Located on Great Lake (Taihu), across from Suzhou and within the "Golden Triangle," is Yixing. When many of the most renowned scholars flocked to this area in the late sixteenth century, the influx turned Yixing into a hub of intellectual activities. The life of simplicity to which many scholars had aspired drew them to the rustic stonewares of Yixing, which by that time had been in production for over five hundred years. In their understated way, Yixing wares served to exemplify a quiet and reflective aesthetic. The irregularities and seeming crudeness of the pots were in accordance with scholarly taste, which favored honest, simple expressions. Earthy yet refined, understated and subtle, Yixing ware, the scholars felt, expressed something of their own personalities, echoing their desire for simplicity.
Until recently the origin of Yixing ware was uncertain, A few old literary records mention its existence during the Song period, and archaeologists have since dated shards to the mid Northern Song dynasty with the most advanced to the Southern Song dynasty. This was confirmed in 1976 when workers at the nearby kiln site of Yangjiaoshan excavated a large quantity of remnants. Those fragments are regarded as the forerunners of classical Yixing ware. The pottery produced in Yixing had been mostly utilitarian articles to satisfy the needs of domestic use and industry. From rather coarse unglazed red clay, the potters of Yixing made storage jars, pickling jars, garden pots, cooking utensils, eating utensils and the like. Not until the sixteenth century, during the Ming dynasty, did classical ware begin to be produced and attract the attention of scholars. Teapots came into vogue, in part, because the Ming emperor abolished the tax on tea — a levy that had discouraged the production of tea bricks. Expensive brick tea was shaved off sparingly into bowls and then covered with boiled water. The advent of less costly loose leaves encouraged the brewing of tea directly into teapots. To meet the needs of the expanding tea culture, the status of ancient potteries was improved and the social position of the craftsmen became elevated.
There are many reasons for Yixing enduring as a center of ceramics production. The extensive interconnected canals and waterways of the region provided the means of transporting finished wares throughout China. Shanghai, ninety-four miles to the east at the mouth of the Yangtze River, was a gateway to international ports. In addition to providing ready access to commerce, the canals also contributed to the longevity of Yixing's ceramic industries in another way. At many ceramic centers, production ceased as the wood-fired kilns' appetite for fuel denuded the nearby hillsides. Trees and brush were then cut from a progressively larger area surrounding the kiln until it was no longer economically feasible to transport wood over land for long distances. At Yixing, however, fuel from distant locations could simply be bundled onto barges and floated through the canals to the kiln sites.
The foremost reason for Yixing's longevity is the abundance of locally mined clay deposits that come in a wide range of warm rich colors. These fine-grained days are so satiny, beautiful and dense that it was not necessary to glaze the wares. There are veins that yield yellow buff-color clay, and with metallic additives, the clay can become siate blue, jade green and deep black. The high-iron content clays known as zisha (purple sand) have a slightly textured sandy consistency and range in color from red-browns to red to purple. Although the less refined version of this clay is used for many things, when finely sieved and paddled, the clay acquires the qualities that are perfect for teapots - The characteristics that set the Yixing clay body apart from all others are its rich color, durability and porosity. When fired and left unglazed, it maintains the humble warmth of earthenware, but attains the durability of stoneware. The clay body also retains a degree of porosity after firing, allowing it to breathe, absorbing the brewed tea, which creates a tea patina. Each time tea is prepared, the vessel's slightly porous walls absorb a bit of the brew. The patina that forms on the inside of the pot enhances each subsequent infusion. On the outside the tea patina creates a rich natural luster adding depth as it mellows with age - Never scrubbed, Yixing teapots are only rinsed with clean water or cool tea after each use, allowing tea deposits to build up naturally. In time the user is really making tea in tea, sending forth a refreshing fragrance immediately upon use and eliminating any extraneous taste from the pot itself Different teas need to be poured from different teapots, one type of tea for one teapot. This allows continuity of tea residue, which enhances the flavor of subsequent infusions. Before a new teapot is used, it should first be soaked in tea water for over three months so that the pot becomes and remains fragrant.
