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China Perspectives
Yixing Purple Clay Pottery

Yixing Purple Clay Pottery

Yixing County, in the southern part of Jiangsu Province in East China, has been the center of Chinese teapot production since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The high quality Yixing clay, refined and fired at a high temperature, produces a slightly absorbent pottery highly regarded by tea lovers. The particular qualities of this clay set Yixing pottery, which has a history of over 600 years, apart from other unglazed earthenware teapots.

芒鈥? Legend

There is an ancient legend about its origin:

In ancient times, Dingshu was merely an ordinary village on the lakeshore of Taihu. Villagers went out to farm when the sun rose and went back home at sunset, making jars and pots out of pottery clay for daily uses in their leisure time.

One day, however, a wandering monk of unusual appearance came to the village. He shouted while he was walking, "Rich and noble clay! Rich and noble clay!" The villagers were curious and watched him. Seeing their hesitation, the strange monk shouted in a louder voice and walked on with quicker steps. Some wise old men followed him, moving towards theHuanglongand Qinglong mountains. Suddenly, the monk disappeared around a corner.

The old men looked around, catching sight of several freshly dug hollows that held various-colored clay. They carried the clay home and after pounding and firing it, unexpectedly got a totally different color than from the clay they had used before Thus, the reputable purple clay came into being.

芒鈥? Purple Clay

Yixing pottery is made from Zisha, literally purple clay, despite the fact that it is not always purple in color, fired or unfired. The purple clay is a kind of rare mineral resource from compressed sedimentary lake deposits, found throughout the Yixing region.

There are actually three main varieties of purple clay. The most common is the Zini or purple clay. The other two more rare clays are known as Zhuni(red clay), and Banshanlv (buff yellow/greenish) clays. Chemically, all are composed primarily of quartz, kaolin and mica and contain high amounts of iron oxide, which lends the clays their purple-red color.

The high content of metallic oxides in the clay resulted in wares ranging from purple to red and buff yellow (greenish), the variation in color being caused by differences in kiln temperature and atmosphere.

芒鈥? Superb Craftsmanship

Each purple clay ware is a handmade work of art and it may take years for artisans to develop and mature their skills and techniques. Traditionally, the making of Yixing pottery involves more than a hundred hand-made tools and goes through many processes including clay slicing, clay-body flapping, inlaying, clay-body joining, sculpturing, polishing, carving and decorating.

The purple clay is highly fired yet totally unglazed to retain its natural porous qualities, which helps the pots absorb the flavor and aroma of the tea.

The designs and shapes of clay wares can be classified into three main types: natural, geometric or artistic. Another way of classification is simply to define them as plain teapots or decorated teapots. In addition,calligraphy, painting, intricate carvings and sculptures are also incorporated into the teapot, making this art form a unique expression of Chinese art.

芒鈥? Unique Quality in Brewing Tea

Teapots made from Yixing purple clay are extolled by aficionados as superior to all other types of teapots for brewing tea. This is attributed to the unglazed nature of the teapot after firing which retains its porous nature, which is excellent at absorbing the flavor and aroma of tea. After prolonged use, a patina will gradually develop on the interior of the teapot, enhancing the taste, color and aroma of the tea. It is said that if apurple clay teapothas been used for a long time, one can simply pour hot water into the teapot to brew a cup of tea.

Externally, the unglazed surface absorbs oils from the tea so the appearance of the teapot will become more and more lustrous with age and use.

Even at its simplest, the Yixing teapot is a thoroughly appealing vessel, blending seamlessly the function of brewing with the elegance of exceptional design.

The purple clay is a rare mineral resource. Because of years of exploitation, the pure red and buff yellow clay materials are now short in supply and some of them are even almost gone.


 

 
   
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