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Brief Introduction To The Seals And Inscriptions Of Zisha Teapots

Author/photo: Huang Renwen

For centuries, the seal and inscription of a particular Zisha teapot has been deemed as an important basis for identifying authenticity of the teapot. In general, there are five identification indicators for a Zisha teapot: raw material (clay), shape, process, kilning, and seal and inscription. Among them, the seal and inscription, the last indicator, tends to be comparable and identifiable for direct identification of the teapot.

Nevertheless, as the seals and inscriptions of Zisha teapots are so important and useful, they become the most likely and easiest to be counterfeited. Moreover, nowadays, seals can be duplicated with high precision using advanced computer technology. Even the outer appearance of the reproduction may highly resemble that of the real one. In this case, the connoisseur may be very much confused and be unable to tell the real one from the replica. On this point, scrutiny and identification of the seal and inscription are two priorities for appreciating a Zisha teapot.

In 1976, archaeologists unearthed several Zisha relics from Yangjiaa Mountain of Dingshu, Yixing, Jiangsu, China. At that time, scholars claimed that the early Yixing Zisha teapots date back to "mid Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1127), flourished during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 - 1279), and declined during the early Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644)" (Some experts and scholars dispute this claim). In this period, Zisha teapots were roughly developed No seal and inscription has been found on these unearthed relics because, in the beginning period the pots may have just been popular among the common people without being high-end products, and naturally, the seals of the teapot-makers were not engraved on the pots.

Of all the relevant literature available, the earliest records of inscriptions on Zisha teapots can be read in Gong Chun teapots molded during the Zhengde reign (1505 - 1521) of the Ming Dynasty. In Yixing Zisha Teapot Series, the first Yixing Zisha specific book written by Zhou Gaoqi in the Tianqi reign (1620-1627) of the Ming Dynasty, it is recorded: "Gong Chun is a servant of Wu Yishan, a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations, who often read books at the Golden Sand temple. While serving the scholar, Gong Chun secretly learned Zisha teapot crafting techniques from a distinguished senior monk and also inscribed his own name on the Zisha teapots he made himself. His Zisha teapot Ging-kor warts is now exhibited in the National Museum of China in Beijing. Near the handle of this teapot, two Chinese characters the artisan's name, were inscribed.

This might be the first inscription engraved on a Zisha teapot. It was possible that Gong Chun, then a servant to Wu Yishan, a close friend of Tang Bohu, may have followed the style of these men of letters and also inscribed his name on his own artwork, the Zisha teapot.

As of the Wanli reign (1573 -1620) of the Ming Dynasty, the crafting process of Zisha teapot was fully developed, and it was a popular practice to engrave seals and inscriptions on Zisha teapots. Yixing Zisha Teapot Series describes: "The inscription shall be engraved on the teapot.

At first, Shi Dabin invites a master calligrapher to write the characters on the teapot, and then they are engraved on the pot with a bamboo knife. Or first a seal is affixed to the teapot and engraved with a knife. The calligraphic style appears almost as elegant as the regular script in small Chinese characters by the master calligrapher Wang Xizhi in his master handwriting pieces Huang Ting and Le Yi, and the engraving is unique and cannot be imitated by others. Therefore, the inscription can be the basis for a connoisseur to identify a teapot," From this description we know that the art of inscription was developed in a special way, and it cannot be reproduced by others. The contents of inscriptions in this period included not only the name of the teapot-maker, but also a chronological record of the production. For example, "(This teapot was) made by Shi Dabin on a winter day in a year of dragon." Another example is that, on a Zisha round teapot unearthed in the tomb of Zhang Guangyin from Jincheng, Shanxi, China, there is an inscription as "(This teapot was) made by Shi Dabin on a day in the summer in the year of sheep." Additionally, Yixing Zisha Teapot Series explains that there are more engraving inscriptions than seal inscriptions on the pots made by Shi Dabin, and the former are usually finer than the later.