The scholars of the late Ming period seemed to live at a time that allowed romantic passions to be set free, and many felt compelled to follow their obsessions to a conclusion. Of the myriad approaches taken by scholars, one type wanted "to use knowledge to benefit the worlds They played an active role in government with the Intent of benefiting the greater good. In an attempt to educate the Chinese in Western technologies and culture, they agitated the Imperial government to adopt Western methods of science and warfare. In contrast, another type held on to neo-Confucian ideals, stubbornly ignoring societal changes. This group would labor over the wording of a composition or indulge in rhetorical discourse. Concurrently, there were a number of scholars from elite, relatively affluent families who transcended the need for mundane discourse and civil service assignments. Instead, they cultivated themselves in pursuit of high culture through the arts. Their contempt for imperial policies brought with it many new, innovative, The rise of a capitalistic economy in the Jiangnan area (present-day Jiangsu province where Yixing is located), in the closing decades of the sixteenth century, has been the subject of intense research by Chinese historians in recent years, It has become clear from records of the time that changes in taste and attitude among scholars can also be understood against dramatic economic and social changes. The accumulation of wealth in the hands of traders and manufacturers and the general affluence of the urban population led to - a strong demand for works of art both ancient and contemporary. An intense interest in fifteenth-century decorated porcelain ensued, and rising prices naturally followed the increased demand. With the stimulus of competition among independent artisans, the quality of many types of decorative art reached a very high and rarely attained level However, the multicolored porcelains from Jingdezhen and objects made of gold or silver reflected the tastes of the imperial court and the nouveau riche who followed that lead, a taste not shared by most scholars. The scholars sought objects that would reflect the sophistication of their aesthetic understanding. Yixing ware seemed both straightforward and elegant. It was against this backdrop that the Yixing teapot rose to prominence.
The production of teapots in Yixing began in the Zhengde period (1506-1521) of the Ming dynasty. It is believed that the teapot was first designed at the Golden Sand Temple not far from Yixing. According to Yixing lore, the first designer of a refined artistic teapot was the Chan Buddhist monk, Gongchun (b. 1513). Little is known about him except that in his boyhood he served in a scholar's study and lived at the Golden Sand Temple when the first teapot was made. Although it cannot be categorically confirmed that Gongchun invented the Yixing teapot, what is true is that Chan monks had long been known as connoisseurs of tea and it was quite natural that one of them should make a special pot for the exclusive purpose of brewing tea. Marking his creations with a simple but unmistakable fingerprint, Gongchun carved his teapots from a single lump of clay, These works were simple but elegant in shape and color, lively and diverse In style, His designs, which naturally suited tea, were shaped like melons, fragrant buds, tree burls and tree stumps. Through their association with the monks, the scholars became acquainted with these tea wares.
Typical of the earliest teapots was a large globular pouring vessel that had a short spout and fitted lid. However, the large size of the vessel allowed tea to steep for too long, By the time the last of it was poured from the bottom of the pot, the tea had become acrid. Chen Jiru, a scholar and tea connoisseur, conceived the idea of brewing tea in small pots. He probably inherited the idea from an earlier generation who had already begun, in the late fifteenth century, a trend toward smaller vessels. Smaller-sized teapots allowed for more delicate infusions and so reflected a major change in the manner of preparing tea. The smaller the vessel, the better it could retain the bouquet and flavor of the tea and avert the waste of good expensive leaves. In this way tea might be sipped delicately, giving rise to the maxim "tea should be drunk often, but in small quantities."
