My introduction to Yixing ware came in 1981 during my time in graduate school. On a visit to Rochester, new York, I saw the collection of Marguerite Antell. The teapots in her collection at once redefined and expanded my understanding of what a teapot could be. Two years later I acquired my first Yixing teapot. Collecting Yrxing ware became my passion, and I now have nearly two hundred- My collection is an eclectic assortment representing a mix of old and new as well as a small sampling of cups, water droppers, brush holders, inkstones and penjing (a.k.a. bonsai trays). The discovery of these last items led me to question the reason for their production- What I found was that they were made for use in the studio of the Chinese scholar. As an artist and teacher, my interest was for the collection to serve as a tool for learning, an educational repository for myself and my students. Over time its value has become much more. Yixing ware has taken me down a fascinating and circuitous path that brought me deep into the world of the scholars, tea art and Chinese culture.
In 1992 I made my first visit to Yixing. On the way I stopped in Taiwan and Hong Kong where there is a fanaticism for the best Yixing teapots. I had gone to Taiwan to work with contemporary ceramic artist Chang Ching-yuan. While there I met with the Taiwanese, Yixing-influenced artist Ah-Leon. Ah-Leon, whom I had met years earlier, took me to see and participate in the inner workings of tea art as practiced by the Taiwanese and to view and handle many great treasures. In Hong Kong I went to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware that holds the K. S, Lo collection, the foremost public collection of Yixing teapots in the world. When I reached Yixing I visited artists’ studios and factories, where the bulk of Yixing ware is produced, to see the teapots being made and watch the kilns being fired. In factory workshops most of the workers are women. They still handcraft Yixing teapots using production techniques that have changed very little in the past one hundred and fifty years. Along with a handful of newer designs, most of the shapes being produced are modeled I on prototypes made in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Using separate | press molds for the body, handle, spout and lid, the workers fit the I parts together Their individual skill is shown by the unification of the 1 overall piece. Long-established decorative techniques continue to be used which include engraving, stamping, low relief and applique. On more recent trips to Yixing, I was able to meet many contemporary studio artists. In 2001 and again in 2003, I was extremely fortunate to spend time at the studio of Zhou Dingfang who has been the source of many insights into the Yixing tradition and the teapot makers’ art.
Like China itself, the subject of Yixing ware is vast and the numbers are great. It would be necessary to view only a small cross section to realize that there is an enormous diversity of shapes and variety of clays. Anyone collecting teapots from Yixing knows full well that their collection could never be complete, and certainly the works I own do not tell the whole story. My collection is comprised of teapots made from the seventeenth century to the present, but mainly of works made in the nineteenth century that were produced for export.
The hallmark of collecting is about hope and the hunt. There is excitement in the feeling that a masterpiece could be found just around the corner. Ultimately, diligence combined with good fortune has added some outstanding examples to my grouping. I am always asked where I find the teapots – New England has a wealth of Chinese antiques bought from merchants of the nineteenth-century China trade that have since found their way into local shops. Others were brought from Europe and the Orient by families over generations. Hundreds of corporations, universities and medical centers draw people from around the United States and the world who have deaccessioned parts of their holdings. Combing the multitude of antique stores, flea markets and yard and estate sales has been productive; they have all proven to be treasure troves. I have also found a number of pieces when I travel. This includes finds in just about every state, Europe and of course China, My ability to find excellent examples of Yixing ware had been limited to the places I went. Now the World Wide Web has exponentially expanded my opportunities. By studying digital images and taking a leap of faith, I have made several excellent acquisitions from people in places I would never have gotten to visit.
That said, distinguishing the genuine from a fake is a difficult problem. Chinese art has been subject to all manner of imitation since the late Ming dynasty. Copying is not relegated to Yixing ware. This includes porcelain, paintings, calligraphy, jade, bamboo carving and so on. So verifying seals and engravings is quite difficult For me, trying to authenticate inscriptions, dates and the seal of a particular potter has always been secondary to how the piece looks. As an artist I have always relied on an intuitive/visceral approach, first seeking the essence of a piece. I have learned to sharpen my eye the hard way—by extensive looking, reading and recognizing missteps with both objects and ideas. In the aggregate, this has served to give me confidence in identifying significant pieces.
