Introduction to Yixing Teapots

The teapots of Yixing[1] (宜兴茶壶, Yixing Cha Hu) are a vast and complex topic touching on history, mining technology, ceramic manufacturing, artistic practices, aesthetic preferences, and economic systems of dynastic and modern China. The teapots themselves are a byproduct of the dynastic literati-culture[2] and a direct-product of a unique geo-cultural artistic practice which required the presence of clay ore, ceramic craftsmen, and a merchant-market economy to stimulate and sustain the Yixing-crafts’ development. Craftsman made the wares to meet the evolving preferences of their literati patrons[3]. Yixing teapots are a utilitarian tool for brewing tea, a structural-functionalist method for controlling the art-product[4] of the praxis, and a means of communication at the phenomoneist level of practice[5].

Teapots (茶壶, cha hu) are one of the most common and popular methods of brewing Chinese tea historically and today – their development is inseparably linked to the rise of Yixing wares. By the late Ming dynasty[6], zisha ceramic wares were known throughout the empire and the world abroad, with teapots as the main focus of production. Since their earliest creation, the designs and styles of Yixing teapots and their intended use evolved rapidly alongside innovations in tea processing and the development of new techniques for tea brewing.

The complexity of this academic-topic is paralleled by the expansive techne[7] refined for the use of Yixing teapots over the last ~400 years. While there are an infinite variety of ways to use a teapot, not all methods yield good tea: the benefit of any technique is dependent on the tea, ware, and the skill of the practitioner.

Yixing teapots hold perhaps the most cache of any ware amongst low and high experience Chinese tea practitioners alike. Immediately recognizable and relatively easy to use, cheap mass-market teapots made of real or fake zisha clay are readily available from mass-market tea vendors; higher-level practitioners may seek out more reputable examples of contemporary or antique Yixing teapots – often with less than complete regard held for verification, rarity, and tea pairing[8]. Yixing teapots, first and foremost, are tools for the Chinese Tea Ceremony, a tool within the praxis to brew good tea, requiring specific techne for successful application. Purchasers of Yixing teapots should evaluate Yixing teapots by their clay quality, production skill (including processing and firing method), shape, maker (the artist), and price – in that order.

This book attempts to place Yixing teapots into an understandable and applicable framework for collection and use: it will first focus on an understanding of the history, manufacture, and material of Yixing teapots before shifting its focus to the use and techne of Yixing teapots in Chinese Tea Ceremony. While the topic is expansive, this book remains focused on Yixing teapots made for brewing tea, ignoring the other artistic applications of Yixing clay and the creation of decorative Yixing teapots. While this book covers foundational knowledge about certain aspects of Yixing teapots, it is written, as all books in this series are, for advanced practitioners – it is not a beginner’s guide or a how-to manual.

[1]This book will use ore to refer to the unrefined Yixing teapot material destined to be refined into clay, zisha to refer to the processed clay, and Yixing to refer to the region.

[2]the educated elite.

[3]This argument is made most clearly in Book 1 – Chapter 6, Section 1: The Only Constant is Change.

[4]The art-product is the outcome of the artform; for the Chinese tea praxis, within the literati tradition, the art-product is the flavor-profile of the resulting tea.

[5]For definitions of the level of practice, see Book 1 – Chapter 1: Levels of Practice.

[6]With increasing production and output of Yixing ceramics by the mid-Qing dynasty.

[7]This book builds on the first book in the series “On Theory, Meta Theory, and Culture”; it is recommended to read that book first, as terms will not always be redefined here. Techne is the applied personal technique of a practitioner – a practitioner’s applied skill. Just as a great composer cannot pick up any instrument in the orchestra without learning the technique, despite the beautiful music he may originate from his own mind, knowledge without application is theory.

[8]The amount of knowledge needed for verification is difficult to obtain and it is easier to outsource curation to a trusted vender.