10.04.2011

Yixing: An evolving teapot tradition Pt.1


















I had the recent pleasure of visiting Dingshan, a town outside the city of Yixing that is known for producing small unglazed teapots. The teapots are highly regarded for their refined forms and burnished surfaces. The tradition owes much to the clay found in the hills surrounding the area. The stoneware/terracotta hybrid fires to 1100 C leaving it mildly porous. The unfired color ranges from chocolate brown to the famous maroon-purple variety with a fired range of warm orange to a greenish-grey. The purple Zisha clay is the most expensive, but also the most plastic, making it the best for building intricate teapots. (The purple hue is very similar to the iron based colorant crocus martis. Click here for a post on making Terra Sig using crocus martis and a ball mill.)

There are direct stylistic lineages from master to student which could be seen as we walked from shop to shop. When asked the younger potters proudly told us the name of their teachers to show they were included in the tradition. One artist showed me a book that listed all of the "masters" of the tradition as determined by the local government. Although this is largely a political distinction I found respect for elders within the tradition to be a unifying point for the community. I wonder if openly acknowledging a tradition allows younger members more freedom to innovate. Although copying was prevalent Yixing showed more originality within a set tradition than I have seen in other ceramic producing areas. 

The images above show a contemporary approach to sculptural teapot forms. While still utilitarian the teapot functions as a blank canvas for a variety of subject matter ranging from nature, to abstraction, to machines. The beautifully surfaced faucet teapot is a good example with its subtle simulated texture of cast steel. Before seeing the artists work in person I would have sworn this was slip cast. The artists of Yixing are capable of achieving unreal levels of hand built detail. There devotion to craftsmanship reaches near religious levels. We met makers that spend two weeks completing one teapot. After finishing the teapot they start another version making slight changes to the form while working in a similar aesthetic.

This style of making grew to match the tea culture that blossomed out of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD). The more I learn about Chinese tea the more I am amazed by the differences it holds with western tea traditions. In my studio I have been making three tea forms that are vastly different in scale and function; small scale teapots with cups from the Chinese tradition, larger teapots with cups and saucers from the British tradition, and iced tea sets of tumblers and pitchers from the southern American tradition. In the near future I will expand these contrasts developing a full exhibition based on the cross cultural tradition of tea drinking. 

This Wikipedia article explains the types of tea that can be prepared in Yixing teapots.


This post if the first in a series about Yixing teapots. They are produced in the town of Dingshan, which borders the city of Yixing in Jiangsu Province. Check back later in the week for the next post about the artists and their process of building a teapot. 

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