Copies of masterworks have been made in Shanghai for over one hundred years. They are now attaining their own value. The teapot of the “Phoenix” is one such example. I had identified this in a book as an eighteenth-century design. Upon closer comparison, this nineteenth-century copy lacks the intricate detailing of the earlier work. However, if fine-quality clay is fashioned with impeccable craftsmanship, then copies of earlier designs can still embody the sculptural and conceptual values of the originals.
The more famous a potter was, the more likely his works were to be copied. I have a late nineteenth-century copy of a teapot first produced by Chen Mingyuan in the early eighteenth century. Known as “Sunflower in the Wind”, this teapot’s swirl pattern has been expertly applied. A flattened teapot made in the early eighteenth century by Cuizhu Ju was remade in the late twentieth century and still evokes the charm of its model.
In the case of the pear-shaped teapot that is calligraphically engraved Mengchen Zhi, suggesting it was made by Hui Mengchen, one of the foremost ceramists of the seventeenth century, I believe the piece I own was produced around 1850. Hui Mengchen’s descendants continued to use his designs and seal for several succeeding generations. This was done to perpetuate the family business. All of the Mengchen Zhi reproductions were done with infinite care, a way of honoring the master. In China, when original designs and seals are used by succeeding generations of the original artist’s family, the work is considered an original reproduction. In Western art circles there is a similarly accepted understanding between copies and reproductions. The eighteenth-century American painter Gilbert Stuart, for example, is famous for his portraits, especially those of George Washington. Washington sat for Stuart on several occasions for a number of different original portraits. Yet few of the extant portraitures were done from actual sittings. Stuart was known to have kept most of the originals, painting a “reproduction” of them. By definition, they are considered original reproductions. Had an artist other than Stuart painted them, they would be considered copies.
Overglaze enamels cover the Hui Mengchen teapot – Applied onto the fired pot, the enamels were then refired at a much lower temperature. The use of overglaze enamels on Yixing ware began during the late seventeenth-early eighteenth centuries. Famille rose overgIaze decoration was popular on works exported to European markets. Teapots and teacups made in Yixing, like porcelain from Jingdezhen, were usually sent to Beijing for decoration at the palace workshops. This Mengchen Zhi teapot was decorated in “Canton enamels,” Stylistically different from the designs painted at the palace workshops, they were applied by artisans in the south.
Studying these objects and knowing more about them, I began to empathize with the Chinese scholar, realizing that he contemplated these same objects in the quiet of his study. As you can surmise, this only increased my admiration for the teapots’ grace and sophistication. Transcending their allure as objects used merely for brewing tea, their capacity to kindle stories has enriched my appreciation of their cultural and historic context. In turn, this has made me respond in a more sympathetic and less ethnocentric way.
In all cultures, works of art are often replete with indirect messages through the use of symbols—that is, a sign or object that stands for or suggests something else, In these works the Chinese artists have used symbols to represent all human experience presented through the use of plants, flowers, animals and colors. Used as form vocabulary or as decorative elements. the symbols visually portray or allude to specific expressions, customs, historical events, myths or religious or folk beliefs. The scope and complexity of Chinese symbolism make it impossible to explore every aspect of their meaning. Many times these symbols convey thoughts and beliefs current in the artist’s own day. For instance, symbolic imagery was necessitated in part because of the dominance of authoritarian governments. When unable to safely express their dissatisfaction with newly established governments, the scholars would express their feelings through color, material, shape or subject matter
The overglaze decoration on the Mengchen Zhi teapot consists of birds, butterflies and flowers. The butterfly (male image) is drawn to the flowers (female image) — man in pursuit of woman. An emblem symbolizing love, romance and conjugal bliss, the butterfly is looked upon as the Chinese cupid. In Taoist thought, the butterfly is symbolic of a dreamlike existence, floating, elusive and transient. The scholars reflected on the butterfly’s persistence in pursuit of nectar, so for them it also represented the resolve to attain scholarly merits. Flowers were used as emblems for the change of seasons. The plum blossom represents winter, the lotus blossom denotes summer, the chrysanthemum implies fall and the peony indicates spring. The peony was also of finale beauty and a sign for love. The teapot in the shape of a wrapped wrapped in cloth is a late nineteenth-century copy based on a form originally made in the late sixteenth century by Shi Dabin, the most celebrated potter of the Ming dynasty. This “wrapped seal” was given an overall decoration of densely packed, multiple-layered peony petals to signify affluence and prosperity. Flowers did not need to be present in large numbers, A single one could tell a story or represent the microcosm of nature.
