The bus comes to a sudden stop along the side of the freeway and the driver motions for us to get off. Confused, we look around and, not seeing anything, remain seated. After more prodding, however, the driver convinces us to grab our packs and get off the bus.
Standing on the side of highway, cars whizzing past, we’re still confused. This isn’t where we expected to be dropped. A grungy bus station perhaps, but the side of the road? The bus conductor gets off with us and leads us to a smaller bus that is coming to a stop behind ours. The conductor motions for us to board, which we do, somewhat hesitantly. On board, this bus is filled with people who appear to be coming home from work. Stares ensue, and lots of them. No matter though—after three weeks traveling through China, we’ve gotten used to being stared at like we have a third eye in our forehead. You just have to learn to accept the stares for what they are: curiosity, not animosity. Besides, the stares are usually accompanied with smile.
As the bus pulls back onto the highway, we settle back into our seats, resigned to accept whatever comes next. Outside the window, large sculptural rocks lie on the side of the road for sale—an essential in any Chinese garden. Red clay roof tiles and oversized ceramic pots of dark purple and yellow pass by as well. And, of course, what catches my eyes the most: teapots, and thousands of them. Teapots are a good thing. With teapots in sight, we know we can’t be far from our destination.
Yixing is pretty far off of the tourist trail, and for good reason. There are no awe-inspring temples to look at, famous local dishes to try, or breathtaking landscapes to marvel at. True, it’s nestled up to the shores of Taihu Lake, but what charm this affords is currently lost to a thick layer of grime from incessant demolition and rebuilding. As you pull into town, canals that run through the city—ones that would feature old men maneuvering boats with tourists lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes were this Italy—are lined with rubbish piles and the only thing floating are plastic bags and other…well, you get the point. In truth, Yixing has very little interest for the general traveler. In fact, Yixing barely draws Chinese visitors. Half of the people in China we told we were coming here, didn’t even know where here was.
So what’s in Yixing? Simple. Clay. Yixing is home to the famous Purple Clay, or zisha, as it’s called in China. The clay is used for all sorts of commercial goods, from roof tiles to oversized planters. Where the clay really shines though, and what has given it it’s reputation, is in it’s use for making teapots.
Purple Clay Teapots
Yixing clay is a bit of a wonder material. It comes from an ore found near Huanglong Mountain, which lies just outside of Yixing. The crude clay is made by breaking down the ore into powder and mixing it with water. The clay is unique in that it has an incredible ability to maintain heat while simultaneously being able to breath—think of it as the Gore-Tex of clay. Heat retention is due to the fact that the clay is a relatively slow conductor of heat; breathability is due to the firing technique. The resulting teapot is one that maintains heat over a long-period of time—ideal for brewing high temperature teas such black, oolong, or pu-erh—-that also absorbs the flavor of the tea into the pores, which acts to season the teapot. In a very real sense, each pot of tea only gets better. The best Yixing teapots are the ones that have been through many steepings, and one of the great joys of tea drinking is watching a teapot season with time. The seasoning also gives a teapot a rich patina, something that must see with your own eyes and touch with your own hands to truly be appreciated. It’s not all just for looks though; well-seasoned teapots unequivocally brew better tea than unseasoned ones.
For tea enthusiasts, collecting Yixing teapots can be a bit of a love affair. Even at the time of their origin, noblemen and aristocrats spent small fortunes building a personal collection. Today, little has changed. While each brew of tea is ephemeral, a teapot can last a lifetime. Through use, they become like an old friend and yet, great joy comes in collecting new ones. The most highly desirable teapots are those made by master potters, skilled artists who have spent their entire lifetime perfecting their craft. These teapots cost thousands of dollars at the low end of the spectrum. And yet, great joy can be had from brewing tea in a pot that costs as little as $10. Indeed, each teapot is a piece of art—a miniature sculpture. And what is so appealing, and so unlike most other art, is that you are encouraged to interact with it—to hold it, to touch it, to do something with it. That is the most wonderful point: they have a purpose. They are meant to be used—a perfect blend of form and function. No self-respecting artist would create a teapot that wasn’t completely functional. A finely crafted teapot comes down to precision—minute adjustments that create a teapot that is greater than the sum of its parts. A well-made teapot fits together so well that, should you hold your finger over the air-hole on the lid and tip a teapot full of water upside down, not a drop of water will spill from its spout. Remove your finger from the air-hole, and hence comes a perfect stream. Replace your finger over the hole, and the stream stops without a dribble.
And so, we find ourselves in Yixing…
...standing on the side of the road once again to be exact. We got off our second bus when we saw a large sign that read “hotel” in bold, sans-serif letters. Regrettably, arriving at the hotel we saw that it was still under construction and most definitely not open for business. We tried a smaller hotel we found around the corner, but after 10 minutes of pantomiming and referencing our seemingly useless phrasebook, were informed they would not accept foreigners as guests. It doesn’t help that night is falling.
Fortunately, help never seems to be far away for the lost traveler. Standing on the side of road, contemplating a bus sign that would make a lovely piece of calligraphy on our wall but at present time is about as helpful to us as reading tea leaves in order to find a bus that can take us to another hotel, a friendly Chinese man approaches us on the street (no doubt chuckling at the site of two lost westerners). He is dressed in classic Chinese casual business attire: dark slacks, tucked in collared shirt, and a cell phone tucked inside a holster attached horizontally to his leather belt. The cell phone holster can be forgiven though, because the cell phone he has is damn cool—it can actually translate English to Chinese and vice versa. Through this modern-day wonder, we tell the man we need a hotel that accepts foreigners and before we know it he’s whistled down a cab, given the driver instructions, and we are being whisked off down the street with barely a chance to say thanks. A few minutes later we pull up to a gigantic hotel complete with a circular driveway and a bellman to greet us. As we enter the lobby, we almost turn around; the marble floors and grand piano suggest a price range beyond ours. Fortunately, Julie is good in such situations, and she marches right up to the reception counter and asks for a room. The prices start high—around ¥600––but comes down to just ¥200 without us even having to bargain. A very special rate, they tell us, which just means the hotel is low on guests and they’ll even accept scraggly travelers such as ourselves because of it. Which is just fine with us, for entering our room, we are treated to a bathtub (Julie is in heaven), cute little toiletries, and even a proper sitting area complete with tables and chairs. A far cry from some of the places we’ve stayed in to date. Needless to say, we settle in for the night.
Note, the remainder of this article is written from Julie’s point of view. Having an actual background in ceramics, this portion of the experience is far more interesting through her eyes…
Ironically, in recent decades the artistry of Yixing teapots has been most attributed to artists working in Taiwan rather than Yixing. The teapot masters working in Taiwan import the Yixing clay, electing to work from the comfort of their own homes rather than here (I don’t really blame them). Some of this can be attributed to the fact that most Yixing clay teapots are designed gungfu style—a style well-suited for oolong tea preparation. Oolong tea is extremely popular in Taiwan, in no small part because it is grown there, as well as in the neighboring mainland of China in the Fujian provence. Thus, Yixing teapots are quite often used there, so it seems like a logical transition (this is, of course, just speculation).
As if to add insult to injury though, even the teapots from Yixing aren’t actually made in Yixing; they are, in fact, made in a small village twenty minutes outside of Yixing called Dingshan.
To call Dingshan a village is a bit of a falsity. Today, it’s hard to tell where Yixing ends and Dingshan begins—they just sort of blend into each other in a monochromatic drab of concrete and roadside stores. Nevertheless, Dingshan is it’s own place, and one with tremendous ceramics history—5,000 years according to neolithic records. Testament to the ceramic skill here, the the only other foreigners we meet here are two Germans seeking expertise in manufacturing a ceramic heating element for an engine they are designing.
And it’s to Dingshan we come on our first proper day in Yixing. From our hotel, we board the same local bus from the previous evening, though not without it’s own set of challenges. The staff at our hotel are unaccustomed to having guests use the bus. They suggest we hire a driver for ¥100 instead of the ¥5 a bus costs to get to the same location. Fortunately, an especially helpful lady at the front desk is kind enough to walk us to the proper location to be picked up for the bus.
