Updated: 2011-08-19 13:58
By Zhang Xi (China Daily)
Tea-making treasures catch the fancy of connoisseurs as record prices brew up interest
This zisha tea set is from veteran designer, 79-year-old Zhang Shouzhi. He says practicality is the key to making a good teapot. [Provided to China Daily]
Most teapots used in the West are big and bright and have been styled to cater for European tea-drinkers for hundreds of years. But in China, tea experts say the best brews are made in smaller pots made from special clay. And for about 500 years handmade zisha teapots have been considered the best of the best. They have been indispensable to true tea connoisseurs who seek the subtle nuances of flavor and aroma tenderly expressed by each leaf.
These brown-colored teapots can also be extremely valuable. Last year a zisha pot made by master Gu Jingzhou sold for 12.32 million yuan (1.3 million euros) at the China Guardian Spring Auction. In May the same auction company sold a number of teapots valued at 140 million yuan. Unique production materials, the fame of its maker and the rich cultural tradition associated with zisha are the reasons behind the record prices, says Zhou Guizhen, master of Ceramic Art of China. Zhou says the production material zisha, purple clay, can only be found in Yixing, East China's Jiangsu province, and its porous nature allows the teapot to absorb the essence.
As the teapot becomes seasoned over time, the tea essence captured by the pot will accentuate the character of subsequent brews to such an extent that even plain water can have the taste of tea.
Teapot designer Zhang Shouzhi, 79, says a zisha teapot is fired at 1150 C to bring the fine particles to the surface and push coarse particles beneath. In this case, the teapot keeps high porosity without the possibility of water seepage, he says.
In the 17th century tea, together with porcelain cups and zisha teapots, were shipped to Europe as part of the export of exotic spices and luxury goods. But after a century, as tea became a much more common and cheaper beverage in Europe, demand for the expensive and dark zisha pots fell away.
"Westerners like white and bright stuff to decorate their homes. In the 18th century Frenchmen added other materials on the surface of zisha teapots to make them shiny," says Zhou.
"Today Western tourists still like to buy bright porcelain teapots as gifts. Unlike their Japan and South Korean counterparts, they do not know much about zisha."
Tea has always been important in China and since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it was considered an elite practice connected with morality, education, principles and status.
However, up until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), water was added to grounded tea leaves and salt and the mixture was boiled.
For centuriies, tea was mostly considered medicinal but at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty the taste for tea spread and it became a social lubricant.
At this time the Chinese began using pots and poured hot water directly onto tea leaves discovering that this method maintained a better taste.
As this practice spread, higher quality teapots were considered essential and the zisha teapot came onto the scene. "Unlike porcelain or glass, purple clay is neither acidic nor alkalic. The neutral zisha teapots do not affect the initial tastes of teas," says Zhang, who has been in this field for more than 50 years. "Zisha teapots can be used to brew any kind of tea. But real tea lovers only use one teapot for one kind of tea; otherwise, the tastes of different teas will be mixed together in one teapot."
Zhang says the raw clay has excellent balance between flexibility and firmness and has minimal shrinkage after drying, which allows it to be easily crafted into attractive shapes and designs.
"That is why purple clay is perfect material for making teapots," he says.
Changes in tea drinking customs have spurred demand for and protection of zisha teapots.
"The production capacity of these handmade teapots can only meet the need of Asian countries," he says.
"And our country did not organize big exhibitions overseas to promote zisha teapots although some zisha artists have demonstrated their production skills in the United States as part of cultural exchanges in recent years."
There may be another reason why the zisha teapot is not that known among Westerners.
"In Western countries, the standard size of a teapot is 1,200 cubic centimeters but a zisha teapot is most frequently smaller to ensure the flavours can be better concentrated, controlled and then repeated," Zhang says.
"The size of a teapot is determined by the custom of people in different places. Even in ancient China, small zisha teapots were not popular in dry northern parts because tea was not produced there.
"People did not care much about the quality of teas. Instead, they preferred big teapots to drink more water at once to ease their thirst.
"But in the humid southern part of China, the homeland of tea, people knew more about teas and were keen to enjoy the flavor of teas with zisha teapots."
This view is echoed by Gao Zhenyu, deputy-director of the Ceramic Art Research Center of the Chinese National Academy of Arts.
He says that improved transport throughout the country also played a role. "Chinese people in different regions started to enjoy teas grown in other places and therefore more and more people realized the importance of having a good teapot," he says.
"And one made with purple clay is the first choice."
What attracts many people to zisha teapots, apart from the distinctive material from which they are made, is their attractive design.
The traditional teapots have generally featured calligraphy and Chinese art, but these days just about anything goes. For instance, a few years ago designer Zhang drew on the image of spaceships to design a zisha teapot series called UFO.
But zisha pot dealers realize that a cool or elegant design is not the only hook on which prospective customers will hang their buying decision.
The essential ingredient is practicality, Zhang says. Price, of course, is another consideration.
Zhang Shukai, who sells zisha teapots in Gaobeidian, an area in Beijing reputed for its shops that sell antique furniture, says that in Yixing you can expect to pay 500 yuan for an authentic zisha teapot made of purple clay.
"But if it is made by a famous artist the price will be higher, and there is no ceiling," he says.
"Foreign customers are mostly from Japan and South Korea. They prefer pots that cost more than 100 yuan."
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