It’s challenging to find a good set of Yixing teapots in the states, let alone finding books regarding such a subject. It’s such a shame. There are some excellent books written in English about Yixing teapots, but very few Chinese Yixing books made it to America.
When a person is studying Yixing teapot, they are also studying Chinese culture. Because of the authors’ experience, the books are often very well written and enjoyable to read. I know many of you would love to learn more about Yixing teapots, but those resources are only available in Chinese.
I decided to write a detailed book review of this book. Yixing teapot is a culture stable. To learn about Yixing teapot, you have to dive into the culture, history, and background of ancient China. Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and painting are some of the most beautiful forms of art, and all of them express through one small Yixing teapot.
Here we go! Enjoy!
Chinese title: 另类眼光看紫砂
English title: Alternative Ways to Appreciate Purple Clay (my translation)
Author: 张艳超 Zhang Yanchao, 张学明 Zhang Xueming
Publish Date: Ｍarch 1st, 2018
Author Zhang Xueming has been in the industry for 40 years and is one of the leading figures in Yixing teapots in China. He is a collector and connoisseur and is a close friend with artist Gu Jingzhou.
Zhang Yanchao is a student and a mentee of Zhang Xueming and has been in the industry for 20 years.
Style of Writing
Since the book comes from two different people with two very different styles, parts of the book are easy to understand, but parts of the book are more complicated. People who know a bit about Chinese culture know that the modern Chinese language is very different from ancient Chinese. Ancient Chinese is beautiful, but the complexity of the language makes it difficult to read. I often have to read a sentence a few times to grasp its meaning. However, I appreciate the artistry of the deep literature background of the authors.
The crafting of Yixing clay into the teapot is considered an art form in China, but what’s the most significant difference between Yixing clay and traditional clay ware? Most scholars agree that Yixing clayware is the union between crafting the teapot and traditional Chinese art forms such as Chinese calligraphy and poems.
For the past 20-30 years, the distortion of Yixing teapot’s value has led to massive confusion. The teapots were valued by the fame and status of the artists, not by the artistic beauty. And because of that, people are bribing their way into organizations for titles such as “masters“ and “grandmasters.” Rumors of people who bought their title for 20,000 yuan (about $3,100) are not rare.
Ultimately, consumers are paying the price for such distortion. But if consumers can’t trust the artists’ names, how do they decide the teapots’ value? The author summed it up to five components: shape, clay, skill, decoration, and fire - “elegance of the shape, quality of the clay, the skill of the artist, beauty of the decoration, and proper use of the fire.” In other words, a good Yixing teapot is beautiful, and it brings out the best in the tea leaves.
Any seasoned tea drinker will be able to tell the quality of the clay from the tea.
Most prominent Yixing artists are also great in other art forms. Some of them are professional pianists, art gallery owners, authors, painters, and poets. Most Yixing artists know a thing or two about poetry, Chinese calligraphy, and Chinese painting. The rich background of the artists is how Yixing teapots culture can evolve over time.
Yixing teapots are commercialized to distortion. I can only imagine how confusing it must be for consumers. So the author’s primary goal of this book is to educate. It’s such a shame to watch beautiful art form being commercialized and abused. The book is titled “alternative” because the so-called mainstream is hurting artists and consumers.
There were three intros for this book, and one of the openings was written by Zhang Xueming’s student Zeng Jing (曾静). In it, she wrote: Teacher Zhang lives a simple life, reading and tea are daily musts, and he has journaled every day for 60 years using Chinese calligraphy.
Rectification of Yixing Teapot,
Yixing teapot comes with many names such as “mud pot,” “elegant pot,” “sand pot,” yellow mud teapot.” Calling Yixing teapot purple clay teapot is not accurate. Have you ever held a yellow Yixing teapot and confused about why it’s also called “purple clay”? Yixing teapot can come in many colors, the most common ones are purple, red, yellow, white, and black, 1 out of 5 times it’s not purple. So instead of calling it “purple clay teapot,” “Yixing teapot” is a more accurate name.
History of Yixing Teapot
Yixing teapot got its name from its birthplace. Yixing is on the junction of Zhe Jiang, Su Zhou, and An Hui province.
see highlighted area, Image from google map
Some books state that the Yixing teapot first became a thing in the Song Dynasty, year 960 - 1279. But people who know tea know that people in Song steamed tea. A more plausible theory is that it all started in the Ming Dynasty, 1368 - 1644. Some passages from the Ming Dynasty stated that the first person who made Yixing teapot was a Buddhist monk named Xi Chun 袭春.
