A range of zini teapots; back row: contemporary, front row: Late-Qing, RoC, and F1 era. Collection of the author.

Editorial Conversation: Chapter 8, Section 4: Zini Ore and Clay

Jason M Cohen
Jason M Cohen

The episode is also available on YouTube and Spotify.
A full transcript is included on the episode page and below:

[00:00:06] Jason Cohen: Hello, everyone. I'm Jason Cohen, the author of An Introduction to the Art and Science of Chinese Tea Ceremony. Today we're discussing Book Two, Chapter Eight, Section Four, Zini Ore and Clay. Here to talk about this chapter is our editorial team, Patrick Penny, Zongjun Li, and our newest editor, Emily Huang.

[00:00:24] Emily Huang: Hi, everyone.

[00:00:25] Jason Cohen: Welcome, Pat, Zongjun, and Emily. We're happy to have you as a, as a new member. Before we begin this chapter, a brief introduction. Emily, you were a former member of the Tea Institute at Penn State. What did you do your research on in the institute?

[00:00:38] Emily Huang: Yes. I was a former member and in fact, I was taught by the Great Pat.

Pat’s Lineage? Yes. And yeah. Most of my research has surrounded some translation work from either, mostly Chinese books into English.

[00:00:56] Jason Cohen: I was very, very helpful at the time. And it's not so dissimilar from what you might be working on here on the tea technique team! We're happy to have you.

Actually, like the rest of us, you are in the food and beverage industry. You work in product development, right?

[00:01:11] Emily Huang: I used to work more centered in the food and beverage industry, more on the manufacturing side, and now I work on the consulting side of things, but I still serve the greater FMCG, which includes the food and beverage industry right now.

[00:01:28] Pat Penny: At one time, Emily and I were fighting head to head. I was doing products for coffee in Japan, and she was doing products for a large competitor, actually a much bigger company.

[00:01:55] Emily Huang: No, yeah, yeah, what used to be sensei sensei, seito relationship, just, you know, head on head competition.

[00:01:47] Pat Penny: Emily was in marketing.

[00:01:48] Zongjun Li: It turns out to be a battle at the end.

[00:01:52] Pat Penny: Yeah, Emily was in marketing, so she, I think she won that battle.

[00:01:56] Zongjun Li: Woo!

[00:01:58] Jason Cohen: Amazing. My first question. Is Zini an overlooked clay in comparison to Hongni and Zhuni? We so rarely hear odes to the greatness of Zini. Why do the red clay wares receive the majority of praise and attention?

[00:02:13] Pat Penny: It is a really good question, and it's a hard question. I don't know why, but it is something I've observed as well. I think predominantly social media platforms, Instagram, you see a lot of people posting old Zhuni pots. You see, you know, a lot of late Qing or early ROC Zhuni, lots of poetic descriptions about the texture of the skin, people go on and on about some specific shapes and makers.

And I don't feel like I've seen the same, just long winded poetic posts about Zini of any sort. And often nowadays, a lot of the kind of standard, more basic pots that you can find online from a lot of decently reputable vendors often kind of start in the Zini category and maybe sometimes you'll have things that get a little more specific, like you'll get a Di Cao Qing available.

But it's really hard to say why; I feel like maybe there's a little bit of some color psychology going on there where, you know, these Zini pots are kind of just brown and a little more earthy and they don't stand out as much. And Zhuni really has this, Hongni really have kind of a little bit more of a brightness that catches the eye.

But never thought about it. It's a fascinating question.

[00:03:20] Zongjun Li: Yeah, my gut suspicion is that, the hype of really dive into Zini has passed and we are just living in an era that people start to shift from Zini to Zhuni. Cause, you know, back in the days Zini was like the go to clay when you want to purchase any Zisha wares.

Like the name Zisha was originally came from the influence of Zini. And for all of the older wares, oftentimes you see like Di Cao Qing, you see wares made out of Tian Qing Ni, all under the Zini category. But right now, all of the highest quality Zini has been deprived.

I think it's quite natural for the market and people's attention to shift from Zini to other types of clay.

[00:04:04] Jason Cohen: Emily, do you think it's the commonality? Like, is it just that Zini is the most common Zisha, and thus it gets relegated to a lesser category?

[00:04:15] Emily Huang: What do you mean by the commonality?

[00:04:18] Jason Cohen: It's the most common as a percentage of mine output. Majority of Zisha wares are made of Zini or blended with Zini.

[00:04:26] Emily Huang: But, why would that make it the most popular… because that would be the least rare, right?

