a £1.2 million 1948 Yixing zisha (purple clay) teapot made by master ceramicist Gu Jingzhou

Yixing Teapot: Empire of the senses

In May 2010, a 1948 Yixing zisha (purple clay) teapot made by master ceramicist Gu Jingzhou sold for £1.2 million at a Beijing Auction. What could have led bidders to pay such a price for such an object? Partly because it was inscribed with art and calligraphy from two of China’s greatest contemporary artists, but also this Yixing’s value derives from the quality of the clay and the skill of the maker.

Yixing Teapots (also known as Zisha and purple clay pots) are one of the greatest expressions of the Chinese passion for art and tea. These beautifully understated teapots have been made in Yixing since the 13th century and have long been the brewing vessel of choice for scholars and aristocrats. They are used mainly for brewing fine Black, Oolong and Puerh teas, with the tea masters reserving different Yixings for every individual tea. They range in size from 300ml to 50ml or less and are designed for individual brews, which were traditionally drunk direct from spout.

The special quality of the clay, which is only found in and near Yixing in Jiangsu province, is at the heart of these teapots’ appeal: the sandy-textured Yixing clay is unglazed, allowing the interior of the pots to take on the subtle flavours and aromas of multiple brews. The exterior develops a unique patina, which is enhanced by generations of use.

The different forms of the pots are highly prized – most are plain, and in colours ranging from the classic red/brown to green, grey and black. The quality of new Yixing pots varies enormously, and the cheapest examples can contain dangerous levels of harmful minerals. Selection requires some expertise to ensure that the clay and manufacture reaches the right standard. For example, the trap (grate or strainer) between the bowl and the spout should show a well-crafted group of regular sized holes, and the lid should fit so perfectly that the liquor stops mid pour when the air hole is covered.

A fine Yixing Teapot pleases all five senses: it looks beautiful, smells good, and even sounds good when the lid is lightly knocked against the bowl. The porous nature of the clay should enhance the taste of your tea and when cradled in your hands, it feels soft, warm and smooth to the touch.

Gong Fu brewing

It’s easy to hone your Gong Fu brewing skills with a Yixing teapot. As with the gaiwan you need a high leaf to water ratio – at least a third of the teapot should be bursting with beautiful plump infused leaf. The first infusion is a quick ‘wash’ – so you pour away the liquor after about 10 seconds. You can enjoy many subsequent steepings from the same leaves, just make sure you pour off all the tea liquor between each one.

Canton Tea Yixing

Canton Tea stocks only authentic Yixing Teapots. Most of them come from the workshop of National Craft Master Gao Jian Jun. Canton Tea co-director, Jennifer was given a Memorable Demo by the Master on her visit. He talked, smoked, drank tea, laughed, gesticulated and meticulously rolled out the clay and put together the body and lid of a perfect pot. Then he crushed it. Making the real thing demands time and focus – it is not theatre.

Each handmade Yixing Pot is a one-off which will give you – and the generations that come after you – many years of tea brewing and aesthetic pleasure.

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