Zisha teapots evolved with the times. In the first year (1368) of the Hongwu reign of the Ming Dynasty, cake tea gave way to sun-dried bulk tea. Because the latter was usually steeped in Zisha teapots, the demand for the teapot variety increased, and accordingly, more people were engaged in crafting the teapots. In that period, both engraving inscriptions and seal inscriptions were seen on teapots. However, most Zisha teapot artisans were illiterate and naturally couldn't master calligraphy. Therefore, seal inscriptions were used more often than engraving inscriptions. After the Wanli reign, seal cutting art became popular, hence most inscriptions were still seal inscriptions. In the late years of the Ming Dynasty poetic verses became increasingly popular, and the contents of inscriptions on Zisha pots were enriched, including chronological records, names, and verses of poetry. Furthermore, in the inscription on the round lid large teapot made by Hui Mengchen, a master teapot-maker in the late Ming Dynasty, "(This teapot was) made in a Dragon year during the Chongzhen reign of the Ming Dynasty by Hui Mengchen in Jingxi," we can see that the production place name (Jingxi) was included in the inscription.

In the transitional years of the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the inscriptions on Zisha pots were further evolved. At that time, besides the above-described unframed chronological records and verses of poetry, round, square and elliptic seals were also seen in the inscriptions. In seal inscriptions on the lids, there was a combination of two forms of seal inscriptions, of which one seal was round while the ocher was square. In addition, the seals were not only affixed to the bottom, but to the two sides In the Kangxi reign (1661 -1722) of the Qing Dynasty, Chen Mingyuan, a master teapot-maker, improved the inscriptions on Zisha teapots. For the first time, he engraved poems on the belly of a teapot, and used both engraving and seal inscriptions. He introduced the art of inscriptions in painting and calligraphic artworks into these on the pots. The artistic and cultural value of Zisha teapots thereby increased significantly,

In the Jiaqing reign (1796 -1820) of the Qing Dynasty, Chen Hongshou led the art of Zisha teapot into another glorious era. Also known as Mansheng, Chen was a master of calligraphy, painting, and seal cutting of his time. He was also the representative of the Zhejiang school and among the great eight seal cutting masters from Hanzhou, As the governor of Liyang county, he advocated the innovation of teapot art. It was his belief that shall not master all in poetry, writing, calligraphy and painting, but shall attain the natural taste of these arts, Chen created the "eighteen styles of Mansheng," which became the basic models of the inscriptions of Zisha teapots: the writing and engraving inscriptions are on the body of the teapot, they are engraved inscriptions; the names of pot-maker, supervisor and customer (order maker) are inscribed on pot bottom, inner side of the lid and under the handle; and they are seal inscriptions.

In the transitional years between the Qing Dynasty and the Republic Period, around the 1910s, because many commercial ports were opened,the Zisha teapot market flourished with Zisha teapot businesses established one after another. Under such circumstances, the seals and inscriptions on the teapots were diversified. Each business developed its own style. The well-known styles could be reflected from respective innovative and antique models as well as their patterns of animals and flowers. The popular Zisha teapot producers or businesses in those years include Ge De He, Yi Gu Zhai, Zhao Song Ting, Mo Yuan Zhai Li Yong, Tie Hua Xuan, Wu De Sheng, Chen Ding He, Mao Shun Xing, and Wang Yu Tai. Due to the rise of exports, English inscriptions were already seen on some export-oriented Zisha teapots.

In 1954, when China implemented the policy of joint public and private management," Zisha teapot production was collectivized. In October 1954, Shushan Zisha Pottery was reorganized from the former Tangdu Pottery Production Cooperative. At that time, the seal inscriptions on Zisha teapots were three popular "six-character seals" in Chinese, simply the labels of the producers, "Made by Yixing Huimengchen Pottery" ("宜興惠孟臣製"), "Made by Jingxi Nan-mengchen Pottery" ("荆溪南孟臣製") and "Made by Jingxi Huimengchen Potteiy"(荆溪惠 孟臣製).

In October 1958, the "Yixing Zisha Pottery Factory" was established. Under the planned economy and the Great Leap Forward political movement, output was given priority in the industry. All Zisha teapots made at that time were affixed with the four-character seal "中國宜興" (Yixing, China). Of course, in the transitional years, the above-mentioned six-character seals were sometimes used in the inscriptions on the bottoms of the teapots. The four Chinese characters were mostly inscribed on ox horns, in such shapes as square and 3:7 or 4:6 rectangles.