I don't know in my go to sense was usually a little bit more desired when it's a little bit more rare and fewer supply higher demand kind of thing.

[00:04:44] Jason Cohen: It was the Taiwanese that originally started the – I don't know if I should say over focus – but the initial focus on particularly Zhuni wares; That was Taiwanese scholars, Taiwanese collectors who said that Zhuni has died in Zisha. Do you believe that that still plays a role in the over focus on red clay wares versus Zini?

[00:05:06] Emily Huang: I don't think it still plays as much of a role, but because of the limited information that we have going around in this world, it could still be to an extent.

[00:05:19] Pat Penny: Going back real quick, I think you know, Emily had a good point around the supply and demand kind of rarity. Right? So I think any, any clay that is perceived as rarer, particularly nowadays with just the way that we share information through social media, I think that rarity and that hype has some kind of value. And so it makes sense that if Zini was commonly available, people aren't going to flaunt their Zini pots as much because everyone kind of has one. Even if we don't all have super amazing ones.

But on the Taiwanese collector piece, I do wonder, you know, as the focus in the market, let's say, predominantly around, like, the late 2000s into the 2010s really started shifting even in the Western market towards puer and the focus really moved towards puer, right around the time that I, you know, was really getting into tea, with the Taiwanese having such a particularly special stockhold of old puers, I wonder how much of the focus on and shift towards that kind of tea also had global tea members’ focus shift towards other Taiwanese inclinations, such as red clays, Zhuni, Hongni.

[00:06:23] Zongjun Li: Yeah, also for the highest quality Zini, like contemporary Tian Qing Ni, it's still in very high demand and people still regard it as a very high quality and fancy clay to, to have.

So I think Emily does have a point that there's a supply demand issue going on right here. And for all the fancy type, fancy variation underneath each clay category, I think it's still being regarded highly.

[00:06:47] Jason Cohen: But would you say that for the global market or the Western market, or are you talking only specifically for the Chinese market?

Because I certainly think that Zini is more sought after in the, in the mainland market than it is in the Western market.

[00:06:59] Zongjun Li: Oh, yeah, I, I would agree on that too. I was thinking about the domestic market when I was assessing this.

[00:07:06] Jason Cohen: So do we think that the under focus or the over focus on red clay wares is actually just an artifact of the Western market, it's not true in China now? Because both Zongjun, you and Emily immediately said like, Oh, I don't, I don't know if that's the thing. Whereas, Pat and I were like, yeah, weird, hard question, why do all these Westerners focus on Zhuni wares? So is this just an East West split right now?

[00:07:28] Zongjun Li: It seems so. Both hypes exist in the domestic market in China. But I think in the West, there seems to be a strong inclination towards Zhuni other than Zini.

[00:07:40] Pat Penny: Yeah, I wonder if there's other kind of markets around the mainland area, right? Like, I feel like I do see quite a lot of Singaporeans, Malaysians that are focusing on some red clay wares, whereas maybe in the mainland, as you were saying, Jason, the focus isn't there. Zongjun did just land, what, yesterday from China, so I think he's got a pretty great perspective on it.

Welcome back, Zongjun.

[00:08:03] Zongjun Li: Thanks.

[00:08:04] Jason Cohen: Now you can actually drink tea while we have these conversations.

[00:08:08] Pat Penny: Yeah. Emily's still stuck in a pretty late time zone, sorry.

[00:08:12] Jason Cohen: I don’t know if I would say stuck. Emily, you want to trade…

[00:08:16] Emily Huang: (laughs) Yeah, definitely not stuck. I, for one thing, get more tea resources and faster than you.

[00:08:23] Pat Penny: That's true. That's true. Jason and I are both waiting on some tea shipments. If we were in Taiwan, we'd have them in our hands.

[00:08:29] Jason Cohen: Follow up on this topic, a long, long time ago in a place far, far away, all of us here believe that we knew something about Yixing, I think. And yet before undertaking this book we would have been mystified at the variations of Zini. Unlike Zhuni and Hongni the variations within Zini were very rarely discussed at the time.

So why were we so late in learning about these variations? Why were we so late in learning about Di Cao Qing and Tian Qing Ni? I'd love to hear everyone else's perspectives on this, but

[00:08:55] Pat Penny: just considering, you know, Jason and I had started studying with you and with our various teachers the earliest out of everyone on here, I feel like the frameworks that the teachers that we studied under that they brought in regards to Yixing and Zisha Clay were very different than the kind of frameworks that you now, through this research are kind of starting to unpack.