The Yixing potter, Shi Dabin, who had been making larger teapots, was approached by Chen Jiru to design and execute smaller ones. One small teapot, ingeniously conceived and designed by Shi Dabin, had a scalloped edge along the top rim that looked like a monk's cap, reminding one of a monk at prayer in an ancient temple. The message was clear: drink tea to purify your soul and the teapot could bring you closer to Buddha. By the early seventeenth century, both the demand for Yixing teapots and their prestige had grown to such an extent that Yixing attracted the talents of the greatest artist/potters of the time. The collaboration between Chen Jiru and Shi Dabin expanded to include other scholars and the best potters in Yixing. This pushed the functional and artistic qualities of the teapot to new standards of artistry and workmanship.
The relationship that developed between the Yixing potters and the scholars was a unique phenomenon. Members of the literati circles seldom fraternized with artisans and craftsmen. With the exception of bamboo and seal carvers, nowhere else in China was the dividing line between scholars and artisans this close. However, only the potters of Yixing came to be recognized by the scholars as having the same artistic stature and so were often invited to participate in scholars, gatherings. The mutual admiration between the scholars and the Yixing potters allowed that a number of teapots came to be regarded as vehicles through which the scholar could demonstrate his imagination and skill. As a result pots were inscribed, dedicated and signed. Li Rihua, in his Writings from the Hall of Tranquility, recorded the inscriptions he carved on more than a dozen teapots in his possession - This practice was analogous to the addition of colophons and seals on calligraphy and painting. Most artisans in earlier periods remained unknown. Now for the first time, objects were being inscribed with their makers' names, and several late Ming period craftsmen were known along with the scholars who once owned, used or commissioned their wares. This mark of distinction made Yixing ware the first pottery in the world to be signed by an individual artist/potter, thus breaking the tradition of anonymous production of ceramics. This unique symbiosis in the design and making of Yixing teapots by scholar and potter created the perfect synthesis of an informed, intelligent and impeccably crafted object that combined aesthetic purpose with functional intent.
The euphoria of this initial collaboration was short-lived. Between the fall of the Ming dynasty and before the Qing dynasty was firmly established, the potters of Yixing suffered major setbacks. Most of the scholars had been government officials who were loyal to the Ming court and so automatically lost employment and power on the accession of the Qing emperor. With scholars no longer in a position to place orders, the Yixing potters had lost their patrons. Additionally, the desire for exports that had been stimulated by the Dutch, Portuguese and British East India companies for the China trade slumped. Europeans became passionate for glazed porcelain. The more colorfully decorated enameled wares of Jingdezhen and the creamy white blanc de chine wares from Dehua gained favor. Simultaneously, the Europeans began to produce their own, less costly imitations of Chinese ceramics.
Eager to reclaim a share of the European market, Yixing potteries sought expeditious production techniques to keep prices low. As a result, styles and standards of workmanship became progressively poorer. By scholars' standards the resultant teapots were mediocre at best. Teapots that had drawn their inspiration from traditional bronze and jade vessels now followed simplified and prosaic designs; detailed fruit or melon shapes gave way to simple round or cylindrical forms. Although the overall quality had deteriorated, there were nevertheless several outstanding individual potters during this period. One of them, Chen Mingyuan, in many ways provides a link between the differing stylistic features of the Ming and Qing periods. judged even by Ming standards, his technical virtuosity in making articles to simulate nature was exceptionally high.
Chen Mingyuan is known for his highly inventive naturalistic teapots that imitated plants and fruit, ceramic interpretations of ancient bronzes and other utensils for the scholar's desk. His ceramic trompe I'oeil brush pots masqueraded as real tree trunks. Cucumbers, bamboo shoots and peanuts became brush rests. Brush washers were made to look like worm-eaten leaves. A teapot featuring the "Three Friends of Winter" (pine, bamboo and plum tree) became a vignette of farm life when he attached little squirrels. The presence of a squirrel was symbolic of diligence, the storing of food for winter and foresight in preparing for old age. This was analogous to the content found within poems that the scholars enjoyed composing. Chen Mingyuan gained celebrity status. He traveled extensively and often stayed at the homes of a number of scholars and collectors who all vied to play host.
