Yixing clay, as it is often called, is actually Zisha clay. Zisha translates to "purple sand" and is only found in China. Yixing, located west of Shanghai, is in central China's Jiangsu Province. The city itself dates back thousands of years and has long been associated with tea culture.
The first brewing vessel of its kind, handcrafted by Jiangsu, a monk studying at nearby Jin Sha Temple, was functional and elegant. Utilitarian design and artistic expression found in those initial motifs are still present in those made today.
The clay tea pots made their appearance in Europe by way of Dutch traders who recognized the sturdy materials and practical shapes. Unlike Europe's Delft earthenware of the era, Yixing pots can withstand rapidly changing temperatures and can hold boiling water without cracking.
The influence on western ceramic production is evident in the unglazed stoneware of European pioneers like Wedgwood who welcomed the classic and natural elements of the designs.
Purple clay is a product of weathering rock from mountains worn away by erosion. The disintegrated rock settles in estuaries, lakes and deltas where it is ground due to its interaction with water. Gradual geological upheaval lifts the clay for retrieval.
Authentic purple clay possesses unique properties. These properties are best recognized in the very layers of the earth in which they are created.
Seventy five percent of the earth's surface layer is made up of Silica and Alumina, the essential elements of purple clay. Numerous trace minerals are also found in the surface layers of the earth and subsequently in Zisha clay tea pots.
These all natural, wholesome brewing vessels aid in the purification and activation of water and contribute to our consumption of trace minerals, a critical, often overlooked, element of a healthy diet. True Zisha clay does not contain lead and is approved for consumable use by the Federal Drug Administration.
These high quality pots differ greatly from any other brewing vessel. The strong molecular bond created by carefully controlled temperatures while firing makes Yixing tea pots extremely durable.
The fine texture and porous finish allows each vessel to absorb the essence of the teas brewed within creating a character and uniqueness to each individual pot.
This time honored art form, passed from one generation to the next, is alive and well in present day China. Skillful hands use thin plastic scalpels to create patterns both classic and stylized.
Shapes like pumpkins, aged tree trunks and everyday items such as bamboo steamers and luggage represent some of the changing attitudes in design over the past two decades.
The round, well balanced shapes are more traditional and provide a glimpse into classic variety of long ago.
The unglazed pots are shaped by hand on a potter's wheel and fired in kilns. Although many pots are still created by hand, growing popularity and high demand has necessitated mass production of some Yixing tea pots. While still authentic Zisha clay, some of these lower priced pots may be made with molds as opposed to on a potter's wheel.
Zisha clay comes in 3 varieties
Blending of the clays is how some of the more attention-grabbing colors are created like blues and greens.
The longer you have a Yixing tea pot the more beautiful it becomes. Using these pots brings out a rich, shiny patina created by the oils and moisture of human hands.
Since the clay is porous, it is best to utilize one pot for a particular tea or tea group, depending on your personal preference and intention.
The legend is that over time these pots will brew tea without adding leaves revealing their own unique taste from the tea or teas previously brewed in them.
It is also said that using Zisha clay will eliminate any stomach discomfort sometimes associated with green tea consumption.
The clay kettles range in price from a few dollars to thousands of dollars. One pot dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that is currently on display in Beijing's Palace Museum has an estimated value exceeding $100,000.
This article was written by tea expert Beth Johnston of TeasEtc.com.
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