The kind of subdivisions like we're seeing here, Tian Qing Ni, Di Cao Qing, Qing Shui Ni, these are things that maybe in the past five or six years on the Western facing, you know, internet, you could start to find more discussion of these. But I think when you and I had first started studying Yixing, if you searched for Yixing Zini clay on the internet, you were gonna find something that was just called Zini. You were not gonna find Tian Qing Ni, like that didn't exist on the Western facing market 10 years ago.

It does seem that there are multiple frameworks for approaching Zisha Clay and it just seems that now with the writing of this book, we're tapping into potentially the most accurate one as it relates to the physical materials.

I'm interested to hear everyone else's thoughts. Though when we were first learning about Yixing, we never talked about any of these kind of subtypes. You guys are both Mandarin language speakers. As Jason and I were talking about Yixing, what were you guys thinking? Were these things you had heard about before?

[00:10:11] Zongjun Li: Yeah, so, Di Cao Qing and Tian Qing Ni are some of the older notion of Zini being categorized in the past. Contemporarily speaking a lot of these Zini are heavily categorized based on their geographic identity, like different shaft mines or different mining sites. And it's quite rare to actually hear people referring to certain wares made out of certain types of Zini from a specific location until maybe very, very recently even in China.

[00:10:42] Pat Penny: particularly if they're trying to sell you

[00:10:44] Zongjun Li: Yeah…when they're being ultra specific, sometimes we really need to put a question mark on top of that, wondering, ah, okay, do you actually know the difference between Shaft Mine number one and Shaft Mine number four Zini from different strata?

[00:11:00] Jason Cohen: Here’s your... Da Shui Tan Tian Qing Ni. Look! You can tell it's Tian Qing Ni because of the remaining cat’s eyes. Can't you see the little sparkle from the adjacency to, to, marble?

[00:11:12] Zongjun Li: Ya…and the five percent mica difference really makes a whole different world.

[00:11:18] Pat Penny: I just have to have the chapter table out, you know, when I start going to shops at this point.

[00:11:23] Jason Cohen: Point to which, to which deposit was this from? Here's the table, point.

[00:11:30] Pat Penny: Yeah, things no merchant knows.

[00:11:32] Jason Cohen: No, certainly, certainly not.

[00:11:34] Pat Penny: So Emily, I'm interested in your perspective. You know, we…we all thought we knew something about Yixing when we were studying at the institute. And now I feel like I knew nothing.

[00:11:43] Emily Huang: Just like Pat mentioned, when we first started learning this, maybe there wasn't enough access to a lot of these information. And I still feel like there's a whole world out there. A lot of them could be hidden in more ancient... excerpts, a lot of them could be fake or yet to be validated.

And so a lot of it just needs a lot of time for us to learn as we go. But even in the Mandarin speaking world, I would say it doesn't make it any easier to find the right things. If anything, it's, it's even more noise.

Like Zongjun mentioned, there's a more merchants, there's a lot of – especially with the ease of technology everyone can post contents. It could be called other names. So, I definitely still feel like I know nothing.

[00:12:35] Pat Penny: Something we all learn though, and I think continues to serve us today and is still the focus of ours. Beyond the scholarly work that we're putting out now, I think we did learn a good framework for approaching how to evaluate what teas work well with which clays. And that's something that I think can't be taught through specifically writing. But I do think through the book, Jason, you hope to provide a framework for people to do the same.

[00:12:56] Jason Cohen: I agree. Our education at the Institute both because of the access to the information we have, because of the method of pedagogy and because of my knowledge and interests at the time was very, very tasting focused. So we knew far less about the, you know, the sub, sub sub variation of ore, we knew far less about which mine anything came from, we knew far less about pinpai and blending techniques.

But we were very good at identifying: this is an antique teapot, this is a Duanni, Hongni, Zhuni, or Zini, and this is the pairing that we have found, this is the effect of the clay on the tea. And, and I think that that continues to serve us well, because we have said multiple times in the podcast and in the chapters, how do you use this information? Sometimes it's possible, sometimes if you're sourcing it's possible, but frequently when you're going to sit in your tea room, does it really matter if it's from shaft mine 1 versus shaft mine 2, or surface level mine versus mid mountain mine? Only if you really know what you're collecting, what you're aiming for, or if you have a point of comparison.

But if you go and buy a good Yixing teapot, right, your goal needs to be, what are you going to use it with? What are you going to pair it with? And, and I don't think that our, our approach has changed that much since our time at the Institute.

