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While the Chinese ceramic artisans stumbled on the discoveries of the well-known kaolin clay and glazing about 2000 years ago, the discovery of Zisha clay about 500 years ago is the third most important factor in Chinese ceramic history and is virtually unknown to the world today.
The drinking of tea became very popular in the Tang and Song dynasties, people started to drink tea on a daily basis. However, it is very important to note that the idea of “teapot” did not come in existence until the mid–16th century. It may even be said that the earliest actual teapot was made of the special and unglazed clay called Zisha in the mid–16th century. The specialist in Zisha teapots Dr. K. S. Lo correctly pointed out in his epic work the Stone Wares of Yixing, from the Ming Period to the Present Day:
We know that, as far as the Tang dynasty, tea leaves were made either into bricks or into round slabs known as ‘dragon rounds.’ The tea-maker first ground the leaves into small particles and then boiled them in a cauldron; the liquid was then scooped up and served in a bowl. Later, during the Song dynasty, the leaves were first ground into a very fine powder. To prepare tea for the table, the maker first boiled water in a kettle, then scooped out a small amount of powder and placed it in a bowl; after adding boiling water, he stirred the powder vigorously with a bamboo brush and finally served the tea. Hence, during the Tang and Song dynasties the making of tea required no teapots, and only tea bowls were used. (Lo, 18)
The ceramic ewers, or jars that have spouts and handles were “ewers” for wine, cooking oil, and water, not “teapots” before the Ming dynasty. It was the early Ming imperial regulation to change the tea production that brought about the idea of “teapots” we are familiar with today. The Sinologist Victor H. Mair writes in his recent book the True History of Tea:
The new trend of infusing loose-leaf tea also gave rise to the utensil that has come to embody the human cult of the Camillia sinensis plant—the teapot. Ever since the Ming, the most famous Chinese teapots have been made with a porous clay known as zisha, purple sand, found in Yixing just west of Lake Tai. Yixing teapots are prized for their ability to retain heat, store the aroma from every infusion, and maintain the freshness of the tealeaves during lengthy tea parties. Lovingly nursed by connoisseurs, they grow lustrous and beautiful with age. (Mair, 111)
According to the recent archaeological findings, the Zisha clay was not discovered until the Ming Jiajing Period (1522-1566 CE). Unlike the development of porcelain, from proto-porcelain to high-fired porcelain taking nearly 1000 years, there was not an evolution in Zisha clay creation. It seemed to happen all of a sudden—from its birth to its maturity—the early evidence of Zisha teapots already achieved the highest technical and artistic levels. Unlike the ceramic creation, which was based on mass production with a great variety and many locations of kilns, the Zisha clay production was an individualistic and artistic execution from the beginning with a limited variety and only one location of kilns. There is diminutive evidence to indicate a clear link from the early artisans such as Gong Chun or Shi Dabin (active in the mid-late 16th century) to a previous groundwork, or the technical and artistic progressions of the Zisha production since its early appearance. What it has left for us to study is only the climactic periods of Zisha production in the 1600s, 1800s, 1930s, 1980s, and the present day.
Zisha clay is not Yixing clay indeed. Yixing clay only indicates the clay that is made into ceramic wares and is from Yixing. Zisha clay is one kind of rare clay among the Yixing clay mines. The term Zisha, also known as Yixing Zisha, is used as an umbrella term to describe the Zisha clay or the “purple sand,” which consists of iron oxide, silt, mica, kaolinite, varied quantities of quartz and iron ore as its main mineral constituents. The inimitable dual-porous structure and mineral composition of Zisha clay gives superior ability to retain heat, reduce oxidization, and enhance and store the aroma from tea infusion. In comparison with the ability of heat conducting of common ceramic, Zisha clay's ability of retaining heat can mitigate water temperature fluctuations so that Zisha teapot can dissuade tea aroma and flavor from diminishing. Zisha is such distinctive clay also in the sense of having been only found one place on earth—the Dingshu town of Yixing City 120 miles northwest of Shanghai, and it hardly has ever been exported out of China.
Zisha generally includes three distinctive types of clays. Zini, or “purple clay,” is dark and fine brownish-purple clay, zhuni, or “cinnabar clay,” is orange-reddish high iron content clay. Duanni, or “fortified clay,” is formulated in various quartz and minerals in addition to zini or zhuni, and it appears in various textures and colors, including beige, blue, green and black. Due to the increasing demand for Zisha teapots over time, zhuni is now nearly non-existent in quantities. Zhuni is not to be confused with Hongni, or the “red clay,” another reddish clay. The appearance of Zisha clay, such as color and texture, can also be enriched and altered by adding metal oxides, and by manipulating firing temperatures and regulating the kiln atmosphere.
Besides the exceptional structure and mineral composition of Zisha clay, the most unique characteristic about the Zisha teapot is the traditional coiling technique of “forging the body” that is used to make a Zisha teapot. Unlike the common “earth clay” which comes in the form of “mud,” the raw Zisha clay comes in the form of rock, and it only appears to be like “mud” after many steps of preparing and refining. For this very reason the true Zisha clay cannot be turned on a pottery wheel. The true Zisha clay can only be manipulated in the following two ways: casting and molding, half-hand building and hand building.
Casting and molding methods are the contribution of modern technology. It is easy to tell a Zisha teapot was cast or molded with mechanical equipment; the difference is the cast Zisha teapot is finer in its texture and has a thinner wall than the molded pots. One teapot maker can produce 300-500 pots a day. These Zisha teapots are in perfect shapes, bright colors, and precise measurements but dull and lifeless, which sometime may require an acquired artistic sensibility to recognize. Cast and molded Zisha teapots often lose their dual-porous structure, and thus their ability to retain heat and to mitigate water temperature fluctuations is also lost, so that these Zisha teapots cannot encourage tea aroma and flavor from diminishing.
