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Shopping: Hong Kong : Buy a Little Teapot : Born of a special clay from China's east, pottery that brews leaves to perfection

August 06, 1995|AMANDA MAYER STINCHECUM | Stinchecum is a New York-based free-lance writer and textile historian who specializes in Asia.

HONG KONG — Aficionados of the many varieties of tea found in China have, for hundreds of years, extolled Yixing teapots as superior to all other types for brewing it. Ask any shopkeeper, antique dealer or tea drinker and they will tell you that these teapots make the difference.

The teapots are made from the signature clay of Yixing, an area in Jiangsu province in eastern China where Shanghai is located. Highly prized for its porous nature, which is excellent at absorbing the flavor of tea, Yixing clay is made more valuable by being kept at home. The citizens of Yixing refuse to sell the raw material to the Taiwanese, who are maniacal tea drinkers and rabid Yixing collectors, or to the Japanese, who prize Yixing ware bonsai pots.

In factories and studios in Yixing, each piece is shaped by hand on a potter's wheel and left unglazed, both because it makes better tea and because doing so allows the color of the clay to shine through. Yet the majority of these wares, including the best studio pieces, are sold not in China but in Hong Kong, where they can fetch greater prices: from $10 to $20,000 and up.

The teapots are made of clay that occurs naturally in three characteristic colors: light buff, cinnabar red and purplish brown. Other colors are created by mixing these three, or by adding mineral pigments. All the characteristic Yixing colors are called zisha, "purple sand," which refers not just to the teapots but more narrowly to the most prized, dark brown color.

One of the special attributes of a Zisha teapot is its ability to retain heat. Minute pores produced in the clay during firing retain both heat and flavor, and the low shrinkage rate of Yixing clay allows the skillful potter to make a closely-fitting lid (one of the signs of a well-made pot) that inhibits oxidation and therefore the deterioration of the tea's flavor.

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Zisha teapots are neither as costly as the more famous porcelains once made for the Imperial Chinese court nor as ancient as some other stoneware types (zisha teapots date back only to the early 1500s). But their unpretentious earthy tones and subtle beauty have been prized since the Ming Dynasty (14th to 17th centuries), whose scholars and connoisseurs took pleasure in the arts of poetry, calligraphy and tea-tasting.

For centuries, Yixing's purple clay has been used to manufacture objects for the scholar's table--brush rests, brush pots and water droppers, as well as vases, jars and roof tiles. But the most important part of production has always been teapots.

Production of Yixing ware stopped in 1937, with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, and started up again only in 1954. Then, although collectors continued to seek out fine old teapots, contemporary wares were little noted outside the People's Republic of China. Few potters signed their works, which were marked simply, "Yixing made in China." It was mostly due to the late K.S. Lo that contemporary zisha has become so popular.

Lo was born in Guangdong province in 1910 and educated in Malaysia and at the University of Hong Kong. He went on to found Vitasoy Int., which markets soy milk.

Over a period of 30 years, Lo accumulated a collection of early zisha teapots. And it was he who persuaded the Chinese government, in the late 1970s, to allow potters in Yixing to produce teapots in the older styles, as well as newer works that would meet Lo's exacting standards.

It took several years for the first promised lot, but when they were finally exhibited at Hong Kong's Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, a branch of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, they sold out immediately. Since then, the number of zisha importers has grown significantly.

With earlier zisha ware becoming increasingly rare, most of the antique pieces on the market now are from the early 20th Century. But they command much lower prices than the most highly regarded modern works. Collectors pay $27,500 or more for teapots by Yixing's best contemporary potters, such as Gu Jingzhou.

For those who are not interested in investing vast sums, the array of zisha teapots found in Hong Kong department stores and specialty shops is overwhelming. Any newcomer to the subject should first stop at Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, a gracious, early 19th-Century building in Hong Kong Park, in central Hong Kong.

The core of this superb collection was donated by Lo and provides a benchmark against which other Yixing pieces, both antique and contemporary, can be evaluated.

The museum's shop, stocked by Lo's import company, Sheung Yu Ceramic Arts, offers a changing assortment of Yixing teapots, most of them priced under $140 and starting as low as $5. Some are reproductions or variations of famous old teapots; some are original shapes. The shop usually displays a small number of more expensive pots by famous artists, so that the customer can view examples of particularly fine work.

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