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June 23
1946, 11:20pm: William S. Hart, 81, dies at L.A.'s California Lutheran Hospital, leaving his Newhall home and 80-acre estate to L.A. County and his Hollywood home to L.A. City [story]
Hart dies


Take a Hike | Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Feb 7, 2016

DianneErskineHellrigelI have long been enamored of the exceptional, hand-made Chinese teapots called YiXing Zisha. I became aware of them when I visited China on my first trip in 1981. I have since made six trips and have continued to collect them each time.

I currently have 42 pots, each one with a unique design. Most of the designs are nature-related, but there are some, like my pot featuring a portrait of Chairman Mao, that are not of traditional design. My next YiXing purchase will be a Chinese junk, a boat I have often seen sailing in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong.

To own a quality YiXing teapot is to own a piece of history, a work of art and a valuable tea brewing vessel. Many tea connoisseurs would say the YiXing teapot is an indispensable tool for a tea enthusiast’s collection. The qualities that make them truly special are directly linked to the zisha clay, found only in the Jiangsu province of China, and the highly skilled craftspeople commissioned to create the pots.

Until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), fermented and pressed cakes of tea had been boiled in large pots. The revolutionary Gong Chun decided his way of infusing tea leaves in a “teapot” made of the now-famous zisha purple clay needed to be shared with others. He converted many scholars to his method of brewing tea, and the tradition has continued to this day.

A YiXing teapot must be practical, look appealing to the owner, feel nice in the hand and pour well. The artist creating a new teapot attempts to express serenity, long life, beauty, luck, happiness and most often an appreciation for the natural world. A buyer should feel some, or even all, of these emotions when purchasing a new YiXing teapot.

 

yixing11YiXing teapots contain thousands of air holes, or micro-pores, allowing a more efficient retention of heat and the ability to absorb a tea’s aroma. After a succession of infusions, the teapot will develop a “sheen” or patina. This is the beautiful result of the tea slowly permeating to the outer surface, giving it a gentle glow.

It takes time, so patience is essential. The true way of developing this patina is by simply brewing your favorite tea in your teapot and knowing you’ve begun the process that will eventually result in a beautifully seasoned YiXing teapot.

The older, seasoned teapots are the most expensive. If properly cared for, they retain and even gain value.

Before using your new YiXing teapot, it is essential to rinse it in boiling water to remove bits of clay that might remain from the creation of the pot. The process can be as simple as a good, thorough rinsing with lots of boiling water or as complicated as soaking it in tea for days. It is up to the purchaser to decide his preference in how best to season the teapot. Extended soaking is not necessary and does not enhance the teapot’s performance, but many still prefer this method and consider it essential to “break in” a new YiXing teapot.

It is essential only to use one type of tea in each YiXing teapot due to the porous nature. Greens, whites, flavored, oolongs and black should each have their own teapot. A particularly strong tea can ruin a zisha clay teapot if not used exclusively for that particular tea.

Also, always allow the teapot to dry thoroughly inside and out between uses. A damp YiXing teapot can develop mold and become ruined.

yixing01I saw many moldy teapots in China, especially in the Hutongs where proper care in the early days was difficult.

When you wash your clay teapot, air it out to dry completely before storing it. Soap or detergents of any kind should never be used with YiXing teapots. If you use soap, your next batch of tea will taste like the soap, and you will never be able to use the pot again.

YiXing teapots are not actually made in the regional city of YiXing but rather in nearby Dingshan, also known as Dingshu, which falls within the administrative area of YiXing. Hundreds of teapot shops line the edges of the town’s crowded streets, and it is a popular tourist destination for many Chinese. While Dingshan is home to dozens of ceramics factories, YiXing Zisha Factory Number 1, which opened in 1958, processes a large part of the clay used in the region and produces fine pottery ware.

Prices can vary from a few dollars to thousands of dollars per teapot, while some Chinese national treasures have even been deemed priceless. The price of most contemporary YiXing teapots depends on such factors such as age, clay, artist, style and production method.

Chairman Mao

Chairman Mao

The more expensive pots are shaped by hand using wooden and bamboo tools to manipulate the clay into form, while cheaper YiXing pots are produced by slip casting. If you see multiple pots that are exactly the same, you know they used the slip casting method to make them. YiXing teapots are never painted. The finished colors reflect the natural colors of the clay itself.

The physical size of these teapots are smaller than Western teapots because they are designed for individual use. Traditionally, Chinese would pour the tea from the spout directly into their mouths. Everyone had his own teapot, with his favorite individual brewed tea inside.

Shen Nong, a Chinese emperor, was sitting on a rock, drinking hot water when some leaves from a nearby Camelia sinisis plant blew into his cup. He drank the unknown beverage, and after drinking it, he found it to be pleasurable and calming. This is how tea was “discovered” about 5,000 years ago.

YiXing tea pots are thought to be the best brewing vessels for tea. The popularity of YiXing tea pots dates back to the discovery of the purple tinged zisha clay during the reign of Sung Dynasty (960-1279). This clay is not only found in purple but also in green, brown, beige, black, orange and yellow. The Zisha hills look like something out of a fairy tale.

This clay is also known as five-color clay. It is a mixture of clay, quartz and mica and contains a high amount of iron. Zisha clay has some unique qualities such as 4 percent absorption. When you continue to brew the same tea over and over again, it becomes more and more fragrant due to the tea oils that are already contained within the pot. This is why you should never brew more than one type of tea in the pot. You do not want to comingle the flavors.

Zisha clay does not contain heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium or any other toxic materials.

As a potter learns his craft, his or her skill increases. Each potter marks his pot with his seal. This seal authenticates the work.

If you are interested in purchasing a Zisha clay pot, be wary of inexpensive prices. There are faux YiXing Zisha on the market, and once you pour hot water into them, they will dissolve. Look for the artist’s CHOP mark on the bottom.

 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.

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1 Comment

  1. Mike He says:

    Hi Dianne – I read your article about YiXing zisha teapots with great interest. I can tell from the article that you are very passionate about your collection. I like to drink tea and am also a YiXing zisha teapot collector, having a few of quality zisha teapots finely made by some of China’s master zisha teapot makers in the Ming/Qing and contemporary periods. I also shared your article on my Facebook :-)

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