Tea has played a major role in Chinese life and culture for millennia. By the year 1000, it was prepared by crumbling the tea shrub’s fragrant leaves, mixing them with hot water, then sipping the brew from bowls. Yixing teapots developed soon after this technique arose, and continued through the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 through 1911).
The pots were fashioned from exceptionally hard purple zisha clay, which is unique to the region of Yixing, China. Alhough it is known as “five-color clay,” added metal oxides, along with variations in firing temperatures and kiln environments, created vessels in shades ranging from black and brown to yellowish-brown, buff and ivory.
Creating tiny Yixing teapots, initially favored by scholars and merchants, required great artistry and skill. Once the clay was readied for use and pounded into thin sheets, it was cut into rectangular and round segments. Many were then press-molded into standard teapot components – bodies, handles, lids, and spouts – then assembled by hand.
Alternatively, master potters created pots by hand from start to finish. First, they patiently paddled and smoothed their clay segments into desired angles and curves. After forming them into bodies, they carefully cut top openings and created lids. Then they added pre-made handles, spouts, and finials. Firing followed.
Because Yixing teapots evolved over many generations, their forms vary greatly. Scores resemble pyramids, squares, curved-squares, rectangles, or curved-rectangles. Others are conical or globular, or mimic the shapes of melons, peaches, or pears. Still others simulate gracefully draped cloth. Another notable style features exquisite double-walled reticulated designs against grounds of clay in contrasting shades.
Yixing teapot designs vary from simple to sumptuous. The smooth, unglazed, unadorned forms, favored by many embody the subtle beauty associated with Chinese aesthetics. So, too, do those displaying Chinese proverbs or poems inscribed in gilt-incised calligraphy, and those graced with delicate gilded dragons, blossoms, or landscapes.
Themed Yixing pots often feature charming details such as mushroom-shaped lids, gourd-shaped spouts, scaly dragon-tail handles, molded fruit or flower appliques, and auspicious three-legged turtle finials. Others are lacquered, enameled, or encased in pewter. Many of these pots also incorporate incised character seal marks or artist signatures, as well as names of ruling emperors, into their designs.
Yixing teapots are treasured not only as works of art, but also because they brew exceptional cups of tea. These cups are traditionally prepared according to gongfu, an elaborate Chinese ritual expressly suited to small pots.
After rinsing a teapot with hot, mineral-rich spring water, then emptying it, the host lines its bottom with tea leaves. She closes its lid, waits several seconds, opens the lid and inhales its aroma, sharing it with her guests. Next, she refills the pot, covers it, and empties it — a process that allows the leaves to expand. At that point, she adds boiling water, steeps the tea for 20 to 30 seconds, pours it into a serving pitcher, and samples it, noting its texture, taste and aftertaste. Finally, she serves it in very small cups. When the brew has been depleted, she briefly steeps the leaves again, ensuring that each cup of tea will remain hot.
Through the years, aficionados noticed that the more they brewed tea in their Yixing pot, the better the tea tasted. This is because when mineral-rich clay is fired, it creates a characteristic granular, porous surface. The enhanced permeability allows Yixing teapots to adapt to changes in temperature and “breathe,” which enhances its flavor and aroma. Yixing pots also absorb delicate oils and trace minerals that tea leaves leave behind at each brewing. In fact, some claim, only half-joking, that adding boiling water alone to an antique, well-seasoned Yixing pot will produce full-flavored tea.
No wonder hardcore tea-drinkers eschew the mundane “muddying of the waters” in favor of steeping a favorite type of tea in the traditional manner reserved for a Yixing teapot.