The history of tea is closely related to the Buddhist culture in China. Lu Yu wrote the first book about tea, and he grew up in a Buddhist temple. Legend has it that his early interest in tea was sparked when he brewed tea for his elders at the temple.
Author Zhou Gaoqi wrote the first book about Yixing teapot around 1640. In it, he stated that the first teapot is called Gong Chun 供春. The Gong Chun teapot’s most striking feature is its exterior, which looks like a tree with burls. In the 19th century, the museum of Great Britain tried to purchase Gong Chun for 20,000 pounds, and the owner turned it down.
Gong Chun Teapot, Image source: auction.artron.net
The Ming Dynasty was when artists flourished in the Zhe Jiang area because of its cultural diversity and economic advancement. Before that, artists were not deemed respectable in society. It’s no surprise that Yixing teapot flourished there as well.
One of the best Yixing artists at the time is Shi Dabin 时大彬. He observed that people who drank tea used a giant teapot; people who tasted tea used a small teapot. He then switched his focus from making giant teapots to a smaller size. He mastered the craft of hand-making teapot instead of using molds. Only 40 of his teapots exist today; very few people have seen the real ones.
Shi Dabin’s work sold for 13,440,000 Yuan, about $2 million
This Yixing teapot, made by Chen Mansheng, was sold for 32,300,000 yuan (about $5,031,250). A jaw-dropping amount of money.
Why would anyone pay this much money for a teapot, you ask. Let’s look at who is Chen Mansheng.
Chen Mansheng 陈曼生 (given by himself), AKA. Chen Hongshou 陈鸿寿 (given by his parents), born in 1768, was a calligrapher and seal carver. Although not very well documented, he worked in a leadership position for the government for his day job. In his free time, he devoted his time to art. He loved making friends, especially artist friends. Chen Mansheng is crazy about collecting and studying Yixing teapot. One day, he and his friends decide to make a special design of their own. There are some very talented calligraphers, poets, and seal carvers, and of course, Yixing teapot artists.
Among them, they made 18 designs. And those teapots were the firsts to have carvings of calligraphy on them. Each design has its name and inscription carved on the teapot. Because of the Chinese language’s complexity, there is more than one way to interpret each note. I will translate three of the inscriptions; if you guys are interested, I will make another blog post about all 18 of them.
Shi Piao, inscription: one way to interpret it is to keep a fit body if you want to live a long and healthy life. Another way to understand is if you own a humble attitude, you will live a long and happy life.
Ti Liang, inscription: Make white stone tea, enjoy the beauty of nature; I invite you, my friend, to join me.
Li Yin, inscription: conical hat gives shade, tea quench my thirst, are they the same or different? God is not telling me.
What Makes a Yixing Teapot Valuable
The author summed it up to 3 reasons:
- Yixing teapot is an art piece that also possesses practical use.
- It reflects Chinese culture.
- It is a record of history in itself.
Yixing clay is rare as it gets. It’s high in iron. Among different colors of Yixing clay, purple is the rarest of them, for only about 3%-4%. But the kind of clay it uses is not all that matters; the core of its spiritual culture and artistry also play an essential role.
A beautiful Yixing teapot must be elegant, made with high-quality clay, the artist must know his/her craft, the decoration is gorgeous, and lastly, it must be fired to perfection. Missing either one of those elements will not make the perfect teapot.
Criticism of the Modern Yixing Teapot Value System
There are so many designs of the Yixing teapot. Some got to pass down throughout generations; some were quickly forgotten. The classic ones are the ones that people will never get tired of looking at. A lid, the body lines, the handle have to be in perfect harmony with the body.
Classic styles are improved by people every day. Styles can change by different artists, but not every artist is skilled enough to do so. Some so-called “grandmasters” take a part of one classic style and a part of another kind, add them up together, and call this an innovation. It’s an insult to the craft.
Yixing teapot doesn’t have to be “new.” It’s an item designed for everyday use. Any person should be able to pick up a Yixing teapot and tell whether it’s beautiful or average. When an artist wants to come up with “ new” but forgets its ultimate purpose: everyday use, what the “new” is good for?
Yixing teapot is humble, first, and foremost. Then it’s artistry. The simplest Yixing teapot is the most difficult to make. After cooking for six years, I can tell you the most straightforward dish, such as frying eggs, is the most difficult to make to perfection—the same for crafting a Yixing teapot.
Clay and Common Mistakes
Good clay has the right color. The color of the clay is pleasant to the eyes. High-quality clay teapots feel as soft as a baby’s skin.