The seal inscriptions on Zisha teapots may have originated from ancient clay seal impressions. In China, seals were often used in ancient times. There were two stages of seal development: clay seal impression and red seal affixation. The former period started from the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC) through the Warring States Period (475 BC - 221 BC) and ended in the Northern and Southern dynasties (420 - 589). In Duties of justice Minister by Rites of the Zhou Dynasty, it is recorded: "Tell the good from the bad of materials, count and record the number and affix the seal. To sum up, the ancient method of seal engraving was to wrap up the materials or bamboo or wooden slips (books) with ropes and cover the object with caked earth to which the $eal was affixed. This method was intended to obtain two objectives: to mark the object, and to prevent the theft of the objects or books. This method was known as "clay seal impression." After the Wei and Jin dynasties (220 - 420), writings were gradually made using paper and silks instead of bamboo and wood, Therefore, seal impression was gradually replaced by affixing seals on the paper or silk. Upon clay seal impression, wooden slots were made for placing seal clay and preventing the clay from breaking before the seal was affixed to the clay, Almost all unearthed seal clay works bear protruding impression (the strokes of characters are shaped by the clay), in other words, the seals affixed to the clay must be a sunken impression (the strokes of characters are shaped by the cut parts).

As mentioned before, the inscription and seal can be an important basis for identifying the authenticity of a Zisha teapot. In addition, the inscription helps elevate the art of Zisha teapots. A high-grade Zisha teapot must be matched with a well-written inscription, for they are complementary. From vintage teapots, the Republic Period teapots, or even recent teapots, the popular pots have well-matched seals and inscriptions, demonstrating higher artistic values than average. It would be a pity if a top quality teapot bears an unsatisfactory and worthless seal and inscription.

In artistic history, the seal has always merely played a minor role. Originally it was used for marking, and then gradually developed into an independent form of art. Even so, because of its small size, the seal has always played a supporting role in paintings and calligraphic works. However, the seal is an inseparable part of painting or calligraphic artworks. Therefore! most painters and calligraphers pay great attention to the seal. As for the art of Zisha teapots, the seal plays a key role. The seals on the well-known teapots are made by master seal cutters. Even the aforementioned six-character seals used for mass teapot production in 1950s and 1960s were made in a serious manner.

Therefore, in order to appreciate Zisha teapots from the inscription in the seals, it is necessary to familiarize ourselves with traditional seal cutting art that gave rise to the seals. In early times, such as the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties (before 221 BC), all seals were called Xi , made with such materials as gold, silver, jade, copper, rhinoceros horn, or ivory, and the seal handle was dragon or tiger shaped, depending on the makers. During the Qin Dynasty (221 BC -207 BC), only the seals held by the emperors and nobles could be called Xi, and the material for the emperors was jade, that for nobles was gold, and those held by subordinates were called Yin or Zhang, In the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), the seals of the emperors were made of jade with a tiger-shaped handle, those of the empresses were made of gold also with tiger-shaped handles; those of kings and nobles were gold with camel-shaped handles; those of princes, prime ministers, military marshals, the three chief ministers, and chief generals were gold with tortoise-shaped handles; those of intermediate officials were silver with tortoise-shaped handles; and, finally, those of minor officials were copper with nose-shaped handles.

Among the seals described above, the copper seals were the most closely related to the art of seal-cutting. Copper seals were made either by molding or engraving. During wartime, some generals died or were wounded, the successors were appointed in time, and their seals could not be molded in a short time, so they were usually engraved on-site with knife, hence the term "improvised seal".