[00:14:12] Zongjun Li: Yeah, I think this is a really a good mindset of collecting tea wares. You're collecting for what essentially, for your usage, for drinking tea or just for the sheer value this teapot might increase over time and got sold for a better price in the auction.

[00:14:27] Pat Penny: Exactly. Just flip it and start selling it for Mao Tai bottles. There we go.

[00:14:33] Jason Cohen: I think though the Luckin, Mao Tai collab is going really well.

[00:14:37] Pat Penny: Oh my God. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to talk about it. 

[00:14:40] Zongjun Li: It’s a big hype, but for the friends that have–  

[00:14:44] Pat Penny: –Millions of cups, it's insane.

[00:14:46] Zongjun Li: Yeah, for my friends who have tried it back in China, they told me that the, the taste really smells like vomits after very intensive baijiu drinking.

[00:14:55] Jason Cohen: Oh, well, I mean, have you had caffé corretto? Coffee and grappa isn't like – is the – at least in my mind is what they based it off of. I don't know anyone who willingly orders and drinks that. 

[00:15:07] Pat Penny: Well, just, just think about the occasion, right? Like you're, when you're going to Luckin, right? You're probably going to work. You're probably picking up a coffee and going to work, or you just came off a lunch break. Like, do you want to taste something that tastes like a, a work dinner, a sad work dinner? No. 

[00:15:22] Zongjun Li: Day drinking is the new hype.

[00:15:24] Jason Cohen: Well, at least we don't have to worry about any productivity gains from China this month.

We saw it rise due to AI and now we saw it plummet due to Luckin Coffee.

[00:15:36] Zongjun Li: I got out at the right time, I guess.

[00:15:39] Jason Cohen: Ok, how do you think about names shifting over time? Why does the definition change in every era? What is it different in ROC and then in F1?

[00:15:49] Zongjun Li: Well, a lot of the definition changed during F1 and Cultural Revolution era. People tend to redefine things not just zisha and  zini but also a lot of other things. Meaning shift of different terms happens all the time.

And most of the time it's for the convenience of manufacturer and marketing and selling. So I feel like that this is what happened doing the name shifting of Qing Shui Ni throughout these eras, because this is what people can recognize. This is what they are able to produce at a time. So most likely they just stick with the name.

[00:16:26] Jason Cohen: But the re-adoption of old names, this is something that's very, very culturally Chinese. Taking something that has a, a history and a legacy to a name and saying, like, that thing doesn't exist anymore, I'm going to take that name and use it for this new thing, which I think is good and I think deserving of a name that has a legacy and has history. And so you redefine. Qing Shui Ni has been redefined, what, three times, four times in this chapter?

[00:16:50] Zongjun Li: Yeah, that's right. And also Tian Qing Ni too, like the legendary Tian Qing Ni probably don't exist at all. But for nowadays they found similar feature of Zini from similar locations, and they're coining that Tian Qing Ni. I think that as you say, it's pretty common in Chinese history. Again, not just about Zini.

[00:17:10] Pat Penny: We talk about that a lot in book one as well. There's, there's a certain capital to some of these names and the historical context that happened around them. And it lends it a type of authenticity that consumers are willing to pay a little bit more if they think that there is some cultural cachet behind an item that may or not really exist with that specific set item they're purchasing.

[00:17:33] Jason Cohen: And one of the most interesting parts of this question is, is that temporality? Why does it happen in times of great changes, right? We, we actually see the redefinitions normally during an era of discovery, of new materials or an era of exploration. So in ROC, greater access to various ores and mines and new blending techniques. And then in F1 greater mechanizations of the mines. How do we link these two concepts of the developmental work and the developmental history of the mine to this temporal liminality on the definitions of the materials themselves?

[00:18:09] Pat Penny: I think I, I continue to look at it as a marketing exercise. So I, I really see where you mentioned in each kind of era, we see these new frontiers as far as production methodologies, ore processing, mechanization... and with that there's always an opportunity.

And you probably just have savvy business people; I really doubt that it's craftsmen that really, or ore miners that go and say, “wow, this is something so new. We need to sell this under a new name.” I think there really is just in, in each of these areas, there's people who see that there's been a shift.

They see there's an opportunity. There's probably an unmet need or a consumer who has money that is willing to buy things that are kind of new and seem to be pushing the boundaries. And so they have identified that and they go and they make a name for themselves. They make a new name on this clay and find a way to tie it back to something that might be important or lend authenticity to this new item because something that's new is probably a little scary for some consumers. And so they make it sound like it's something that's always been around or something that's always been special. And it's, it's just finding that opportunity.