The best clay comes from Mt. Huanglong. After weathering, the rock turns into clay. So you can imagine how precious quality clay can be. Although there are three primary colors: purple, red, and yellow, if you want to be precise, there can be more than 30 different colors. After mining, the longer the clay has sat around, the better. Mt. Huanglong’s clay keeps the water green when kept in buckets of water, but other clay is always muddy.
So how to tell high and low-quality clay apart. Purple clay has yellow, red, and black undertones. When held under the light, different undertones sparkle like the night sky. Low-quality clay can have those undertones, but it will look stale when held under the light. Think of silk and fake silk. Or cotton and polyester. You can tell just by touching.
What Makes a Good Artist
Does an artist have to make a fine teapot to be considered skilled? Can the artist finish with a rough teapot and still be regarded as a fine artist? This question may seem like a no-brainer, but there is more to it. Famous Yixing artist Xu Youxuan 徐友泉 （1573 - 1620） is considered better than his master Shi Dabin 时大彬 by some regards believe his work was more meticulous. But Youxuan said: even though my teapot is more pleasing, it’s still missing something compared to my master’s. Zhan Xunhua 詹勋华, the author of the book Illustration of Yixing Teapot, said about one of his collections: … there are fingerprints on the body of the teapot, and the carving is rough, there are many more little defects, but the artist doesn’t seem to care and kept all those details. Somehow, it works on this one.”
Some potters are full of confidence when it comes to their craft. Some of them don’t care to fit into the genre of “fine teapot.” They did their own thing. This spirit makes up for the flaws of the teapot itself. With confidence and skill, those types of artists express their true free nature.
For example, Cheng Shouzhen 程寿珍 from the late Qing Dynasty is one of those artists who did not follow the rules. One of his friends said he made two teapots a day well into his 80s. Most people look for symmetry in a teapot, but Shouzhen’s works were never symmetrical. The side effect? His work is difficult to counterfeit since it’s way too challenging to replicate a piece that’s so unique.
Does the Best Teapot Take the Longest?
When I first learned to cook, it took me a long time to make fried eggs, and it didn’t even taste good. Now I can open the fridge and whip dinner together in 30 minutes. The more you practice, the better and faster you get.
A good Yixing artist is not only skilled in his/her craft, but with speed. How fast can they make a teapot? One teapot per day should be a minimum. When you are skilled in making Yixing teapot, it becomes second nature.
But what if speed creates rough work? Remember, in Yixing teapot, it’s not the fine or roughness of the teapot, it’s much more complicated than that. Beauty lies in both.
100% Handmade - a Modern Myth
For the past 20 years, “100% handmade” Yixing teapot has been all the buzz. But is the claim legit?
What is “100% handmade” in Yixing teapot? That means from start to finish, and it’s 100% made by hand, from rolling the clay to forming the shape. We all know that there are hundreds of kinds of designs for Yixing teapot. Artists need special tools for many of them. Most great artists create their tools. So, does the mold count as a tool? Well, of course, mold is a tool. Many famous artists make their molds from scratch, whether for the handle, body, or the lid.
Famous Yixing artist Gu Jingzhou 顾景舟 had a lecture where he taught in detail how to use molds. Does he use molds for his work, which sold for thousands of dollars? You bet.
The author is not to discourage artists from practicing handcraft skills. Quite the opposite, he believes that every artist should make a teapot purely by hand. The more an artist practices, the faster he/she can finish a teapot. It’s not necessary to use a mold that way.
If 100% handmade is essential to you, how can you tell if a teapot is made by hand or used molds? When you flip the teapot over, a handmade teapot will show the junctions between different parts, and a semi-handmade one will not. If you place the same teapots made by the same artist side by side, they should all have slight variations if it’s handmade.
“Arts and crafts” - Is “crafts” More Important than “arts”?
Are Yixing teapots considered a form of art? The author believes it doesn’t. Besides the very few artists who made history, most Yixing teapots are considered a craft, not art.
So when it comes to Yixing teapot, which one is more important, art or craft? The author disagrees with what most people think. He believes that artistry is more important than skill—two-person who both make Yixing teapot. Person A might be better skilled, but person B has a better taste. In this case, person B’s work is always better than person A.
What’s missing from the modern Yixing teapot compared to the older generation? It’s an artistic cultivation. Literature, painting, and all other artistic training are all essential components of Yixing teapot. The artistic expression of the Yixing teapot is far more important than the craft. Unfortunately, modern Yixing artists lack a background in arts. Isn’t this a shame?
What’s an apprentice teapot?
First and foremost, most apprentice teapot is a marketing gimmick. It often goes like this: I was an apprentice at “a famous Yixing artist”’s studio, I made and assembled work for him, and his work was sold for $1 million, mine only cost $200, and look, this is his signature, our teapots are identical! Most people hearing this will think: what a bargain!
