In contrast to Western pottery-making techniques that involve shaping “earth-clays” on a wheel, Zisha clay, known for its rigidity, allows teapot components to be pre-made and then assembled piece by piece. There are three types of manufacturing processes involved:
- Handmade: Skilled artists hand-cut and assemble pieces using traditional tools like wooden picks and paddles. Zisha clay used in handmade teapots undergoes a folding process, similar to the manufacturing of Japanese katana (samurai swords), which strengthens the clay and creates micro channels of air pockets. These air pockets enable the movement of air in both directions through the teapot, a characteristic known as “dual-porosity.” This unique feature is believed to provide additional oxygen to the tea during brewing, intensifying the flavor, as wine connoisseurs are aware of the impact of oxygen on taste.
- Half-handmade: Machine-molded pieces are assembled by hand using traditional tools. Many high-quality Zisha clay teapots are crafted using this method.
- Moulded: Mass-production process involves assembling pre-molded pieces by machines, such as combining the two halves of the teapot and lid and attaching a pre-molded spout and handle. Although moulded teapots are not as valuable as handmade or half-handmade ones, they are still superior to glazed or porcelain teapots when it comes to tea-making. Many moulded teapots are made with Yixing clay.
Owning a handmade teapot, particularly one crafted by a renowned artist, carries a sense of pride. The art of teapot making requires exceptional skill, and teapots made by famous Zisha artists are often considered collector’s items that command high prices, especially those from the 1980s, 1950s, or even the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912). Antique teapots hold great value due to their uniqueness in terms of history, patina, taste, and personality. However, evaluating and dealing with antiques necessitates specialized knowledge, so it is advisable to seek the guidance of a trusted expert.
Yixing Clay: Teapot Excellence
Yixing (Yee-zhing) clay, renowned for centuries, originates from the Yixing region of Jiangsu Province in Central China. It is highly regarded as the clay of choice for crafting exquisite teapots. Yixing clay can be categorized into two grades based on quality:
- “Earth-clay” made from mud: This type of clay is commonly used for creating mid-grade teapots, which are available in a wide range of designs at affordable prices.
- “Stone-clay” made from rock: The superior grade of Yixing clay is known as Zisha or “Purple Clay,” despite the fact that the color of the clay may not necessarily be purple.
Zisha clay possesses a distinctive granular structure and mineral composition that imparts exceptional heat handling properties to teapots. This unique characteristic enables the teapot to maintain a stable temperature, thereby minimizing fluctuations that can negatively impact the flavor of the tea.
The mineral and metal content of Zisha clay includes iron oxide, kaolinite, quartz, and mica. These components contribute to the teapots’ robustness and resistance to damage when fired, distinguishing them from delicate Western pottery. Moreover, high-quality Yixing clay exhibits significantly lower absorbency compared to other clays, ranging from 3 to 6 times less absorbent. This property assists teapots in retaining the fragrant aromas of teas.
Yixing Clay Quality
Clays are frequently blended together, resulting in an endless array of combinations. There are three fundamental types of clay:
- Natural (also referred to as Original in Chinese)
- Mixed (Pingni)
When clays are blended, they are known as Pingni. Natural Zisha clays are commonly mixed to create traditional and new color variations. Natural and artificial colors can be blended or overlaid in various designs. However, it is important to note that in some cases, a small amount of Yixing earth-clay or even Zisha clay is added to a lower-grade non-Yixing clay, and the resulting teapot is sold as a “Yixing Teapot.” Although technically accurate, this practice can be misleading.
“Artificial” clay, including both Yixing and non-Yixing clay, generally refers to low-quality clay that has been colored with artificial dyes, often mimicking the hues of natural Zisha clay. Teapots made from such clay will not perform as well as genuine Zisha teapots and their appearance may deteriorate over time as the color tends to fade. In contrast, teapots crafted from authentic Zisha clays maintain their natural color and exhibit superior longevity.
Yixing Clay Color
Evaluating the quality of a teapot based on the color of its clay is a specialized skill that often sparks debates among experts. To help you better understand how clay is used in Chinese teapots, here are some guidelines:
The natural color of Yixing “earth-clay” is white. Zisha clay, on the other hand, exists in various natural colors, with the most highly valued ones being:
- Red (Hongni)
- Purple (Zhini)
- Green (Luni) – usually blended with other clays or used as an overlay
Please note that assessing clay color is a complex aspect of teapot evaluation, and it requires expertise to accurately determine the quality and authenticity of a teapot based on its clay color.
There is another type of Zisha red clay known as Zhuni, which is extracted from a rare rock vein. Teapots made from Zhuni clay are intentionally crafted larger and fired at a specialized lower temperature (around 1,080F / 582C) for an extended duration compared to other teapots. During firing, Zhuni teapots undergo significant shrinkage, resulting in an exceptionally hard and dense clay. If you examine closely, you may notice fine “wrinkles” in the clay caused by the shrinkage. Despite the meticulous firing process, it is an extremely delicate procedure, and more than half of the teapots in a batch may develop cracks, leaving only a few intact ones.
Zhuni teapots typically exhibit a distinctive red or orange color and produce a high-pitched sound when tapped. It goes without saying that Zhuni teapots are exceedingly rare and carry a hefty price tag. The market is flooded with teapots claiming to be “genuine Zhuni,” both new and antique. Therefore, it is crucial not to consider purchasing one of these unless you have access to a trusted expert who can verify the authenticity of the clay for you.
The Sound of a Teapot
When you lift the lid of a high-fired teapot about a quarter of an inch and gently allow it to drop onto the teapot, it should produce a clear and distinct ring, similar to that of a small bell. It is important to hold the teapot on the flat of your hand to avoid dampening the sound in any way.
Teapots designed for Black and Pu-Erh Tea, on the other hand, are thicker and crafted from a more porous clay compared to other teapots. As a result, they do not produce the bright ringing sound that is characteristic of other teapots. However, this lack of ringing sound has nothing to do with their quality. These types of teapots are selected based on an examination of the clay, which typically has a rougher texture compared to teapots used for other teas.
Older teapots develop a unique patina over time due to the infusion of tea oils and continuous use. This patina can sometimes dull the pitch of the teapot. Conversely, many new teapots have a shiny appearance due to a wax coating applied to protect the clay and enhance their visual appeal while on display. (Refer to the section below for information on how to remove this coating.)
Antique teapots have a history, whether verifiable or not, and have been infused with tea oils over many years. As a result, they may produce a distinct “thunk” sound rather than a clear ring due to the accumulation of oils in the clay. However, these antique teapots can still be of the highest quality. It is important to keep in mind that when dealing with antiques, caution is advised, and buyers should be aware of potential risks.
In summary, new high-quality, high-fired teapots should exhibit a clear and distinct ringing sound when the lid is gently dropped onto the teapot. The pitch and duration of the ring often correlate with the quality of the teapot. Teapots for Black and Pu-Erh Tea, although lacking the bright ringing sound, are selected based on the examination of the clay’s texture. Older teapots develop a patina that may affect the sound, while new teapots may have a shiny appearance due to a protective wax coating. Antique teapots, infused with tea oils over time, may produce a different sound due to the accumulated oils.