Pewter-encased teapots were made expressly for the scholars. Known to have been produced between 1810 and 1850, these teapots are made of Yixing clay and then encased in pewter. The handle, spout and knob are jade. What was of greatest inters to the scholars was the soft pewter surface. Conducive for engraving, carving pewter was perceived as a challenge to their skill, a challenge all the masters embraced. Many famous calligraphers carved poems they had written or carved passages from “tea copybooks” as a way of exposing the virtues of tea or a particular occasion. Alt pewter teapots were carved in the same manner. One side has the inscription, cyclical date and the name of the calligrapher. The other side has an engraved flowering branch with leaves and blossoms, The teapot standing on four small feet bears the inscription, “When drinking tea and viewing bamboo leaves, you see the spring sky,” carved by Kui Feng. The potter, knowing his seal would be covered by pewter, impressed his mark on the inside bottom of the pot.
In my collection there are many examples that use imagery representing the “Three Friends of Winter.” All three—the prunus (plum tree), bamboo and pine—symbolize longevity, perseverance and vitality despite adversity. These motifs are also thought to represent Confucianism, Taoism and Chan Buddhism. “Three Friends of Winter” became an endless way to express qualities important to the scholar Teapots made to look like cut pine reminded scholars to be steadfast. The pine endures the harshness of winter, remaining green throughout the year. It served as a metaphor for loyal and lasting friendship, since friendship should endure through adversity. The prunus or plum tree branch has been applied, painted or carved onto innumerable pots. Blossoming in late winter when nothing else does, it suggested originality, independence, endurance, strength, fortitude and stability. The plum blossom represented the scholars’ ideal of a person with distinctive character and reminded them of the qualities needed to stay the course through the examination process to its successful conclusion. On this nineteenth-century globular-shaped teapot, the carved plum branch has a perching bird. Together they represented dignified solitude and pride. On the opposite side is carved, “May the fragrance of tea remain on your tongue.” Bamboo, another quintessential symbol for the scholar, represented endurance, perseverance, dignity, moral integrity and humility. hollow stalk standing tall and upright, steadfast and unyielding, represented strength with flexibility and a lack of artificiality. Bamboo remains green, grows straight and bends without breaking, The scholar therefore may bend, but must never break. Among the variety of bamboo motifs I have are stylized bundles, a section of bamboo with a twisted vine handle overhead and another bamboo section with its handle on the side. This last example has the prunus motif on one side and carved on the other, “Jade pot by a sparkling spring.”
The teapot portraying a carp transforming into a dragon also had special meaning. The potter, Shao Daheng, is said to have created this design in the mid-nineteenth century. The image of a carp swimming successfully against the current is symbolic of a scholar’s struggle to attain top academic honors, leading to recognition. The Chinese word for carp, li, sounds like the word for “profit” and so the carp also conveys a wish for wealth. The dragon, one of the most potent symbolic creatures, can be viewed as the spirit of water, mist and rain (appropriate for a teapot) or as a symbol of goodness and peace. The carp transforming into a dragon is a metaphor of the struggle for success in the imperial examinations. The dragon holds in its mouth a pearl, associated with good luck. For added interest, when the teapot is tipped, the dragon’s head emerges from the lid sticking out its tongue.
The melon shape, as well as the pumpkin, refers to fertility because of their many seeds. Women were known to pick them in the hope of being blessed with sons. The melon shape most often used is the “Buddha’s hand” of the citron family. This is a fragrant fruit that grows in southern coastal provinces. Inedible, it is oblong in shape with a stippled rind. It derives its name from the tendrils or long fingers resembling the characteristic position of Buddha^ hands. With palm exposed, the index and little fingers point upwards symbolizing the auspicious Buddhist blessings of happiness, longevity and numerous offspring. Because it also resembles a hand grasping for money, it came to symbolize wealth. The Buddha’s hand citron, along with the peach and the pomegranate, comprise the “Three Abundances,” emblematic of happiness and longevity. As early as the Ming dynasty, these symbols became popular for New Year celebrations and as good-luck motifs for birthdays. The appliqued and enameled image on the peach teapot includes a bat. Bats are believed to live a long life, so the bat was used as a symbol for longevity and health. The word for bat in Chinese is a homophone of the word for happiness, thereby conveying a wish for happiness within a long life and so wholly appropriate as a birthday gift.