The signature belongs to the famous artist, sold as his work, but made by someone else. Even though some of those teapots look the same, this is a form of counterfeit.
It makes sense if the artist designs his teapot, picks the clay, makes the teapot, and signs his name. But if someone else made it with his name, it shouldn’t be sold as his work.
Can an apprentice’s ability surpass her master? You bet. In this case, does it matter who made the teapot?
Some people believe that only the quality of the teapot matters, not if it’s counterfeit. And I wholeheartedly agree. But wouldn’t it be better if we ditch the name altogether and solely focus on the teapot?
Is It Okay to Show off Your Skills?
Some artists can make large and small Yixing teapots; some can make teapots as tiny as a bean’s size. Some artists can make teapots as thin as paper.
Those types of endeavors are challenging to pull off. So is it okay to show off your skills? Well, Yixing teapot’s purpose is to make tea, first and foremost. If a teapot is fragile as paper or small as a bean, then what’s the point of owning one?
The Two Most Creative Decoration in Yixing Teapot
“Sand accent” and “mud painting” are the two most creative ways to decorate a Yixing Teapot.
First, sand accent means mixing golden sand into red or purple Yixing clay, creating an illusion of a starry night. There are three ways to achieve such an effect: the first way is to add thick gold sand into fine clay; the second way is to shape the clay first, then roll the wet clay onto the sand, like dipping donuts in sugary powder; the third way is the hardest, which require the artist to add each piece of sand by hand. The third way is the most challenging because the outcome highly depends on the artist’s aesthetic level.
Mud painting is how it sounds. Artists use contrasting color mud to paint the teapot. It might sound simple but super challenging to achieve a mastery outcome.
How to “Read the Lines” of Yixing Teapot
Points make lines, and lines make shapes. If you are new to Yixing teapot, you probably don’t know there are many names given to the lines that exist on each teapot. Whether it’s a straight line, a curve line, or a wavy line, it can create a strong visual impact if used correctly. A good artist knows how to use lines to create a practical and beautiful object.
There are three primary sources of inspiration for the shapes. The first inspiration comes from nature turned abstract. The second one comes from nature itself, such as animals, the forms of fruits, plants. The third one comes from traditional Chinese utensils.
The lines are essential when judging the artistry of a Yixing teapot. One of the most prominent figures in Yixing teapot Gu Jingzhou 顾景舟 improved upon the old Ti Liang teapot 提梁壶 and added his spin. But no matter how much Yixing teapot has changed over time, for masters of this craft, simple principles are always to be followed.
Ti Liang by Gu Jingzhou, image source: https://new.qq.com/
Why We Should Give Carvers the Same Respect
Some Yixing artists hire professional carvers to decorate their teapot, and some “prominent” carvers buy cheap Yixing teapot and carve their work, then sell for 10, 100 times more. How did this become a thing, you ask?
If we look at history, it’s not always progressing. Sometimes history regresses. For example, carving used to be its industry. But since carvers are not held the same high regard as “Yixing teapot masters,” many decide to ditch the name carver. The same thing happens to some Yixing teapot artists. Since carving on clay is not their strongest suit, they choose to make the teapot but have someone else decorate.
The only way to solve the issue is to give carvers the same high regard we give to Yixing teapot artists. Making a Yixing teapot is an art form, and carving is also its art form.
What’s “Yao Bian” Teapot 窑变壶?
If you have dabbled in Yixing teapot for a while, you might have heard the term Yao Bian. Yao means the kiln, Bian implies change. Yao Bian means a teapot that was changed in the firing process.
So, where does the term Yao Bian come from? When glazed porcelain undergoes the firing process, the glaze and porcelain create amazingly beautiful colors. People start to call it Yao Bian porcelain. Glazed clay does the same thing. But Yixing teapot is rarely glazed, so how did the term Yao Bian teapot come to be?
Yao Bian porcelain, image source: https://www.sohu.com/
The author believes that some Yixing teapot antique dealer wants to sell their teapot at a higher price. These teapots are made by prominent Yixing artists but damaged in the firing process. To trick people into paying more for those teapots, they came up with their marketing gimmick. Therefore they will call those teapots one in a million, technically it’s true, even though it’s damaged goods.
Yao Bian Yixing teapot, not the same thing. Image source: http://www.fudaotang.com/
Marketing gimmick aside, are those teapots any good? Yixing clay is known to make delicious tea for its porous property. When a teapot undergoes firing in a high temp environment, the pores close up, and the hardness is close to porcelain and glass. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of a clay teapot?
Which Kiln is the Best?
