Our next and final stop on our trip was a return visit to Yixing. I had previously been here in 2017 so was now back with to visit our partners and also explore the teaching element of the Yixing landscape more closely with a visit to the school of Master Ji whose daughter Joyce helped us to write the introduction to Yixing in our book Tales of the Tea Trade . The day started with the high speed train from Shanghai to Yixing - very easy and efficient. We were very lucky that our partner and friend Mr Fan and his wife came to collect us at the station. A great welcome to Yixing. The first stop was at the small but beautiful teapot shop called the ZHI YUAN JING FANG WORKSHOP which they own and run. Before teapots - first tea
Mr Fan shared his story with us in Tales of the Tea Trade .
Extract from Tales of the Tea Trade . 'As we walked along the streets of Yixing we came across a shop that felt quite special. [....] This was Mr Fan’s shop, and I rather liked his pots. Mr Fan: ‘My wife has now been making Yixing teapots for 25 years, and makes all the pots for our store. In 1996, my sister and I started studying in the top teapot factory in Yixing, and by 2004 we felt ready to open our own workshop and establish our brand, Zhi Yuan Jing Fang. We mainly focus on Yixing zi ni purple clay' Mr Fan explains 'White duan ni clay is more suitable for light tea, zi ni clay is good for Wuyi rock and oolong teas and jiang ni po clay is suitable for puer tea. These pairings are based on their impact on the cup of tea, which is down to the make up of the clay [...] Regardless of what pot you buy, you need to take care of it. First, once you make your purchase you need to put it into boiling water and soak it. This is mainly to get rid of the dust from ring and open the pores of the clay before you make the rst infusion. After using it you must clean out the leaves and rinse it in hot water, then dry it well before putting it away.’ end of extract from Tales of the Tea Trade
Mr Fan is a lovely man. In anticipation of our visit he had downloaded a translation app so we communicated about an ancient art through this modern medium - at some times with great hilarity. Both he and his wife are passionate to share more about the art and craftsmanship of Yixing he shared ‘I’m really excited that there is growing interest in our work in the west, and that people can see beyond it simply being a teapot to being a beautiful and essential part of the tea ceremony.’
We started looking at the different pots in the shop discussing their merits and seeing how they felt in the hand and how they poured. All the pots are made at the back of this tiny workshop - something we were lucky to observe. It takes people here years to master this craft and whenever I see a teapot being made I am reminded of the dedication it has taken for a maker to reach this point.
I selected a small number of items which you can now see on our online store and ordered some others. This is the beauty of Yixing, you can specify the style and clay type and have pots made to order. You can see some of the other pots below next to the clay samples [which you can see at the Tea House] related to each pot. We would learn more about the material used for Yixing pots later in the day when we had the fortune to visit two of the great schools of Yixing.
Pots selected Mr Fan kindly made us some more tea from his beautiful pots before we headed out to a wonderful vegetarian restaurant run by one of the families friends. A local feast awaited us!
After lunch we bid our farewell & went for a wander along the streets - finding teapot makers and finishers on every corner...this is the joy of Yixing.
The afternoon was to have a different tone. We were extremely honoured to be invited to the headquarters of Master Ji. His daughter Joyce had very kindly contributed to Tales of the Tea Trade providing some background to the art of Zisha and the history of Yixing town [...] once you have tasted great tea from a zisha teapot you too may be unable to turn back.
Extract from Tales of the Tea Trade [...] Teaware made from zisha clay has been prized for centuries; its high percentage of clay quartz and iron is considered to be perfect, resulting in teapots that have high permeability and allow the appreciation of the colour, smell and flavour of tea perfectly. [...] Joyce Ji is the fourth generation of a family of top craftsman making zisha teapots. Her father, Master Ji, still has a workshop on the south street of Shu mountain in the old downtown of Yixing. Joyce explained what is so special about zisha teapots: ‘The first thing is the zisha clay, found only in my hometown Yixing. [...]The second thing is the artists themselves. The way of making the teapots is special: they are handmade, not using machines, and this way of making teapots is only found in our home town.’ end of extract from Tales of the Tea Trade
I'm sure you can imagine our anticipation as we approached the studio.
We were enthusiastically greeted and ushered inside by Frank who was to be our guide for the rest of the day. He himself is a student at this highly prestigious school so the perfect host! Inside the the lobby we were greeted by a small museum of Master Ji's work alongside the work of other industry leaders. Frank explained 'Master Ji has been making pots over 40 years, he is 60 now and the most famous potter in Yixing. Here we share a belief that if we keep doing one thing and concentrate fully on it then it will be successful' He went on to describe two predominant styles of teapots 'One is plain and one is more decorative. The second type is also referred to as 'fancy' and as you would expect these take longer to make as the designs are so intricate'
Frank explained how Master Ji takes inspiration from his surroundings when producing more fancy pots 'For him to do better work he keeps lots of animals in the garden. He watches and learns from them and then puts his ideas into decorations' We continued to walk around marvelling at the quality of the craftsmanship. 'Taste in teapots is very particular' Frank explained 'we all have different eyes and different point of view' We paused next to a particular pot which Frank pointed out had gemstones incorporated into the design.