Prior to the Song and Yuan dynasties (960 - 1367), the contents of the seals were generally inscribed by calligraphers and processed by professional cutters. However, at the end of Yuan Dynasty, Wang Mian, a master painter, "discovered a certain color soft stone from Tiantai Bao-hua Mountain in Lishui county, Chuzhou prefecture. Zhejiang province loved its unique color and used it to make a private seal. Since then, it became fashionable among the men of letters to study seal color and seal material stones." As a kind of soft stone with a hardness of 3.5, slightly harder than a human finger nail, it can easily be engraved. For the first time, Wang Mian combined calligraphy and cutting. In the Zhengde and Jiaqing reigns of the Ming Dynasty, Wen Peng (the eldest son of Wen Zhengming), one of the four talents in the southern Yangtze region, wrote: "I'm determined to learn the merits of ancient arts and start to change the negative practices in the Song and Yuan dynasties, because I want to spread a new style of seal cutting art across the empire."

Over hundreds to more than a thousand years, ancient copper seals, tomb inscriptions, and inscriptions on gold and copper wares are usually eroded, broken, and deformed. This may bring out changing strokes which create their own artistic value. Therefore, many seal-cutters made use of soft stones to imitate these changing strokes. In addition, they would cut the stones with knife to create a naturally-broken style. Overall, the strikes were full of life, which was developed into the "copper-stone seal style" and gave rise to an artistic school.

Since the Qing Dynasty, most inscriptions on Zisha teapots have been stone seals except those of certain poems, which used wooden seals. Most stone seals were made by master seal-cutters. Collectors have thus sought out Zisha teapots both for the artistic value of the teapot and that of the inscription. The accrediting function of inscriptions cannot be ignored when appreciating the teapots. In general, good teapot-makers pay great attention to their inscriptions and usually ask master seal-cutters to make the seals for them. On the contrary, counterfeiters prepare inartistic seals because they have no skills to make the seal, or their skills are far from these of the original seal-cutter, barely reproducing the form and lacking the essence. In case of reproducing the seals with computer, although the appearance of the original and the counterfeit might be very similar, the true essences of the original can never be expressed in the counterfeit.

Prior to the four-character inscription "中國宜興" (Yixing, China), most inscriptions of Zisha teapots were from manual stone cutting, the "manual" traces of which can be found in the seal characters. The most commonly seen traces are cut marks. In seal-cutting, it is required that the cut traces shall not be seen, because too many cut traces may result in ugly strokes. However, the cut traces must be traceable (photo 41). The main skills in seal-cutting are digging and chopping. Long stroke cannot be made at a single dig; and in the turning points of the strokes, there must be transitional cuts which will leave traces on the strokes (photo 42). Most manually created seals are made with a double cut approach except for a small number, which are made with a single cut approach. The intersections of the two cuts of vacant strokes can be clearly recognized. In the seals, the lower parts of the strokes are in fine lines. Accordingly, when the seals are affixed to the pots, the upper parts of the strokes must be in fine lines (photo 43). Moreover, some stokes are coarse, and some are fine (photo 44). But seals produced by machine contain unchanging strokes. When such seals are affixed to the teapot, they look flat or universally semicircular (photo 45).

Of course, some seals can be counterfeited by hand. Therefore, evaluating these seals requires not only a basic knowledge of manual seals, but also a deeper understanding of the skills of seal-cutting. The approach of affixing seals to Zisha teapot is special. Different pressure or clay texture or kilning can result in different clay contraction ratios, or the affixed seal may be flattened. Therefore, after the kilning, the seal will appear slightly different from the original. In this situation, the seal is identified on the basis of seal-cutting skills, recognizing the original essences. "Reading the seal" is a key step in appreciating seals. Through reading the seal, we can understand the true meaning of the seal.

To read the seal, in the following, a seal of "Made by Hui Mengchen in Yixing"("宜興惠孟臣製") is demonstrated in three styles: photographic copy, ink copy, and the original red seal.