Half-hand-build teapots are assembled with pre-molded parts with traditional tools. Typically the two halves of the teapot, lid, spout, and handle are pre-molded, and the artist attaches all the parts together, and adjusts and finishes the pot by hand individually. In fact, many very good Zisha teapots are made in this way.
Hand-build teapots are made by the traditional coiling technique of “forging the body,” which was invented by Shi Dabin from the Ming dynasty according to the Zisha history. After raw Zisha clay was being prepared into curbed “mud,” the artist begins to beat and forge the “Zisha mud” with a wooden bat. After the forging process, the “Zisha mud” is rolled into a thin and long strip, and cut into the sizes needed and then pinched together to form the basic shape of the body of a vessel. Subsequently the artist continues to beat and forge the “body” with the wooded paddle until the “body” is precisely formed into the desired shape. The next step is to build the various parts of the teapots individually, then the finished “body” and the parts are assembled together, and carefully adjusted and polished before firing. Learning how to build a simple Zisha teapot is equivalent to becoming a sculptor of realism in the art college.
Today, the hand-built Zisha teapot technique is still taught in the traditional way. Master and disciple sit side by side, everything is taught by something called “oral and physical transmission.” It takes 4-8 hours a day and minimum three years to master the basic coiling technique of “forging the body” in order to make a decent teapot, and it takes about ten years to make a masterpiece Zisha teapot. The disciple not only learns how to make a good teapot but also learns how to be a good human being and live a good life from his master. Like a course of metamorphosis, ideally, the master wishes to transform his art and his life, in sum, his soul into his disciple.
The practice of Zisha Art has remained as one of the last traditional cultural and habitual activities that require deep and lasting connection within the artists and the others as the essential part of the art and practice. A great Zisha artist has to be able to experience everything genuinely with authenticity and creativity that springs out from the deep consciousness of the cultural tradition and communities. The spiritual and cultural traditions along the consanguineous ties that hold the communities together bringing about peace, contentment, and subtle meaning of life are weakening with modernization. This social and cultural condition has become a severe concern in the practice and development of the Zisha Art today.
Because of the unique nature of Zisha Art, even in the 1600s, a fine Zisha teapot was already worthy it weight in gold. In the present economic dynamics, the consumerist monoculture upon the industry of Zisha Art has made a great impact on the Zisha artists. A large amount of Zisha teapots are created without genuine spirit and true cultural meaning, but produced for the sake of information, consumerism, and tourism every year. There are over 20,000 Zisha Art participates in Yixing today. According to the Chairman of Yixing Ceramic Trade Association, Shi Juntang, the official and professional representative of the Zisha industry, the State Council of China has certified 11 State Grandmasters of Chinese Arts & Crafts, 14 Provincial Grandmaster of Arts & Crafts, 105 Advanced Masters of Arts & Crafts, 223 Masters of Arts & Crafts, 760 Assistant Masters of Arts & Crafts, and 1081 Associates of Arts & Crafts by the end of 2009.
The Zisha Art market has dramatically changed since the 1980s, and the price of a Zisha teapot can range from several US dollars to several million US dollars today. The State Council of China has regulated the Zisha industry and Zisha artists publicly since the early 1990s. The regulations on the Zisha clay mining and the quality control of Zisha clay, the certifying and ranking systems of Zisha artists have become more restricted and firm each year. The frequent national art museum acquisitions, and the increasing numbers of public auctions with high value of the modern Zisha teapots have stimulated and at the same time standardized the Zisha industry and the market.
From Neolithic time to our “high-tech” time, from Africa, Europe, Middle East, Egypt, India, China and the Pacific Rim to the great American Continents, there has been a large variety of “earth clay” discovered and utilized in making ceramic and porcelain wares, but none bears any similar quality to Zisha clay. Readers should not be confused with Yixing clay or artificially manipulated and chemically enhanced imitations of “Yixing clay” with Zisha clay. Simply keep the following things in mind:
Conclusion: you should not expect to buy a utilitarian teapot made of true Zisha clay for less than a few hundred dollars regardless of how the pot looks or what the dealer tells you, less should you expect to buy a basic Zisha teapot made by Grandmaster for less than $10,000 from the local dealers today. It is notoriously condescending as it is factual, for instance, Grandmaster Gu Jinzhou (1915-1996) was the first certified Grandmaster in 1988, his “Spoon Stone” Zisha teapot sold for nearly $2 million at the China Guardian auction in Beijing, topping the list of the most expensive Yixing teapots in the world in June 2010. On the other hand, Gu Shaopei, one of the rising stars among the 11 Grandmasters, was born in 1945 and certified as Grandmaster in 2007. His “Pine and Cloud,” Zisha teapot sold for $85,000 at the Beijing Rongbao auction in November 2010.
Not only do you have to choose your reliable and certified dealers, but also you should realize the financial stance of Zisha teapots. Again, the worst thing that could happen to you is that you fantasize yourself as being special and lucky so that you could get a Grandmaster's Zisha teapot for very little money.
The names of the 11 State Grandmasters of Chinese Arts & Crafts certified by the State Council of China are listed below:
If you can access the Chinese language, or get help from someone knows Chinese, all other levels, rankings, and qualifications of the Zisha teapot artists (a little over 2000) can be checked out on the official website of the People's Government of Yixing City: