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Learning Pottery In Yixing, China

Terese Tse Bartholomew

PRIOR TO THE MING DYNASTY (1368-1644), Chinese most often drank tea that was whisked in powdered form (ground from tea cakes) into hot water contained in bowls. During the Ming dynasty, however, tastes, and practices changed (see Owyoung,this volume), and tea came most frequently to be prepared as an inclusion of leaves steeped in hot water. This change necessitated a special vessel in which to steep the leaves and from which to dispense the brewed liquid: the teapot.

Located in Jiangsu Province to the west of Tai Hu (Lake Tai), Yixing, the pottery capital of China, had been a ceramic center since the Warring States period (480-222 bce). Yixing potters began to make teapots early in the sixteenth century by modifying the easting design of wine pots. Their teapots, made from local clay (zisha, or "purple sand"), gained the approbation of Chinese connoisseurs and came to be considered the finest vessels for brewing tea. It is still believed that even in hot weather, tea left overnight in a Yixing pot will remain fresh. These teapots are never washed; the old tea leaves are simply removed and the pots rinsed in cold water. As a results the interior of the pot soon develops a residual layer of tea. The exterior surface, due to constant use and handling by the collector, also achieves a rich patina. To this day Yixing teapots remain highly prized for their ability to retain the taste, color, and aroma of tea leaves, and some owners designate one Yixing teapot exclusively to one type of tea.

Yixing potters typically worked individually, selling green-ware (unfired pieces) to local shops. After 1948, however, the government decided to seek out: the best of the older generation of potters and have them train young men and women in traditional techniques. The Tangdu Pottery Cooperative was established in 1954, and this was the forerunner of Factory No. 1, the foremost "factory" producing Yixing ware for local consumption and export. It should be noted that "factory" is not used in the Western sense here and that all the tea wares produced in Yixing factories are made individually by hand and stamped with the name of the potter who made them (see fig, a. 5b). The first batch of students who issued from the pottery cooperative arc now some of the top potters of modern-day Yixing, and they in turn are training more students. Additional Victories were established in the 1970s and 1980s. and at present there are potters who work in factories, while others work at home. Together they supply the hundreds of pottery shops in the Yixing area, and Yixing teapots are sold all over China as well as being exported to foreign countries.

I classify Yixing teapots by shape: geometric (based on spheres, cylinders, cubes, etc.; figs, a.i-a.5); naturalistic (modeled after tree trunks and plant and floral forms; see fig. A.7); ribbed (or segmented, based on stylized floral or plant shapes such as melon and chrysanthemum; fig. a.6); and immature (small round teapots for drinking the strong brew preferred by the tea connoisseurs of Guangdong and Fujian provinces (Bartholomew 1981,13), In the past, most potters specialized in one of the four shapes, but today, some talented potters work in a variety of styles.

Although in the course of my study of the history of teapots and their makers I have devoted more than thirty years to Yixing ware, the chance to actually try my hand at making it had, until recently, eluded me and with it the opportunity to gain a fuller understanding and appreciation of the pottery that I knew so well through observation and study. While in college I had taken ceramics courses, and I had been to Yixing a number of times. In 1996 I had in fact visited with every intention of learning how to make Yixing ware. I traveled with a group of Western potters, and we spent nine glorious days at Factory No. 5, the Taiwanese owner of which was kind enough to supply us with teachers (Bartholomew 1998, 24). While my friends all made wonderful teapots in collaboration with their Yixing teachers, however, I had to spend most of my time translating for them. It was a frustrating experience, and I swore that I would go back to Yixing and actually work with the wonderful purple sand clay as soon as I could.

My opportunity came in April of 2008, when having retired from my curatorial position, I once again traveled to Yixing, this time with my husband, Bruce, and our friend Dottie Low, a well-known San Francisco potter who also wanted to learn to make Yixing ware. We were fortunate to have as a teacher Gu Meiqun, an accomplished and versatile potter who makes teapots in various styles. I especially admire her pieces in the naturalistic tradition, which includes teapots in the shape of lotus leaves and blossoms (fig. A.7). Gu Meiqun had first learned to make pottery from her mother, and later she received instruction from some of the foremost potters trained in the 1950s.

I originally met Gu Meiqun in 1996 when she was working in Factory No. 5, as she was one of the teachers assigned to help our group. We kept in contact through the years, and she let me know that she had become a part-owner of Factory No. 5 in addition to continuing her own work as a potter. When she expressed a wish to hold workshops for foreign potters, I wrote to her immediately. As she was not yet set up for a workshop, she invited us to take lessons at her home.

Unlike many other well-to-do potters who have moved to urban areas, Gu Meiqun lives in the farming village of Yang-zhu Qianman close to Lake Tai. The village lies east of the town of Dingshan, where most of the factories are located, and southeast of the city of Yixing. There, farmers make pots in winter after they have harvested their crops. Almost every household makes them, and trays of finished teapots and other tea wares drying in the sun outside the houses are as common as trays of dried turnips and other farm products (fig. a.8). Walking around at night, I saw entire families working away, supplying local shops with teapots and fancy containers for tea leaves and tea cakes (some of the puer tea from Yunnan Province is traditionally pressed into a flat cake).

Making Yixing ware does not require much space. Worktables are made of a piece of heavy wood or a halved log. They must be thick and strong because the stiff clay is pounded on them with a heavy wooden mallet. There were four tables in the workroom at Gu Meiqun's house, and Dottie and I shared the space with two young women apprentices. Tools used to work the clay vary and are made of metal, wood, bamboo, and buffalo horn. They can be purchased from toolmakers in the town of Dingshu, but they all require finishing. Yixing potters are especially proud of their tools and often make their own for specific jobs. A potter can use more than thirty tools in the making of a single teapot. My teacher's husband,who is also a potter, polished, sanded, and refinished our tools for us.

Under the guidance of Gu Meiqun, and having never done so before in our lives, my friend Dottie and I set out to make Yixing ware. Dottie chose to make a teapot, and I decided to make a lotus root brush-rest in the naturalistic tradition. We spent the first four days making our pieces, the fifth day was spent in burnishing, and our "masterpieces" were fired the sixth day. I was given given some beige-colored clay and was later embarrassed to find out that my teacher had been saving it for the past twelve years. The clay used for Yixing ware is mined from the local hills, and good clays are quickly purchased by local potters to be put away for later use. In the old days potters mined and mixed their own clays, and each family had its own secret recipes. Good clap, such as the purplish brown clay used,and each family had its own secret recipes. Good clap, such as the purplish brown clay used in die 1960s and 1970s, are now running out,and collectors (especially those in Taiwan) place high value on the teapots made by Factory No. 1.

The sound of clay being pounded is peculiar to Yixing and its environs because Yixing ware is not wheel-thrown but made entirely by hand. Hie processed clay must have all the air squeezed ouf of it and is very stiff! Our teacher started with the basics—how to make a round teapot. As a first step, she taught us how to make a cylinder. We watched her demonstration , and then we tried our best to imitate her. She cut l a section of clay and beat it with a wooden mallet until it was even in thickness,then she used a cutter (resembling a compass with two sharp points) and marked off a rectangular piece of clay, as well as circular pieces for the top and bottom. She placed a circular piece of clay (the bottom of the teapot) on the metal turntable and curled the rectangular piece (the walls of the teapot) around it into a cylinder, cutting off the h excess clay. The basic shape for Yixing ware, be it a teapot or a ^ brush pot, is the cylinder (daxintong). The cylinder, which rests on a small metal turntable that is pushed in a counterclockwise direction, is paddled with a flat wooden tool, while the inside wall of the cylinder is supported by the fingers of the left hand. In this way, a perfectly round teapot can be made simply by paddling (Bartholomew 1992, 44-45). During the next few days, our teacher continued the process of making a teapot, Her technique was effortless with no wasted motion. She continued a tradition developed over five hundred years, whose techniques, passed from generation to generation, have reached perfection. The method was moderately difficult, and it definitely required a lot of practice. It was not something that could be mastered in the few days we spent there.

The various parts of the teapot, the handle and spout, for example,are attached with slurry To make slurry, scraps of clay are mixed with water, using a special wooden tool. Yixing clay adheres very well with just a small amount of slurry. The smooth shiny surface of a Yixing teapot is achieved by burnishing when the piece is leather hard, One excellent tool for this task is thinly sliced buffalo horn, which is hard as well as flexible After being soaked in water, the buffalo horn is held with the right hand and used to burnish the teapot until it is completely smooth (fig. A.9). Periodically, the buffalo horn is cleaned using a piece of towel to wipe off any excess bits of clay.

When Dottie finished her teapot, our teacher turned it upside down and supported the base with a wooden toot Then she picked up a seal carved with Dottie's Chinese name and next few days, our teacher continued the process of making a teapot. Her technique was effortless with no wasted motion. She continued a tradition developed over five hundred years, whose techniques, passed from generation to generation, have reached perfection. The method was moderately difficult, and it definitely required a lot of practice. It was not something that could be mastered in the few days we spent there.

The various parts of the teapot, the handle and spout, for example, sure attached with slurry. To make slurry, scraps of clay are mixed with water,using a special wooden tool. Yixing day adheres very well with just a small amount of slurry. The smooth shiny surface of a Yixing teapot is achieved by burnishing when the piece is leather hard. One excellent tool for this task is thinly sliced buffalo horn, which is hard as well as flexible. After being soaked in water,the buffalo horn is held with the right hand and used to burnish the teapot until it is completely smooth (fig. A.9). Periodically, the buffalo horn is cleaned using a piece of towel to wipe off any excess bite of clay.

When Dottie finished her teapot, our teacher turned it upside down and supported the base with a wooden tool. Then she picked up a seal carved with Dottie's Chinese name and using a small wooden mallet, she made an impression in the finished piece with one stroke of the mallet (fig, a.io). This is an important part of the Yixing tradition; the potter proudly seals the finished work with his or her name (see fig. a.5B).

One of the joys of positing Yixing is buying teapots, and examining them closely is another way of learning about this unique tea ware. Rows of shops selling nothing but Yixing ware can be found along the highway leading to Yixing, in the city of Yixing itself, the surrounding towns, and even in the villages, Depending on the maker, a teapot can range from us$I to more than $30,000, Buying a good teapot can be a challenge. Some of the cheaper teapots are slip cast and have a rough finish. Ingenious potters buy a good teapot and make section molds from it. They press in the clay, attach the parts together, and take time on burnishing. From a distance, these teapots look very good. Closer inspection, however, will reveal die joints, and any self-respecting potter looks down on such practices. I look for a teapot having a body that is finely balanced by the spout and the handle and that demonstrates good workmanship and finishing. Most important of all, the spout must not drip, and I ask for water and test it on the spot. My policy is to go to well-known workshops run by famous potters and buy from young apprentices who do excellent work. Once they win a few prizes and become famous, their prices will skyrocket. The week that I spent working and learning in Yixing was an unforgettable experience, one I hope to repeat.