Yixing pt 2: The Makers
Seeing tools spread out on a table always lures me in. I have to suppress the urge to pick them up. I silently remind the excited little kid that lives in my head "Those are their tools. You can look but don't touch". I settle for imagining what they can be used for. There are ribs, strips of horn, pencil shaped pieces of wood, paddles, and a variety of measuring devices that I have never seen before. Each tool accentuates the arsenal of techniques that are used by the Yixing makers. Over hundreds of years a unique tradition of making has evolved that centers around precision and craftsmanship for functional tea ware.
The potters and their studios share an unusual characteristic. They were almost all spotless. The potters sit at wooden tables with their tools laid out like they are ceramic doctors preparing for surgery. There is no dust, no clay scraps, nothing extra that can inadvertently scar the surface of the pots. The environment is clinical. Even random piles of tools are clean. The only excess clay that can be seen is a fist size lump of clay that is used for patching imperfections. This approach to a clean studio carries over into the burnished surfaces and detailed lines of their aesthetic.
Each potter works on small groups of pots. They are the sole focus until they are completed. There is no rush because there is no mass production. It was refreshing to see a Chinese tradition where quality instead of quantity is most important. This idea is unfortunately rare for many goods produced in modern China. Builders have an especially dubious reputation for their shoddy concrete faced with marble veneers. Walking through a Chinese building site is like biting into a shiny apple only to realize the core is rotten.
Most of the teapots are hand built with thin slabs. They are pounded flat with wooden mallets before they are bent and stretched to make the bodies, spouts, and handles. It was interested to see they trap air inside the forms by sealing them at both ends. In picture six above you can see the space for the lid is sealed with a slab. This helps create internal air pressure, allowing the outside surface to be repeatedly burnished without the pot collapsing.
Teapot forms can take days, or weeks, to complete so premature drying can be a problem. They have an inventive solution that keeps all the parts at a workable state. Beside each potters table was a large jar covered with a wooden lid wrapped in fabric. This jar was half filled with bricks that elevate a moist clay slab. Teapot bodies, lids, and spouts can be laid on the slab making a miniature terrarium. Picture nine above shows one of the jars holding three teapots. This simple solution makes good use of the pickling jars that are produced in Yixing.
My favorite aspect of visiting the makers was seeing their pride as they showed us the prized teapots they had made. Competitions judge the best teapots and they are often displayed in glass cases with commemorative plaques. One master had an impressive collection of award winning teapots that he displayed alongside a bottle of locally brewed Tsingtao beer that had his face on it. I like that an artist working in a traditional material can be recognized for his achievements. Famous teapot masters can fetch high prices for their pots. We saw one selling for a whopping 210,000 RMB, or about 33,000 USD. (Click here to see it.This explains the BMW's that we saw cruising through the streets of Dingshan.) To put that in perspective the average income for Chinese in the wealthy city of Shanghai is 1800 RMB per month. It would be great if functional teapots could catch on as a luxury item in the west. Boutique potteries could line the streets of Beverly Hills and Madison Avenue pushing out the likes of Prada, Gucci, and Louie Vuitton. One can only dream...
My next post will be about the lesser known Yixing tradition of making large storage vessels that are used for pickling. Here is an teaser image featuring an image of a crab scurrying across the sand.
This post if the second 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.
Click here for the first post in the series - Yixing: An Evolving Teapot Tradition