For centuries, tea master and tea enthusiasts the world over have sought the perfect method of preparing leaf tea. Either as part of a ritual or simply to obtain the best possible beverage, each culture has developed its own art of tea, adapted to its specific lifestyle. Of course, the practice of drinking tea is essentially to enhance and develop the preparation of leaf tea and adapt it to daily consumption. The tea set is best suited to this purpose. Here, then, is an overview of different kinds of Yixing tea sets, some of which are linked to a specific culture or ritual.
Yixing Tea Sets
Earthenware Yixing tea sets come from the Chinese county of the same name. Thanks to the porous nature of the clay from which they are made, they have the capacity to "remember" the teas that have been infused in them, and so they are called "memory teapots."
Objects fashioned from clay date back to the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), but it was in the middle of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), around 1500, that a significant production began. Toward the end of the 17th century, Yixing teapots arrived in Europe. High demand from European clients led Chinese craftspeople to create some of their pieces with them in mind.
Yixing is a town in Jiangshu Province, to the west of Shanghai. Famous for the quality of its clay as well as for the incredible creativity of its potters, Yixing still produces tea sets that enjoy a solid reputation in China and abroad. The center of production is in Dingshan, a community close to Yixing. In addition to the small workshops of craftspeople who work entirely by hand, there are large manufacturers who mass-produce tea sets.
Yixing purple clay tea sets are particularly suited to the preparation of black, wulong and Pu er teas.
There are three main types of Yixing clay: zishani (purple-clay), hongni (red-clay) and banshanlu (yellow-clay). The following natural characteristics make Yixing clay a distinctive raw material:
• Its malleability, which makes it easy to work with and has allowed craftspeople to develop a technique to make the tea sets entirely by hand. Note that Yixing teawares are rarely formed using a pottery wheel; they are usually shaped by hand. • Its porous quality, which means that a Yixing tea set should only be used for a single family of teas. • Its high concentration of ferrous oxide is easily visible on the surface of the tea set.
The clay is made from rocks that are extracted, crushed, cleaned, kneaded and sifted, then mixed together. The colors of the three types of Yixing clay vary according to where and from what depth the rocks were extracted, as well as the firing method used by the potter. The sound made by the teapot when it is tapped gently with its lid is also distinctive and can often be a test of quality. The sound should be clear and metallic.