'Putting stones onto newer teapots requires a very intricate skills. This teapot is made to make you think of Yang dynasty ladies who lived 2000 years ago' Its hard to imagine how you would even start to create a pot so intricate and how many years it would take to master. 'The difficulty of making a teapot depends on how long you invest in doing it' shared Frank 'To become a master you need to practice for many years and be seen make the best pots, then you need to make a lot of donations to those that need help and you are also required to teach a lot of students. This place we are standing in was built 10 years ago - we are now building another layer as the school here grows'. There was certainly a lot of building work going on but the whole complex still retained an air of tranquility. Coming out into the courtyard we were greeted by the huge sculpture below with a fish pond full of colourful Koi below.
'This is the 100 teapot island' - Frank explains 'despite all the work some pieces will be broken along the way . This is where they end up so that they can still be appreciated' I thought about all the Gaiwan whose lids have been broken at the Tea House - perhaps we should consider a new installation of our own - watch this space ;). Out in the courtyard Frank pointed out some large pots which the students here keep by their workstations. Frank explained 'At the end of the day unfinished pieces are stored in this jar. In the middle is a hole, underneath it is water and the pieces sit on plaster : this creates a moist environment to keep the clay workable' With the information that Frank shared before - that it can take many weeks to make a pot - you can understand why these jars are so important.
Carrying on with our tour we passed into the room containing the raw material to make the pots. As we describe in Tales of the Tea Trade 'Zisha clay varies in colour, which is why you see a colourful array of teapots on sales in the shops of Yixing, and is subdivided into many different types, each with its own qualities [...] Zisha pots vary in texture, which is informed by the size of the particles used; these are separated into di erent sizes using screens that resemble large sieves with varying mesh types. A teapot made from a 100-mesh screen (0.15 mm) will be as smooth and ne as jade, while one made from particles from a 60-mesh screen (0.3 mm) will be coarser [...] end of extract from Tales of the Tea Trade
In the room Frank describes how the students at this workshop go directly to the mountains to source the raw material for the pots 'As much effort goes into the clay as the teapot making itself' We wandered around the room where the clay is prepared on site and got to see the different tones of the clay that is used - al natural, all from the surrounding mountains.
Returning to the workshop we got to see the students at work. Such detail on the pots requires incredible patience and skill.
Our time at Master Ji's was coming to an end so we took a little time to explore the complex - a haven in this busy city.
As we prepared to leave we were asked - 'would you like to go to one of the other schools and meet Master Shi [the official leader of the Yixing international ceramic association]?'.....um....'Yes please!' So back into the car and over to another school. Here, once inside we were served tea and shared experiences of tea and knowledge of Yixing in the UK. The gentleman serving us tea was Shi Xioming - a Jianshu arts and crafts master [I definitely felt that I should be making tea for him]. We were very lucky that he was available to show us around - we headed up the stairs and into the workshop/studio.
The workshop was lined with rows of 30 working tables with students and workers at various points in their training working diligently on their teapots.
In the corners of some desks were and tools and on others the clay waiting to be skilfully manipulated. The process of taking the powder shown above and making it into the clay shown here is one which is described by Joyce in Tales of the Tea Trade. 'Once the zisha powder has been chosen, the teapot maker starts the process of transforming it into zisha clay in a process called ‘hammering’ [...]Once made, the traditional method involves wrapping the clay in a tarpaulin and placing it in a sealed jar for at least half a year to let the carbonates and organic matter decompose so that water can be absorbed into the clay and evenly distributed. Afterwards the clay must be repeatedly hammered to remove the air bubbles and ensure the particles inside are compact, resulting in a clay which, when cut, has a smooth and compact surface [...]modern machinery is often now used to shorten this part of the process...End of extract from Tales of the Tea Trade.
The posters on the wall of the workshop show just how many stages are involved in making the beautiful pots on display in the gallery here and how it is possible to dedicate your entire life to perfecting the skills required. In the words of Master Ji: ‘Making a teapot is easy to learn but hard to master. The difference between a technician and master is in how skilful and creative one can be in making teapots. Masters can transform this simple material into something of great artistic value.’
Moving into the gallery on the top floor we marvelled at some of the work that Shi Xioming is most famous for, teapots made to micmic leatherwork and beautiful sculptural pieces displayed in the lobby. Captivating.
Back in the office we had a chance to flick through the Annual review of China Zisha Art - published every two years and detailing all of the famous makers on Yixing. Against each maker their story and examples of their work - a fascinating glimpse into this incredible town, its craftsman and heritage.
With that our trip was over for another year - it certainly won't be my last time in Yixing - a town I have come to love. Hopefully this short blog has given you a taste of this fascinating town and encouraged you to invest in your very own Yixing pot. Below is a taste of what you can now see on our online store If you have any questions about the best pot for you then please do not hesitate to get in touch and we will be happy to advise!