Before coming to Yixing, we were unsure as to how up-close and personal we would be able to get with the Yixing teapot industry. Buying teapots, we were sure, would be very easy, and the roadside stands we saw on our way into town verifies this. Yet, we are equally hoping to get some first hand knowledge about how the teapots are made. In the Western world, it’s not common for unannounced visitors to show just show up at an artisan’s studio and expect to be welcomed. We needn’t have worried though, for less than five minutes after getting off the bus, we find ourselves standing in a studio watching three such artists fastidious at work.
As we learn, this particular studio is owned by a husband of and wife, both of which are at work before us now. The wife is fashioning the body of a teapot, while the husband is working in excruciating detail on a spout. The third person is a young guy, who appears our age, and to our surprise, speaks a little bit of english. He tells us he is a student, working under the tutelage of the husband and wife. His name is Wu Jiang Jian and, since he speaks english, we take the opportunity to enquire more into the making of the teapots.
Contrary to what I thought before, Yixing teapots are not thrown on a wheel; they are actually built by hand. The artists do use a wheel, but it is an incredibly small, hand-turned one that mainly allows the potter to work without having to pick up and turn the teapot manually. To help form the teapot, artists use a variety of self-made tools to shape each element of the pot—lid, spout, handle, body, etc.—and every step is accompanied by extensive polishing and smoothing. The tools are made from a variety of materials include bone, bamboo, hardwood, chopsticks, and pieces of flexible plastic.
Catching our eye in particular is a series of teapots—all of the same design—sitting on a shelf behind Wu Jiang Jian. We ask him about them, and he says they are teapots he has been practicing making. Both Kai and I really like the teapots so, curiously, I ask how much they are. This seems to make him a bit uncomfortable. It’s only a few days later than we learn why.
The art education system in China is very different than what I have been exposed to back home. In my education as an artist, I have always been taught with an emphasis on individualism and creativity. In short, we are encouraged to develop our creativity, and through that creativity, to hone our technical skills. In China it is quite the opposite. Students are taught the technical skills first, often through mind-numbing repetition. Beginning students—and here I mean students who have been studying for several years—are forced to recreate established forms over and over again. They start with the classic teapot shapes, and fashion thousands of them before they are allowed to move on to the next one. Only after years of careful refinement and technical mastery are students encouraged to pursue their own designs. Many students will apprentice with a master for four or more years, only after to attend college for a formal art degree.
Having seen both sides, I think there is incredible merit to each. The technical mastery Chinese students achieve in their chosen art can make Western work look sloppy in comparison. Alternately, art in it’s truest sense is a form of expression, and to suppress that for the sake of technique seems counter-intuitive to it’s purpose. And yet, while the Chinese method may stifle initial creativity, the skill among students is very high at a relatively young age.
Wu Jiang Jian has only been working under his teacher for one year. The teapots sitting on the shelf behind him—which we gathered were his own design, though this may have been lost in translation—are more what he considers exercises than finished teapots. Additionally, asking the price of his teapots before his teacher may have superseded authority a little bit. At the time, I did not know this. I feel it’s important to support student artwork, for too many artists are discouraged from pursuing their art due to the whole can’t-make-a-living reality. In my own work, I have been encouraged tremendously by people like Diane Tempest, who runs Galeria Tempest and makes it a point to showcase young, emerging artists. In my own way, I was just trying to do the same.
Wu Jiang Jian consults his teacher over what to do. After some deliberation, he pulls down a few of the teapots and begins analyzing them. After careful scrutiny, he selects what feels to be the best one, offers it to me, and says “I would like to give this to you”. I protest, saying I’m happy to pay for the teapot, but he refuses any money. He finds a box on a shelf, gingerly places the teapot inside, and hands it to me. The gesture literally brings tears to my eyes—he is concerned the teapot, which is extremely well-made, is unfit to sell, and is instead offering it to me as a gift. In this day an age, especially while traveling, we so often encountered people so willing to take advantage of us to make an extra buck. Kai and I both feel awful we have nothing else to give him in exchange. Nevertheless, we accept the gift, thank him profusely, and exchange contact info.
