guests came to your home, a simple elegant tea ceremony with a well-seasoned pot showed not only good taste, but that your household had the refinement to drink tea year round; the patina of a well-used pot proved that tea wasn’t just a show for visitors.
As the tradition spread, yixing tea pots would be passed down as inheritance, and teapots that had been made by master craftsmen and used by master tea practitioners became talismans of culture and admiration.
The reverence that developed around fine yixing has not diminished even to this day. More and more tea lovers want real hand-made yixing to brew their finest teas, but the region’s most famous clay deposits and the region’s true talent pool are finite. The elegance that yixing brings to any tea set up is in greater demand than ever before.
The unglazed clay inside an yixing teapot has the potential to absorb tea oils and therefore tea flavor over time. A teapot used for many years will impart flavor and texture to hot water, even without tea leaves. This is a subtle effect that builds up over time. The foundational texture that a well seasoned teapot gives to a tea allows that tea to express its flavors with greater intensity than it could on its own.
Of course, this is not a one way transaction. The tea pot does not just give to the tea. Every time you brew a tea in yixing, the porous nature of the clay absorbs some of the volatile aromatic oils and dissolved solids in the tea as it steeps. Some of these oils and solids are released into the new tea from previous brewing sessions, while others absorb into the clay.
This process seems like it would be a wash for flavor and texture, but in fact, yixing allows even a simple tea to take on greater complexity and depth. Tea brewing in yixing gains the dimensionality of everything else brewed in the pot. It is a subtle form of “blending” by using past brewed teas to bolster the flavor of the latest tea. This way, a very floral Wuyi oolong such as Qilan might take on light mineral or wood notes from previous brew sessions using Shui Xian, which in turn accents and compliments the floral notes.
This is the core of why yixing is unique as a porous brewing vessel.
Most porous vessels are not additive; they are subtractive. Porous surfaces trap volatile aromatic oils and reduce aroma in the final brew. This is why fine Jingdezhen porcelain is valued for its perfectly vitrified non-porous quality. Yixing is unique in reaching a saturation point in absorbing oils and retaining them; this allows the vessel to start giving back aroma to a brewed tea. Because yixing clay is so fine and dense in its porousness, it retains what it absorbs better than other ceramics can.
That is the reward for seasoning and raising an yixing tea pot over many months and years. In a well-seasoned tea pot, tea can retain almost as many aromatics as tea brewed in porcelain, but the same tea will also gain texture and flavor complexity.
The last interesting power of yixing is that it is thick enough to retain heat, and is a relatively closed system when the lid is used. Higher steady heat and faster brews yield more extraction of aromatics. Lower heat and longer brews yield more texture and less aromatics. The high heat and fast brew allowed in yixing means for more flavorful tea. The loss in texture is made up for by the texture imparted by the seasoned clay.
With all the technical benefits and cultural weight that yixing brings to tea ceremony, we have found that it is truly a joy to incorporate these beautiful pieces into everyday use in the home. So how do you go about choosing one?
There are several important factors to keep in mind when evaluating yixing clay teapots and considering how to choose ones that fit your needs. In the end, it all comes down to quality of material and quality of craftsmanship. The specific type of clay, color, and even shape are secondary concerns to the inherent quality of the piece.
While it may be tempting to look out for a bargain to find an affordable entry point into yixing, modern cheap machine-made pieces have no value. Modern machine made yixing tea pots – especially those made for bulk import and tourist markets – use clay that has been mixed with paints, pigments and chemicals. As fanciful as a design may be, or as affordable as the pot may appear, it is ultimately better to use a gaiwan or sip from a mug full of leaves than to risk using a low-quality yixing teapot. Because the pots are unglazed, any chemicals in the paint or clay used can seep into your tea and create potential health risks. The machine-made teapots are made from clay that is usually far too light and porous for any kind of retention of oils or flavor, meaning that at best they steal the aroma of your tea without giving back, while at worst they leach hazardous chemicals into your tea.
These pieces are easily spotted in Chinatowns, bargain shops, and uninformed and unscrupulous online retailers across the country. How can you tell if you are getting a real yixing teapot or an imitation?
Price is one indicator. Pieces available in the United States for $20 to $60 are simply not plausible to pay for the labor of an artist or pay for the ever-rarer natural clays suitable to yixing pottery. Still, sometimes prices are over-inflated, skewing this indicator. Teapots from students and artists at the beginning of their careers or hand made in larger workshops where pots pass between multiple craftsman to speed the process usually start between $80 and $120. Teapots from established early to mid career artists range between $180 to $300. Famous artists, and artists using rarer yuan kuang clays can command much higher prices due to intense domestic demand in China, ranging from $500 up to many, many thousands. Antiques can be even more, with sought after pieces from grand masters selling at auction for millions. Look for certificates when buying teapots, as chops and seals are sometimes copied, but certificates with signatures are harder to imitate and point towards greater chance of authenticity.
Lines from casting can sometimes be spotted inside or outside a machine made teapot where the two halves are joined together. The lids on machine made pieces almost never fit perfectly. They either rattle around, or make a grinding noise when turned from sanding done after the firing process to compensate for manufacturing errors.
A fully hand made yixing teapot never has casting lines because they are hand-formed, not cast from a mold. While lid fits can vary by artist and skill level, it is most satisfying to use a piece whose lid has a naturally-perfect fit, as this creates the best seal during brewing and pouring.
The clay in a modern machine-made teapot can often be excessively shiny or painted, and has no depth or luster to it. The quality of clay is the single most important factor at the end of the day. Even a machine made piece can be an asset to the tea it brewed if the clay used was high quality, as was the case with some antique factory pots from the twentieth century. Good clay has a tactile pleasure to its smoothness – natural, dappled and soft, but not perfectly smooth. The clay should not be one-dimensional; instead, there should be a depth and subtle natural variation that shows that the pot is ready to absorb tea oils.
The pot should not be painted. Instead, teapots with color patterns should come from the natural color of multiple clays used. Paint can wear off over time, but clay does not. There should not be a glazed or polished shine to a new teapot. While buffing can yield some natural shine, especially in zhuni clay and dicaoqingni, the shine should not look artificial. Beware of artificial glazing or waxing, all of which eliminate the clay’s natural ability to absorb tea oils and eliminate the purpose of using yixing all together.
At the end of the day, it is best to find a source you can trust, and to guard against deals that are too good to be true.
A well-made yixing teapot is an investment – something that you should enjoy using enough to brew with it every day. It is also something that can be passed on for generations. Meticulous craft and clean, natural clay will honor the tea you brew for years to come.
The lotus-isnpired tea pot above from artist Lai Xiaohong uses clays with naturally different colors to create beautiful and natural swirling color patterns.
But first, season your new yixing clay tea pot.
To season a yixing teapot for the first time, bring a very clean pot of filtered water to boil. Make sure there are no oils or aromas on the pot or on any utensils used.
If you have a wire ladle, you can rest the teapot in the ladle to boil it. Otherwise, put a clean washcloth whose color will not run on the bottom of the pot and gently lower the teapot into the water using wooden spoons, tongs or chopsticks.
Boil gently for about ten minutes, then carefully remove the teapot and allow to dry fully.
Next, brew a strong infusion of tea in your new teapot, and continue with more steepings until you fill a bowl high enough to submerge your teapot. Remove tea leaves from the teapot and soak in tea until the water is cool. Remove the teapot and allow to dry.
The first three to six sessions with your new pot may still be taking more flavor than they give, but don’t worry, as soon as the clay has had its fill, it starts giving back flavor and texture.