For thousands of years, the unique qualities of the extensive zisha, a clay deposit found only around Yixing, a small town in east China's Jiangsu Province about 170 kilometers west of Shanghai, have supported a thriving art and industry.
Classified as purple clay, using different formulas and firing temperatures, zisha turns into several different color variations such as black, brown, red, yellow and green. Though not as pale or fine as kaolin, it needs no glazing. And after firing, the product is solid and impermeable, yet porous enough to breathe.
The art of zisha pottery in Yixing originated during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD).
The range of traditional pottery produced from the clay base includes teapots, tea sets, stationary sets and flowerpots.
The teapot, which usually comes in round and square version, is the most famous of the works. The round teapots are made in the shape of balls, a belly, drum and piece of garlic, while the square works are tapered or molded into a polygon, rhombus or trapezoid.
Generally marked by their simplicity and exquisite craftsmanship, the teapots are also appreciated for their practicality. A Yixing pot enhances a brew of tea by bringing out its color, smell and taste. The pot's body seems to absorb the tea and trap its fragrance.
The quality finish of the tea and its flavor can be attributed to the porous nature of the clay, consisting mainly of quartz, kaolin, mica and a high volume of iron oxide.
Yixing teapots were introduced to Europe in the late 17th century, providing models for the earliest Dutch, German and English teapots.
Since then the Yixing zisha teapots have grown in popularity throughout China and Europe, and are highly prized because of their design, craftsmanship and unique purple clay.
Pictures of birds and fish, flowers, animals and Chinese characters can all be found on the pieces, which are marked with a traditional seal, helping to turn the practical utensils into works of art with national features.
After 1949, the Chinese Government established communes in an effort to gather master potters who would in turn recruit and train a new generation to insure the preservation of traditional skills.
By 1979 the two Yixing purple sand factories were employing more than 1,000 workers to produce the teapots by using traditional methods, but private workshop still dominated.
Even today, as in centuries past, most artisans making Yixing teapots serve a long apprenticeship under established masters, receiving rigorous training in all aspects of the craft.
The reopening of China in the late 1970 and early 1980s initiated a rediscovery of Yixing teapots by local art collectors and tea connoisseurs outside the country.
With enthusiastic infusion, the artistic potential of the new generation of Yixing potters began to blossom.
Young artisans created more contemporary styles and followed modern geometric principles.
Some works equaled and even surpassed the efforts of the great master potters of the Qing Dynasty.
This outpouring of innovation and artistry has continued with enthusiastic knowledgeable collectors eagerly awaiting each year's abundant harvest of new designs and re-creations of the old ones.
(China Daily August 7, 2002)