Several teapots have the likeness of the Buddhist lion, an image holds symbolic importance as a guardian figure. Used as a knob for the lid, the Hon, an animal foreign to China, was first introduced as a decorative motif during the Han dynasty and became extremely popular in the Tang dynasty. The lobed teapot bears the inscription: “A small fragrance of tea embraces the beauty of colored clouds in summer/’ made by Zhen Xin.
The teapot One Thousand Nuts was designed as a wedding gift, wishing the recipients an abundance of healthy offspring and monetary wealth. The body is the shape of a pomegranate covered with seeds and nuts. The handle is a water caltrop, the spout a lotus rhizome, the lid is an upside-down mushroom and the feet are comprised of a walnut, a litchi nut and a lotus seedpod. The many-seeded pomegranate and the seed-filled lotus pod are both symbols of fecundity. The lotus is a complex symbol. For the scholar it symbolized purity and encouraged the achievement of perfection. Used as a betrothal gift, it represented sacredness, purity and compassion. The lotus flower, which blossoms at the same moment the seeds mature, is regarded as a symbol of fruitfulness. The peanut, in Chinese, means “flower of life.” This can refer to its nutritional value, but also has the meaning of new growth and continuity. The mushroom lid is the lingzhi fungus, a sacred plant that has its origins in Taoist belief. If consumed, it can confer immortality or at the very least longevity.
Along with a teapot, tea was often given as a wedding gift. Tea, representing purity, was first used in marital rites during the Song dynasty. The bridegroom, when proposing, would present tea as a betrothal gift to the bride’s family. If his proposal was accepted, a woman was obliged to follow through with her commitment. Tea plants have many seeds, so tea too came to symbolize offspring. The traditional Chinese view is the more children one had, the happier one would be. Once the couple had borne sons and daughters, to celebrate the first month the baby would have its head shaved and then was washed with tea to wish intelligence and bring a long life of abundance and respectability.
One teapot that is clearly authentic dates from around 1870. Calligraphically inscribed on the bottom is “beautiful dear mountain forest” with the maker’s name, Lu Feng chi, a well-known and respected potter of the time. The authenticity of this teapot was verified by an acknowledged expert, Professor Gao Yinzhi. I found this teapot in Yixing, and it was there Professor Gao told me of its history. On the other hand the teapot surmounted with silver filigree remains somewhat of a happy enigma. I bought this piece from a collector of Meissen teapots who had purchased it from an antique dealer in Paris. The dealer thought it might have been made in Meissen. When the collector decided it was not Meissen, he became disillusioned and sold it to me, I purchased it believing it was an eighteenth-century Yixing teapot made for the European market. It is known that Yixing potters, wanting to appeal to European tastes, exported teapots and had European silversmiths add intricate silver exported teapots and had European silversmiths add intricate silver scroll linings around the mouth and foot rim. A lidded silver sleeve was applied to the spout, and silver chains connect the knob of the lid to the spout and handle. This use of silver not only appealed to European sensibilities, but also prevented the covered areas from chipping. The intricate silver filigree work is so precise and of such fine detail I felt certain it was not a forgery. However, I began to question its origin because of the technique used to make the body and lid. They were affixed to the walls. The handle was made from a hand-rolled coil of clay* The spout might have been coiled and altered, but may well have come from a press mold, I asked William Sargent to look at this piece, and his assessment confirmed my suspicions. He believes the teapot was made in Holland in the seventeenth century, possibly by Ary de Milde or someone in his workshop. Near the end of the seventeenth century, when Yixing teapots began to exert an influence in Europe, tea drinking and chinoiserie were all the rage. European red pottery, with unmistakable references to Yixing prototypes, was first produced in Holland. It seems this pot is one of those early examples. The Chinese chop mark on the bottom is typical of attempts by the Dutch and later by other European potters of the time to dupe people into thinking it came from Yixing. Three hundred years later, the ruse still works! We continue to research this piece. The intrigue is a part of my enjoyment and a part of Yixing teaware‘s charm.