The six characters in the seal of "宜興惠孟臣製" are properly arranged in the space provided. The upper radical 'fix' of '宜' (Yi) is round on the left and square on the right, and the two angles point inward and respond to each other; the four parallel horizontal strokes of lower radical 'S' of the character are in different lengths, of which the top stroke slants downward, the second is pointed slightly upward, the third is straight and with coarse left part and fine right part, and the bottom stroke is also pointed slightly upward with a heavy start and light end, demonstrating the characteristics of calligraphic art. A total of five parallel horizontal strokes can be seen in the upper radical and lower radical of the character '宜' In between there are different spaces in various styles, combining to express a lovely whole. Because the upper radical of character (Xing) are complicated, and the strokes are arranged with cut approach, i.e., "cut but mutual corresponding strokes"; the rightmost stroke of this radical is inward, responding to the other strokes, and the leftmost stroke is outward, turning against other strokes. This spatial arrangement is different that for the upper radical of character '宜' The lower radical of the character '興' is relatively simple, and the space is more open. Therefore, the left stroke of the radical is emphasized, matching with the spacious area.

The third character, '惠' expresses a stature of higher left part and lower right part. The first stroke, '一', runs to the right with slightly downward trend. The strokes of the middle radical,are wisely arranged. The horizontal stroke under the middle radial also runs from the left to the right with a slightly downward trend. The lower radical '心' is solid and sturdy, supporting the upper radicals.

The upper radical '子' of character '孟' (Meng), is full of strength, expressing a graceful calligraphic style. The strokes of the upper part of '子' are arranged in an irregular way, while those of the lower part, the "arms" are bent inward, responding to each other. The right part of this radical is slim, while the left part is full of round strokes. The lower radical of this character, '皿' has a forceful start, responding to the middle horizontal stroke. The two vertical stokes in the lower radical are slightly inward and responding to each other. The bottom horizontal stroke is level with coarse left part and fine right part, which is in accord with aesthetic standards of Chinese calligraphy.

Among the six characters, '臣' (Chen) has the fewest strokes. To avoid loose structure, the strokes are emphasized. Each part of the emphasized strokes is characterized as a turning square. In general, the turning corners of seal writing strokes are round in the outer face and square in the inner face. However, in this character, the writing strokes are square in characterized as a turning square. In the outer face and round in the inner face, featuring the distinctive style of a square seal.

The strokes of '製' (zhi) are the most changed in this square seal. In the interaction between the upper part of the left radical and the right radical, there is a cut mark. The strokes of the left radical are inward, responding to each other. Attention should be paid to this point, because the strokes in seals are changed. Even the works of Huang Mufu, who claimed that the cut marks shall not be left, seem to have regular strokes, but after close reading, the strokes are also changed and lively. The strokes of the lower part of left radical of the character are boldly arranged. Seemingly slanted, these strokes are balanced with appropriate spaces and forces, which are more striking in the affixed seal. Viewing from the seal affixed to pot and that to the paper, the strokes of the right radical and the lower part of left radical of the character are relatively loose. Nonetheless, in the seal affixed to paper, the state of looseness disappears. This is one of the differences between seal to pot and that to paper. The immaterial strokes in the seal will become material strokes in the seal to pot, the result is unexpectedly wonderful.

In the foregoing paragraphs, the arrangements of strokes of the six characters in the seal of "Made by Hui Mengchen in Yixing"("宜興惠孟臣製") are briefly discussed. The overall layout of the seal is important in appreciating the seal, but this is not in the focus of this article. In calligraphic theory books, it is said that a wonderful stroke leads to a wonderful character; and a wonderful character leads to a wonderful work. Some understanding of reading the seal is helpful in appreciating and comparing the seals of Zisha teapots.

Since the 1980s, the Zisha pottery industry has flourished, and traditional practices have been restored. Many wonderful seals have subsequently been created. However, traditional calligraphy approaches are gradually disappearing as science and technology advance. Some teapot-makers have no knowledge of seal-cutting art and calligraphy, and the seals and inscriptions for the pots are not regulated. A parallel situation can also be seen in Qing Dynasty teapots. In some circulating works of these teapots, we find seals and inscriptions that were roughly prepared. What a pity! The artistic value of a good teapot is devalued by the rough seal and inscription. The craftsmen of the past are gone, but the future craftsmen can attempt to surpass them. We can only hope that current teapot makers pay attention to the art of seals and inscriptions on Zisha teapots and lead to another flourishing era of Zisha teapot production.