The Lasting Charm of Zisha Teapots
By Qing Qian & Ning QiYuan
Sipping on freshly brewed tea and relishing moments of tranquility is pure bliss. The simple beauty of a Zisha teapot elevates such moments to tea-drinking perfection.
Zisha pottery is a gem of Chinese ceramics. It is characterized by simple colors and a matte surface, austere but striking. This natural simplicity and charm has endured for thousands of years.
While Zisha utensils and pottery have existed since ancient times, it was during the Ming dynasty that Zisha artistry truly made its mark. During that period, a servant boy named Gong Chun learned how to make pots from a monk at the Golden Sand Temple. Inspired by an old Ginkgo tree on the temple grounds, he modeled a teapot after its burl. His work elicited great praise, and his master eventually freed him to continue his craft. Thereafter, the Zisha craft exploded in popularity, producing famous artisans with superb workmanship and fine artistry.
Zisha (“purple clay”) is a superior type of sandy-textured clay. The process of preparing the clay is extensive and was long kept secret. The clay is first mined, then crushed, sieved, and filtered. The resulting fine sand is stored and “nurtured.” The shaping work is done by hand, with the craftsman pinching the clay to form the barrel, body, lid, spout and handle of the teapot. The parts are then joined and the joints trimmed. The semi-finished products are painted, engraved or carved before being air-dried. Once dry, they are fired in a kiln. Although many teapots are now made by casting (the use of a mold), Zisha teapots are still handcrafted.
Tea experts agree that any tea is best made in an unglazed teapot, and Zisha teapots from the Yixing area of China are considered the finest. Zisha clay has excellent permeability and heat-handling finesse, both of which contribute to improving the taste of tea as compared to tea brewed in glazed, glass or porcelain teapots. The iconic Zisha pots have always been intended for individual use, and tea connoisseurs know that generally only one type of tea is to be steeped in a particular pot.
Lingering Fragrance of Tea
Zisha is rich in zinc, iron, calcium, potassium, sodium and other minerals, as well as kaolin, mica and quartz. It can alkalize water and improve the body’s immunity. The surface and interior of Zisha teapots are not glazed to retain its micro-pores, making the teapot permeable without leakage of its contents. This is why the teapots endure under drastic changes in temperature; they will not crack when boiling water is poured in during chilly winters or when placed over a low heat. The micro-pores also create air pockets which serve as insulators. Hence the teapot retains the tea’s heat effectively, yet does not scald the hand of the one holding it.
Zisha’s unique quality also fights decay; tea brewed on a hot summer day not only retains its color but also the purity of its taste. A late-Ming dynasty scholar and painter, Wen Zhenheng, wrote in Treatise on Superfluous Things that Zisha teapots are superior; the tea’s color, taste and fragrance lingers for a long time.
Zisha teapots absorb essential tea oils easily. With frequent use over a long period, the teapot’s walls become coated in oxidized tea traces known as resins. When boiling water with no tea leaves is poured in, the rich tea fragrance from the resins is released.
Understated Classic Beauty
Zisha teapots not only have great functional value, they are also of great value to collectors due to their striking simplicity and rich heritage.
The collectability of a Zisha teapot is determined by its material, craftsmanship, appearance, design, functionality, and the artist who produced the piece. The longer they are used, the more lustrous the teapots become.
A good Zisha teapot has a balanced form; its lines and curves must be intricate and decisive. Some teapots are engraved with beautiful poetry and calligraphy by renowned artists, which greatly enhance their artistic quality and value to collectors.
Despite the beauty in its form, Zisha teapots are most precious for their cultural connotations. An indispensable part of the Chinese tea culture, they mirror the ideals of simplicity and purity amidst life’s superfluous clamor.
More Than Just Appearance
The marketplace is rife with imitation Zisha, so discerning eyes are needed to identify the qualities of the genuine teapot.
Sight: The surface of the genuine Zisha teapot has a finely textured matte finish, along with smooth and uniformly distributed fine metallic speckles that give it luster. By contrast, the color of an imitation is dim and looks dull.
Sound: The lid should fit nicely on the teapot and be smooth and easy to turn, creating a pleasant “shi shi” or “sha sha” sound when turned. A teapot made of other types of clay will produce muffled sounds when its lid is turned, and the movement will be less fluid.
Touch: Zisha purple clay is mainly composed of clay, quartz and mica, which make the teapot feel delicate but not slippery. “Counterfeit” teapots are typically made of ordinary clay which feels rough, or porcelain which gives a smooth feel.
Also, you can test by pouring boiling water over the teapot body. If it is a genuine Zisha teapot, you will feel that the pot body is moist, but there should be minimal water droplets on its surface. The water forms an even layer over the pot and is gradually absorbed by the Zisha.
Finally, each authentic Zisha teapot has a handwritten certificate by its artist. However, it should be noted that the greater the reputation of the artist, the higher the risk of his work getting imitated; thus, careful study before purchase is essential.
Nourish a Zisha Teapot
When a Zisha teapot is nourished with good handling, it will grow more beautiful through the years. The secretions from our hands act as a natural moisturizer that preserves the teapot. Use a cotton tea towel wet with tea to wipe the surface of the pot; the trace amounts of tea will nourish it. Take care that the teapot is not contaminated with grease or mottles will form.
Used tea leaves should be discarded promptly, not left to sit in the pot. The resins can be removed with a cotton cloth; detergent should be avoided. Separate the teapot and its lid when setting to dry in a cool place.
It is also important not to steep tea in the teapot overnight. After a period of use, the teapot should be placed in a dry place to “rest” every three to five days. This will help improve its texture and structure, allowing it to better absorb essential tea oils.
At the highest echelon of tea drinking, appreciating fragrant tea and nourishing the teapot are akin to cultivating one’s temperament. The personality mellows naturally as the tea drinker savors the tea and cares for the teapot, basking in the rituals of a long and rich heritage.
Inspiration and Fusion
Many consider the Zisha teapot the premier tea accessory. The great Chinese writer and poet Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo) was a tea lover who came to adore Zisha teapots from Yixing. He designed a bigger, much-replicated teapot, called the “Dongpo teapot,” with a signature overhead handle. On his design he inscribed a poetic evocation of tea appreciation: “Blowing breeze over the bamboo furnace, mingling with the calling of the pot.”
The Qing seal carver Chen Mansheng was well versed in the fine arts and was one of the finest Zisha teapot designers. His many novel designs, later called “Mansheng teapots,” are loved by collectors. Chen Mansheng was a devout Buddhist, deriving inspiration for the Mansheng teapots from temples, fusing Zen and tea in perfect harmony.
The Zisha teapot is distinctive for its natural, elegant style and vibrant history. As we treat ourselves to tea from a Zisha teapot, we enjoy the scent of earth and the peace that comes from being connected to centuries of loving craftsmanship.