Despite the efforts of Chen Mingyuan and a handful of talented potters, the prominence Yixing ware had reached remained depressed for nearly a hundred years. A revival in interest did not begin until the early nineteenth century, led by the energy of Chen Mansheng (b.1768). In 1816 he was appointed Magistrate of Yixing, a post that he held for only three years. The economic pressures previously alluded to had caused the quality of Yixing ware to deteriorate, as mass production techniques using simple molds became the norm. During Chen Mansheng's brief tenure in office, he took on the task of reviving the past glory of Yixing ware. To that end he sought to raise the quality of the wares by personally commissioning work which he insisted be made by hand.
A scholar trained in the classics, Chen Mansheng had reached a high d^ree of skill in calligraphy, painting, poetry and seal carving. He began to participate in the creative process with the potters, devoting his sparetime designing teapots and sometimes composing and engraving inscriptions - Many of the pots he owned had three signatures: that of the potter, the calligrapher and his own studio seal. He enlisted many of his friends to compose inscriptions, and they then inscribed teapots with their own calligraphy. Most of the scholars would select the appropriate clay, influence the method of construction and determine the size and proportions of a particular teapot. Many confined themselves to having their teapots executed by one or two of the better-known potters. Some fashioned a teapot themselves, the most notable being Shao Erquan. Designing and inscribing Yixing teapots became a consuming pastime that provided an outlet for the scholarsz creativity. With a few suitable poetic lines appended to the body, the Yixing teapot became for the scholar a charming and thought-provoking conversation piece. When they gathered for tea or when set in the studio, the Yixing teapot became a focal point and every element of the teapot was examined, discussed, debated and critiqued.
Chen Mansheng is also credited with an important innovation. Whereas the inscription on a teapot usually had no connection with the pot itself, he was the first to compose a poetic inscription that directly related to the teapot's design and intent. The practice of adding to a work of art in this way had been established in the Song dynasty, at the Imperial Academy, where paintings were inscribed with a corresponding poem based on the visual subject. Known as the "Three Perfections," the union of painting (now pottery) with poetry and calligraphy became a part of the decorative scheme and often was the main motif. A poem, in this way, became an integral part of the object and not just a mere decoration
Chen Mansheng's revival of Yixing pottery lasted only as long as long as social and political events in China would allow. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the quality and standards once again waned. This decline was directly related to the devastating effects of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, In fact, there are few periods in Chinese history that approach this time in terms of pure human misery nd tragedy. From 1850 to 1873, the population of China dropped by over sixty million people.
The opium trade had quite literally filled the country with drug addicts as opium parlors proliferated throughout China. In 1839, when the Manchu rulers tried to rid themselves of the scourge foisted upon them by the British, fighting broke out. However, the Chinese were unprepared for the technological superiority of the English armies. In 1842 they were forced to agree to an ignominious peace under the Treaty of Nanking. The weakened imperial government could not restrict the British imports, and as a consequence the opium trade more than doubled in the three decades following the signing of the treaty.
In 1851, while China was still in the throes of the opium menace, the Taiping Rebellion occurred. As a direct result of this civil conflict that lasted for twenty years, over twenty million people died. At such a time of national unrest, the scholars began to doubt the whole structure of their traditional values. Obviously, they were not in a position to commission teapots. On the other hand, these years saw a great increase in the quantity of Yixing ware produced for the commercial market Ever since the eighteenth century, firms engaged potters to work for them, but they had not been a dominant element in the industry. ThroughcMJt the later part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, it was chiefly these companies that were keeping Yixing ware alive. Families of renowned potters also continued to produce teapots using established designs. There were also illicit copies that used a family's name and style. These forgeries were made with the express intent of deceiving consumers.
Yixing ware all but ceased by the third decade of the twentieth century with the disappearance of the scholar class and the tide of revolution. Save for a handful of remaining masters, Yixing ware and all the arts in China went into total decline for nearly three quarters of the twentieth century - However, even with their disappearance, the aesthetic and moral traditions of the scholar class lingered on.