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Yixing Purple Clay Master - Wang Yin Xian - By Chen Zhi Tong

Master Potter

Each issue we will offer an in-depth biography of a master Yixing potter - their life, work, recognitions and photos of their pieces. In this way, our readers can get to know some of the talent and history behind the Yixing they use. Sometimes such masterpieces are beyond use even, belonging in museums or collections as pieces of priceless art. However, it is these masters that teach the younger potters, and their works which they emulate - their innovations which inspire the pots we do use everyday.

Wang Ying Xian was born into a pottery family in June of 1943, in the town of Dingshu, Yixing. She was raised around clay, teapots and teaware, playing with the clay even as a child. In November of 1956, at the age of thirteen young Wang passed her examination and was accepted into the Yixing Purple Clay Factory to learn teapot modeling from Master Wu Yun Gen. After two years or so working in the factory she also began taking private lessons from Jiang Rong. These teachers see hundreds of hopefuls each year and are quick to spot the more gifted students. She was quickly promoted to assistant teacher and in 1958, just two years after entering the factory, she was already teaching basic classes with up to 40 students. Master Wang said, "Although I was doing well in the factory, I really felt that my studies were incomplete. I went each day to plead with Master Zhu Ke Xin, and after much begging he agreed to teach me more: A year later she graduated with honors and was promoted yet again. Under Zhu Ke Xin's guidance she also created her first masterpiece, which was a replica of the national treasure "Xiang Sheng Si Peach Cup".

Master Wang was an amazing prodigy, seemingly not just born in Yixing but formed there in the way the deep and ancient veins of ore are. By the age of seventeen, she was already teaching classes in the factory and making innovations in the way the entire production operated. She surveyed the liquid mold process for making the slip-clay ware and began experimenting with new capstan molds. When she developed a better method that could be standardized, she led a class of adults and was responsible for transforming the production of the entire factory. Many of her students in that class had been working in the factory for twice or even three times as long as she had. Her work didn't go unnoticed. She was promptly reassigned to the research section of the factory, specializing in designing new purple clay pottery.

Master Wang began to receive international attention in the mid 70's. Her "Purple Clay Grace Cup" was selected as part of an exhibition that traveled to Japan, Portugal, Canada and several other countries. In 1975 Master Wang attended a design course for everyday earthenware and porcelain conducted at the Central Arts and Crafts Institute. The course lasted for eleven months. The piece she designed for her graduation, the "Nine Winter Plum Blossom Tea Set", was so special it was kept as part of the institute's collection. Later, in 1979, the set would be transferred to the Forbidden City Collection. She would have two other sets selected for placement in the Forbidden City during the late 70's, Her "Twelve Fish Writing Set" and "Four Plums Writing Set" are some of the palace's most prized possessions according to the director there.

In 1982, Master Wang Yin Xian was given the title of "Craft Master" and promoted to Assistant Director of Research in the Yixing Purple Clay Factory. She continued to produce her own pottery in her free time, and several more of her pieces in the 1980's would go on to win national as well as foreign awards. In the late 70's and early 80's she also began to take on her first apprentices, many of which have gone on to fame of their own. Her first disciple was Jiang Jian Xiang in 1978. "I remember I was so busy at that time. I was commissioned to make mementos for several famous delegates' visit to Japan. Still Jiang was such a great student. She learned quickly in the time we had." By the late 1980's Master Wang would have more than ten disciples learning from her. In 1987 she was on television in Hong Kong, having won awards in several competitions there. She began to travel around Asia to give demonstrations and accept the awards that were now heralded by the mastery her craft had reached.

In 1989, she was promoted to "Senior Craft Master" and deemed a "Model Laborer of our Nation" by Beijing, receiving the National Red Flag honored title "San Ba". She visited Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore in the early 1990's and all her pieces were critically acclaimed. In the early, 1990's Master Wang's career had come to full fruition. Almost all of her pieces were commissioned, and she had one in all six of the major Yixing museums of the world. In 1994 her "Nine Pumpkins Handle Tea Set" was purchased by the Taiwan Historical Museum to be a permanent part of their collection. After the horrific 1991 earthquake in Taiwan, she donated her "Millennium Teapot" for the relief auction held there.

Wang Yin Xian's awards, certificates, honorary titles and prized pieces would be a book in the telling. She has become a legend in the world of Purple Sand Teaware, assuring the longevity of her name as new generations of potters mimic her work just as she had done under the tutelage of Zhu Ke Xin when she was just a young girl. Many of her students have gone on to inspire books of their own, a tribute to her wisdom. Her teapots are even printed on several of the national postcards that line gift shops in more than one country. In 2003 she was asked to represent Yixing-ware, traveling to France and Europe in an artistic cultural exchange. Master Wang has become a part of the great legacy and heritage of the pottery city.