Understanding how kiln work is a part of learning Yixing teapot. Good clay needs a good kiln fire. Good kiln fire needs a good kiln worker. A skilled worker knows how long the teapots need to be “cooked.” If a clay teapot is not “cooked” long enough, it will not produce good tea. Finding a trustworthy kiln factory is essential, as “cooking” the teapot for less time will save the factory tons of money.
Some people think they messed up their teapot because it has a muddy taste. A good Yixing teapot should not have a muddy taste. The unpleasant taste happened when the teapot was not “cooked” long enough.
Being Famous vs. Being an Artist
Being famous doesn’t mean being talented. Becoming famous might require hard work, but it also depends on marketing strategies and social skills for Yixing artists.
In the old days, most Yixing artists made a living out of selling teapots but were never rich or famous. Some of their works were only discovered after their pass.
Nowadays, with the internet, anyone has the tools to become famous. You can make a mediocre product, but if you were at the right place at the right time, you would very likely make it. Good marketing doesn’t mean superior quality.
Imagine what it takes to become a master of a craft. It’s the day in and day out of the grind. It’s the “boring” ritual of sitting alone in your studio and doing the same thing over and over again until you master your skill.
To a person who never had fame and power, having those things all of a sudden could be detrimental. Most people who never had money don’t know how to manage them, and most people who never had fame don’t know how to handle it. A true artist is humble regardless of the title others give them. A true artist hones in their craft not to impress the world but to answer a calling.
The author mentioned many established Yixing artists he came across are humble people who lead a simple life. The daily ritual consists of making teapots and drinking tea. They are humble because experience allows them to see their limitations like a wise man once said: the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.
The author believes that making teapots are like drawing/painting/playing an instrument. You must have talent; otherwise, no practice can make up for lack of talent.
As a mother who studied child development, I don’t 100% agree with that statement. Imagine a child born normal, and her family starts training her in chess from a very young age, nothing else but chess, and she won a chess championship at the age of 15. Does that mean she only has a chess talent, but not music or anything else? You might argue, well, no one can become a chess champion just because she is being trained so, well, you ought to Google Susan Polgar and read about her story.
Okay, I am sidetracking here. What I am saying is a person’s circumstances can influence who she becomes. I think every person can become great, but not everyone has the right circumstances to become great.
Antique vs. Counterfeit
Yixing teapot originated in the Ming dynasty and became popular in the Qing dynasty. There is nothing but the experience when it comes to appraising antique Yixing teapots. The more you are exposed to antiques, the more you develop the instinct to pick out the right one. You can go to antique exhibitions, museums, join an antique club, or go to antique shops. You can read books about such subjects. Good books on this topic are Catalogue of Yixing Teapot 茗壶图录 by Au Xuan Bao 奥玄宝 （1836 - 1879), or The The Catalogue of Yixing Clay Ware 宜兴砂器图谱 by Zhan Xunhua 詹勋华。
Experience and compare. Some antique teapots from the Qing dynasty imitated the ones from the Ming dynasty. How can you tell them apart? The color of the clay. The darker the clay, the younger the teapot. Clay teapot from the Ming dynasty is lighter than those from the Qing dynasty, even though the clay could be mined from the same location.
Ordinary people don’t have access to thousands of antique teapots. Still, because the author devoted most of his life to Yixing teapot, he could meet antique dealers and collectors who have a big room full of teapots to explore.
If you are not 100% sure the teapot is antique, do not ask for the price. If you decide to purchase an antique, use it every day, so you can maintain its color and what the teapot was made for in the first place.
How to Take Care of Yixing Teapots
For maintenance, some people keep tea in the teapots all night, some people rub the teapot with their hands and face (for body oil?), but it’s relatively simple to take good care of Yixing teapots.
First, and a self-explanatory one, picked it up with steady hands and set it down gently. Sometimes people are in a hurry and bang the teapots on the cabinet when putting it back. So when you are using the teapot, you need to be calm and present.
When cleaning, rinse off with distilled water and wipe dry with a clean cloth. Then flip it over and leave it on a wood or bamboo surface. When wiping clean, use a cotton cloth.
This is such a delightful book, I wish I could translate 1% of its beautiful language, but unfortunately, the language’s spirit is lost when translated.
Parts of the book feel like mumbling, but also adds authenticity to the theories. I think most of the views are based on experience rather than scientific proof. Then again, Yixing culture is built upon generations’ experience.
It’s a challenging read, but I enjoyed this book very much. It’s difficult to understand the book, but I feel so much more confident about picking my next teapot after dissecting it.
Leave your comment below and let me know what you have learned from this book!