[00:19:13] Jason Cohen: Zongjun, do you want to defend Chinese culture from Pat's accusation of craven marketing?

[00:19:18] Zongjun Li: I don't think that was the point that Pat was trying to make. And I mean,

[00:19:21] Pat Penny: I mean, it's not far off.

[00:19:22] Zongjun Li: Yeah, well, I mean, I kind of agree with Pat that there's a big role of consumer recognition playing right here, that for Qing Shui Ni, that's for the majority of the consumer, what they can recognize in the market, that they see Qing Shui Ni as good, as single origin, as pure.

And at the time that's what the, the factory can manufacture. And they manufacture certain type of clay. They coined the name Qing Shui Ni. They give it a grading system. But inventing a new name was certainly probably going against a lot of the, the market recognition at a time and educating the market can be hard too, especially, during those eras where the consumer literacy rate was relatively low.

[00:20:02] Jason Cohen: To be clear, I totally agree. My last question. We don't want to talk too much about pairing this early in the book and before our long running experiments have been completed. Yet, one of our commissioned sets is in Tian Qing Ni clay. Contemporary Tian Qing Ni clay. What has been your experience, Pat and Zongjun, using Tian Qing Ni, and how does it compare to other Zinis you've used, both modern and antique?

[00:20:24] Pat Penny: We gotta get Emily this set if you got extras, Jason. So I absolutely love this set. I do have a couple other Zini clay pots. I've got some Qing Shui Ni. I do not own any Di Cao Qing to my knowledge. This set has been awesome, not just the learning opportunities within the set, but the clay itself.

I will say a lot of the pairings have been really good. Even pairings that I thought were less successful still had a, a net neutral at the most effect or at the worst rather, I have really been loving how this clay interacts with, you know, roasted oolongs, with like mid-aged puer that still has a little bit of a punch. And that's a lot of the kind of teas that I drink. So I've found this to be a very versatile teapot or clay, right, interaction with a lot of the teas that I want to be drinking.

[00:21:07] Zongjun Li: Yeah, I totally agree with the effect of this clay to tea. And also, it's quite interesting to actually go to Yixing and talk to the ceramists and artists about the origin of this clay and after having the discussion, and also seeing comparisons of other clays, I really had a, a pretty brand new understanding of what pure clay is supposed to be. Like, for this Tian Qing Ni it's not really pure in the sense of traditionally what people in the market will think of, it has some mica chips, it has some residual of lipi.

For the ceramics and artists in Yixing, that's what they consider as pure, it's natural. It doesn't undergo any acid wash. It doesn't undergo any intensive artificial selection. It's what it is and it has good effect on tea. And it has good teapot construction and that's what they prefer. And that's what we love about it too.

[00:21:59] Jason Cohen: And now that we've sung the praise of Tian Qing Ni and all of our listeners are going to go out and try to buy Tian Qing Ni, how do we warn them against what’s not real?

[00:22:08] Pat Penny: Yeah, there's a lot of very expensive Tian Qing Ni floating around on the internet, and how much of it is actually Tian Qing Ni and how much of it is storytelling, I don't know. But I don't think the split is in their favor either. I think I'm lucky enough, you know, that since we have access and we have a source, I haven't really had to go out onto the internet and try and find Tian Qing Ni. But I think when I do, I'm going to need a little bit of help being less gullible to some of the marketing stories that I've seen.

[00:22:35] Zongjun Li: Yeah. Like if you Google/Baidu, Tian Qing Ni slash Zisha on the internet, you're going to scroll through at least 10 pages of different vendor sites.

[00:22:45] Jason Cohen: The best source is definitely Douyin.

[00:22:49] Pat Penny: Don't believe anything that is being sold as, you know, over, over a certain age. I mean, anything that's Tian Qing Ni is going to be pretty contemporary. You're not going to get a historical Tian Qing Ni and don't let the historicity of the name s ell you on the product that you're about to buy because it is unrelated, most likely.

[00:23:06] Jason Cohen: Just in closing, I'll say that my pairing notes predominantly agree with Pat’s and Zongjun’s. I have a slight preference for my antique Hongni and Zhuni for roasted Oolongs although it's great in the Tian Qing Ni, but the mid-age puers in that have just been phenomenal.

Thank you for joining us in this edition of Tea Technique Editorial Conversations. Please join us again for our next conversation, Hongni Ore and Clay.


Jason M Cohen

Master of Ceremonies at Tea Technique. Founder & CEO of Simulacra Synthetic Data Studio. Previously: Founder of Analytical Flavor Systems & Founder of the Tea Institute at Penn State (defunct).