Master Wang's pieces emphasize the "half clear,half dark" expression. She is also well known for the "Xing, Shen, Qi and Yun" of her nature pieces. She always handles her subject matter in a way that seems to leapfrog the reality and extend beyond, increasing the piece's ability to inspire imagination in the collector. She exaggerates the subject into the world of form, but not without leaving its nature behind. Succinct thinking and a clear theme are characteristic of Master Wang's work, adequately capturing the essence of the image and meaning behind her pieces. She has this ability to balance the imaginative and the clear,the quick interpretation of a subject's nature and its extension in the mind to form and the stimulation of the muse in the collector.

Because of the unique consistency of Zisha clay teapots it is perfectly suited for handcrafting, carving and kneading rather than throwing on a potter's wheel like other clays. Most Yixing-ware falls into one of five categories: nature, geometric, symbolical, exquisite and modern pieces. Master Wang Yin Xian has utilized each of these styles and transcended each of them, expanding their boundaries and limits in both form and function.

The nature form utilizes all things growing and living under the sun to capture the sense, posture or essence of a place where humans rarely intrude. In creating her nature pieces, Master Wang has often called attention to the inflexibility and nobility of winter plums. Through them she is able to create a sense of stability in a fluid universe. Straight lines are used to express the character and strength of the plum blossoms. There is often a length of trunk on the lid's button that finishes the piece elegantly. The spirit of master Wang's expressions never exceeds the theme. She always carries nature with her into the world of imagination.

Techniques of carving, engraving, kneading and/or molding are used to make up geometric pots. Master Wang has created several famous contributions to this category. Her "Ling Hua Teapot", "Tiao Sha Kao Nan Gua Teapot", and "Watermelon Teapot" are all examples of how her work has transformed the world of Yixing-ware, influencing all the artists that continue to look at her pieces for guidance. Her Tiao Sha Kao Nan Teapot uses intertwined vines and branches to symbolize a sprouting, as if the teapot itself is part of this growth - a sentiment which can unfold on many artistic levels. There are flourishing branches and leaves, hanging grapes and even a squirrel playing between the vines and leaves. The button of the lid is interlaced with a string of grapes that expresses an abundant harvest. The stalks communicate an affluent lifestyle. The "Watermelon Teapot", on the other hand, is more dull, single-colored and simple with words carved by Master Wang's son. It is distinguished by the skill with which the handle, spout and lid are formed in perfect balance. The lines are smooth and the melon vines and leaves are specific. There is a sense of vigor in the pot, even though many critics have found the body somewhat lacking.

Symbolic pots use different colors of Zisha clay together to create images of melons, fruits, lilies, lotuses, flowers and other plants, insects and animals, etc. Master Wang has done very few pieces in this category, though the ones she did were all venerated. It isn't her specialty.

"Exquisite Wares" are the pieces that use Zisha clay to mimic bronze wares, jade-ware, daily and religious articles, etc. Many times, these pots are meant to convey a sense of cultural or spiritual depth. Master Wang's "Ban Chu Ti Liang Teapot" is one of many examples in this vein. The teapot handle, spout and body reveal a strong tinge of bronze ware, and the bottom of the teapot looks like a tripod. The button on the lid is a stalwart dragon that seems ready to pounce. The lines in this piece are powerful and steady; they inspire a depth of the temple brought back to the household. It is often interpreted as a representation of resplendency.

In the field of Modern Teapots, Wang Yin Xian possesses the laudatory title of "Craft Master". Her so famous "Qu Teapot" is one that any collector can relate to. It has been printed on so many postcards, in books and magazines and discussed that it has become an aesthetic standard by which all others are judged. It was made in 1988 by Wang Yin Xian and Zhang Shou Zhi together. The idea was to utilize a snail's body for inspiration in creating a new style of streamlined teaware. Very fine quality clays were selected and further water-refined to accent the smoothness of the design. It reveals a steadiness that calls attention to the lines of the pot. Using the inlaid and joint method required that the artists spend many hours pressing and handling the clay pieces to make a complete and balanced structure. This piece broke through the traditional pattern of Zisha and offered a new modern impressionistic pot. It seems to capture a kind of vigor or energy, freezing it in time.

Nowadays, every student in the pottery city looks to Master Wang Yin Xian for inspiration and guidance. Her pieces are what inspire young potters to take the examination and enter the factory as she once did when she was young. Her legacy is a part of the textbooks now. It is impossible to even begin a study of Yixing teaware without some time spent studying her work. She is a master in the truest sense of the word, and the medium seems to respond to her hands like an estranged lover come home at last 一hands formed through a lifetime of handling clay. She has given back all she could have as a teacher and guide to the next generation of potters, establishing all kinds of new potential for the future of Yixing teaware. Master Wang Yin Xian is an arch through which all roads in Yixing must pass.