We watch the three work a bit longer and, just after 11AM, they tell us they are closing for lunch (nice work schedule!). We ask them if they can recommend a restaurant nearby, the owner says he knows one, and offers to drive us there. We are happy for the offer, both because it shows there are no hard feelings with the teacher, plus the fact that, as we step outside, it is absolutely pouring with rain.
Getting Our Hands Dirty
After lunch, we find ourselves walking beneath the canopy of buildings along the street, peaking into shop windows filled with teapots—many of which are still closed for lunch. In one shop with the lights off, a woman notices us and, after turning on the lights, opens the door and invites us in. As is customary in this China, she offers us some oolong tea, which we gladly accept as we’re both a bit cold and soggy.
After sipping some tea and drying off, we get up to look at the teapots on display. The work is interesting, with many unique designs. Quite often, even masters who have been working for many years return to the same tried and true forms; it’s refreshing to see a bit of variety. Soon, another boy enters the store, who looks to be our age and, again to our surprise, speaks a bit of english. After making introductions, we learn that this boy is another student, who studies under the shop-owners father. After a bit of conversation, the show-owner mentions that, if we are interested, we are welcome to have a go at making a teapot in the back of the shop. When we enquire about the price of such an offer, she says it’s free.
Free sounds good, so I eagerly seize the opportunity to make something. I haven’t had my hands dirty since before leaving on this trip (besides our little porcelain experiment back in Bako National Park), and it feels absolutely wonderful to get my hands covered in clay.
We begin by watching another young student, who has recently emerged from a back room, apparently from a nap. He starts by rolling small amounts of clay—using the palm of his hand—into in cylindrical tubes. The tubes taper at one end, and after they are rolled, he bends the tapered end of the cylinder into the shape of a handle. He has us do the same. Kai and I both repeat his steps, though with less success. My cylinders turn out too long and pointy, whereas Kai’s aren’t quite round. After an hour doing this, we both create a few handles that are decent enough that the student—reluctantly—let’s us move on. I have no doubt he has spent many months working on the same exercise.
We move next to spouts. These are also fashioned by a rolling a tapered cylinder, though they are thicker in diameter and more squat. After an another hour of rolling spout after spout, the student signals us to stop. He takes all of crude-shaped handles and spouts, and sticks them in a styrofoam cooler to prevent them from over-drying.
Next, we watch the student make the body of a teapot. He begins by cutting two perfect circles out of a piece of flattened clay using a compass-like tool. The clay is flattened using a wooden mallet that is flat on one side and round on the other. He then makes another flat piece of clay, this one about 12 inches long by 3 inches wide. After trimming the edges to make them straight, he turns this piece into a perfect cylinder by wrapping it around a separate piece of circular clay. Once the piece of clay is in a cylinder shape, he smoothes the side, at the same time pushing the clay inward at the top to narrow the opening (this will become the bottom of the pot). Using some slip, he attaches one of the circular pieces of clay we cut to the opening. He then repeats the exact same process to make the bottom of the pot.
As the day winds to a close, the shop-owner invites us to join them in their house, which turns out to be directly behind their street-side shop. We enter the house into a foyer of sorts, which is lined with elegant white pillars showcasing more teapots—these one’s covered in glass and far more beautiful than the ones for sale in the shop. We haven’t seen anything yet, for the women leads us into a room adjacent to the foyer, where we are greeted by even more teapots.
The room is like a small gallery, with glass displays on three sides, and inside the displays are some of the most beautiful teapots we have ever seen: some are shaped like real soccer balls (one has to be taken out of the case to convince me than it’s not, in fact, real); another is a mini-sculpture of a mountain scene, complete with small monkeys roaming the cliffs and boulder-shaped teacups; one features a honeycomb design complete with a bee adorning the lid of the teapot; even a beautifully sculpted pumpkin. All are vastly different than any teapot I’ve ever seen—each a unique piece of art. Many of the pieces displayed have framed photos and plaques placed nearby, indicating the many expos they have attended and many awards that have been won. We began to realize, these people really knew what they were doing. While many of these teapots are obviously for show, it’s worth pointing out that—no matter how intricate—everyone is perfectly functional, as is demonstrated to us.
At about this time, we get to meet the master potter responsible for this work. I should say potters, for in walks, not only the shop-owner’s father, but also the father’s wife, who it turns out is a master potter herself.
