A Deep Dive into Yixing Clay
A rare and majestic clay
For those of us who love a good brew of pu’erh tea, no teapot excels at preparing this magnificent tea variety like a Yixing pot. Yixing teapots are truly incredible, especially with the magical way they can brew up a truly sublime cup of tea of any leaf type, but it is the clay itself that we will take a deep dive into today. No, not literally of course! That is unless you want to dive headfirst into some hefty sedimentary rock formations...But for those interested in a more academic rather than "head first" approach to exploring Yixing clay, keep reading!
The origins of Yixing clay
To begin, Yixing is named after the small county of Yixing found in China’s Jiangsu province. Jiangsu is adjacent to Lake Taihu and the Yangtze river. Lake Taihu is the source of zisha, or purple clay which is used to create the famous Yixing tea wares among other exquisite items for centuries now.
The clay for Yixing, known as zisha, or purple clay, is mined from deep under the ground around the shores of Lake Taihu and in hilly and mountainous areas. It is the unique mineral composition of the soil around Lake Taihu that contributes to the superb and varied colors and texture of zisha clay.
Though the Yixing area has been an ancient center for tea and other ceramic wares for centuries, it wasn’t until China’s Song dynasty when many of the written records of zisha and Yixing pots first developed. According to some records, the inventor of the very first Yixing teapot was a Buddhist monk from the Zinsha or “Gold Sand” temple during the reign of emperor Zhengde in the Ming dynasty. From this fateful development, Yixing pots skyrocketed in their fame and prestige throughout China, reaching an impressive level in the Ming and following Qing dynasties.
The pots made from the zisha clay were prized by the literati and aristocracy due to their whimsical colors and designs, and the skillful way the unglazed interiors could prepare whole leaf tea in a delectable and impressive way.
The clay and its fancy minerals!
While pots are certainly exciting, it is the clay itself that is the real star of the show. The purple clay can be found in the hills and other mountainous areas around Yixing such as Huanglongshan and Zhaoshuangshan.
Purple clay contains tons of naturally occurring minerals and irons found deep within the soil often under very big and very heavy sedimentary rocks. The clay is usually collected from large mud veins that may appear purple or with streaks or spots of green.
Once it gets dug up, it is then allowed to sun dry before being smashed and pulverized into a fine powder. Then, the pulverized bits are screened to secure only the finest of particles. A little mixture of water in a mixer with the powdered clay does the trick to turn the powder into a paste. The paste is then piled up into towering heaps. Next, the clay is subjected to a vacuum process to help take out any excess moisture or air bubbles. When mixing, the water to powder ratio is important to attaining a proper consistency of clay. The next steps in the process can get sketchy as some of the processing methods are trade secrets artisans are keen to keep secret. We can't say we blame them, either!
The raw clay contains quartz, iron, mica, silicon dioxide, aluminum oxide, iron oxide, and kaolin. The clay’s iron and kaolin content lend themselves to Yixing’s distinct purple-brown-red hues. That’s not all the kaolin can do. It also is the source of the clay’s stone-like characteristics and ability to handle the heat when fired. It is the kaolin in the clay that allows the teawares fired at around 1200 degrees to maintain their porosity and not morph into a glass-like body, thus losing the porous nature that makes Yixing teapots in particular so coveted. The mica in the clay also allows the texture of Yixing wares to be sandy and a bit rough, which is just cool and nice to feel!
Yixing is classed into a few different types, all of which are fantastic but certainly sport some different colors and styles. They include:
- Zisha/ Purple sand: Usually when one imagines a Yixing pot or other traditional piece of ware, it is one of these classic mahogany-purple colored items.
- Duan-ni/Fortified clay: This exotic style includes other additional precious stones, irons, metals, and minerals added to the clay. The result? Some impressive nuanced textures and some of the more striking color schemes such as blue, beige, green, and even black wares.
- Zhusha/cinnabar clay: The classic color for Yixing wares, though a bit brighter in its reddish hue than the slightly darker zisha, this variety possesses a lot of iron leading to its burning red or cinnabar coloration.
Uses of Yixing clay
Prior to the Song dynasty Yixing clay was used for scores of other utensils, ornaments, and items including the paraphernalia of scholar-officials such as calligraphy items like rests for brushes.
Yixing wares are especially associated with the gongfu variety of Chinese tea ceremonies. These ceremonies feature a wide array of items and wares including cups, pots, and even tea pets, many of which are made from Yixing clay.
But since the 10th century, Yixing and teapots have become virtually synonymous. The reason for this has to do a bit with the changing tea scene of China at the time. During China’s Tang era, tea was packaged into bricks which were pulverized and whipped and whisked right into the cup or decanted through boiling first. But over time, the enjoyment of whole leaf tea came into vogue. The Yixing wares, with their naturally porous bodies, were able to absorb the flavors and aromas of the tea leaves and create truly complex and remarkable flavors for tea, especially Pu’erh. Yixing wares are so absorbent that in modern times it is not advised to clean pots with detergents and to use one pot for only one type of tea leaf only. This not only keeps your pot clean but also contributes to your pot building an increasingly unique and one of a kind flavor.
A remarkable type of clayYixing clay continues to awe and thrill lovers of tea, and lovers of ceramic wares alike. This isn't your run of the mill sculpting clay! Yixing and its colorful and mystical appearance are true miracles of nature. Able to withstand ample heat without losing its porosity, and sporting tons of exquisite colors and textures, this clay is one of a kind!