The man’s name is Wang Xiao and woman’s name is Jun Lin Gao. Both are very kind—ever smiling—and happy to show us their work, though neither speaks a word of english. We are also joined by the student we met earlier in the day—the one who speaks english—who helps facilitate conversation. We learn that both of them have been working for roughly fifty years as potters. The grandfather comes from a family of potters, and points to a photo on the wall of his grandfather sculpting a teapot in a studio.
Everyone is interested in what Kai and I are doing in China. We explain to them we love Chinese tea, and are here to learn more about it. This seems to delight them, and they invite us to come back the following day for more lessons, which we gladly accept.
Day two is little different from day one. The same student has us continue making spouts and handles, suggesting we need the practice. This is fine, and we’re happy just to have the experience, but I’m wanting to see how a teapot is made, from start to finish, so I can go home and make them myself—however crudely.
This is counter-intuitive to the way our student-teacher has been taught, and he insists we continue perfecting our handles and spouts. After we’ve made several dozen, I have to admit even I am feeling bored. Absent-mindedly, I begin making a piece of okra out of an extra piece of clay. The clay is beautiful to touch—like porcelin, it is smooth and without grit or sand, making it easy to shape and smooth. At about the time I’m working on my okra, the grandma comes, looks at with a smile, and gives me the thumbs up. I figure, with a thumbs up from Grandma, I should keep going.
As the day comes to a close, having done little more than fashion spouts and handles all day, both Kai and I are feeling a little frustrated. It’s a tough position, as we are so grateful for the kindness the family has shown us; yet, with our limited time, I’m concerned we won’t get to see the whole picture. Before going home, we ask Wang Yung if will be possible to see the remaining steps involved the next, telling her it will need to be our last day before moving on in our travels. She says yes, and promises us we’ll see the finished product before we leave.
In the Hands of a Master
Day three, we arrive early at the studio, eating dumplings for breakfast on the bus ride from our hotel. When we enter, shortly before 8AM, we are greeted by everyone already in the studio, including Jun Lin Gao and Wang Xiao Long, the master potters.
In the back of the store, tools are being arranged on the work bench we have been using by students, and we soon realize we are going to be treated to a demonstration by the master potters.
Wang Xiao Long begins, and he does so by repairing the body of the teapot I had fashioned two days before. This is accomplished by placing the body on the small hand-wheel and spinning it consistently, while adding slip to build up the areas that aren’t quite round. Watching him work is mesmerizing; there’s something to be said for fifty years of experience.
Next he assembles the lid by forming a dome over a rounded wooden block. He attaches the finished dome to a round circle using slip. He attaches a flat, tapered piece of clay—no more than 1/2 inch wide—to the dome, which serves to prevent the lid from falling of the body when it is poured.
Before, during, and after each step, tremendous time is spent smoothing and polishing the clay, mainly using thin, pliable pieces of horn. (I should also say that Wang Xiao Long usually works in his own studio. He is working here as a demonstration, and more than once tosses aside a tool he deems unfit for use.)
When Wang Xiao Long if finished with the body, Jun Lin Gao shows us how to create a spout and handle. We are, of course, familiar with these steps, but watching her gives a much better sense of how it should be done.
And so the process goes. We watch both Jun Lin Gao and Wang Xiao Long bring the teapot near to completion over the course of a few hours (they both repeatedly mention it is being far too quickly, only to humor us.) When the teapot is nearly finished, Wang Xiao Long looks for a small, round piece of clay which he will attach to the lid—this is part that is used to pick up the lid. Jokingly, I pull out the piece of okra I had fashioned the day before, and hand it to him. He laughs and, considering it, takes it from and begins examining. He cuts a groove into the okra—to allow steam to escape—and then attaches it to the lid. Everyone laughs, including Jun Lin Gao, who says the pot is now finished and, in our honor, will be painted green. I can’t help but notice how surprised Wang Xiao’s students look. I think they are used to a much more formal teacher. Apparently, however, I’ve lightened him up, and proved I can honkify even a chinese master’s teapot.
→ More photos for this post can be found on our Flickr account: