The Ugly Teapot

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My grandfather used to have an old teapot which I thought was very unattractive. This teapot is little but chunky, with a short sprout and a narrow round handle, it is engraved with a poem but I never paid attention to what the poem is really about. It only holds two cups of tea, which means you have to fill it up for every 10 minutes.

My grandpa was obsessed with it for years, he would do everything with one hand while the other held this teapot. I was once joking, if my grandma let him, he would take his teapot to bed. There was nothing special to me about this teapot, I did not even like tea at that time. My grandpa loved drinking black tea but at that age I only cared about Coca-cola. I asked my grandma why he loves the tea so much and his ugly teapot, my grandma said, “That teapot is a lot more than drinking for grandpa.”

When I got older, I finally found out there is a thing called Tea Pet. Tea Pet is a traditional Chinese craft in which tea lovers pour tea on top of the Tea Pet every time when they are drinking tea. Eventually, the Tea Pet is going to change its appearance over time. A Tea Pet requires time to take care of, it takes years to absorb the specialities of the tea. Today, when I look at my grandfather’s teapot, I don’t see the ugliness anymore, what I see is a terra-cotta orange pot with a slight purple sheen. When I hold it in my hand, I find the touch of the clay becomes so smooth, the texture is more solid. I can smell the tea fragrance, and feel the warmness coming from just the tea pot. Suddenly, I feel like I finally understand my grandpa’s love of this pot. It is this feeling when you hold the pot in hand and the story that makes it what it is today.

One reason that makes this teapot so special is the material. Out of everything that can compose Tea Pets, the material “Zisha” works the best. Zisha is a mixture of kaolin, quartz, and mica, with a high content of iron oxide. Because it is mostly from Yixing, Jiangsu, it is also called “Yixing Zisha”. Zisha pots have very unique fibre structure which allows the material to take in flavor and color. Tea in a regular teapot is not drinkable overnight, but the one in Zisha pot will become mellow enough to drink. The longer the owner uses the pot, the richer the Zisha will become. Because of this characteristic in the material, tea lovers tend to drink one tea with one particular Zisha pot. One pot, one tea, one owner.

Zisha is abounded in Mount Huanglong, Yixing where the mica is over 350 million years old. The mica is usually along the coast and, with the power of wind and ocean tides, it is broken into small particles that mix with other minerals. This organic mica clay is a rarely seen but has an extremely high quality in ceramics, it is easy to mold and shrinks very little when heated. The process of preparing the clay is very complicated. The raw material of Zisha is buried deep under very thick sedimentary rocks. The raw clay needs to dry under the sun when first excavated which will make the mica loosen, then the mineral is crushed several times into fine particles. The raw clay is then mixed into a thick paste. In order to get a smooth texture, the raw clay goes through preservative and vacuum treatment to remove the air bubbles. Finally, the clay has to be baked in an oxidizing atmosphere with temperatures between 1100c-1200c. During this process the water that mix up the clay is extremely important. The quality of the water will directly affect the quality of the teapot. Just like pouring tea on the teapot, the material will absorb color and flavor from the very beginning.

Zisha is a joint name of clay in many different colors. Usually in nature, there are four different Zisha colors: purple (“Zi”), cream yellow, red and dark red. Normally when making the pot, the sculptor will mix the clay within different colors, proportions, and manufacturing processes which will turn the clay a variety of shades. Creamy yellow clay makes Zisha lighter, purple clay will react to cobalt oxide to reach the pure Zi, raw clay with red will affect a tint of red. Zisha pots usually use one tone of color, but when you hold a magnifier to look at it, you can tell the mix texture contains different particles. 

The material of Zisha looks so plain on the surface, but it is not so simple. Unlike China or glass products, which will have a shiny surface and perfect finish, Zisha is very exquisite rather than polished. This does not mean it is cheap, in fact it is the opposite, it is a hidden luxury. It contains not only material, but also texture, a texture of the raw earth and life. It never has a perfect polished surface, it is a combination of multiple minerals, and it presents itself in that way, with different particles tangled together. Zisha is a superior material that does not need any chemical finish. The surface of the pot is very organic, the texture is not smooth which you can feel your skin touching the tiny little particles; and it is not rough, it fits perfectly in your hand and feels comfortable on your skin.

Zisha pot becomes a Tea Pet over years and it is a very time-consuming process. Many tea lovers choose a smaller craft with Chinese traditional mythical creatures, but there are still quite a few people use Zisha tea pots as their Tea Pets. The tea drinker uses the drinking tea or left over tea to pour over the teapot, and then uses a tea brush to gently spread the tea evenly onto the teapot. As years go by, the pot will absorb the fragrance and the color of the tea. And the surface becomes glossier and absorbs the aroma of the tea. 

Although “Zi” in Chinese means purple, it is mostly earthy brown with a tint of purple. The color of the teapot varies from time to time: in the morning when sunlight shines over the teapot, it has a shade of orange, but at noon it is a warm brown. By night it really shines with the mystery purple, and when you pour hot water on it, it becomes dark, like a ghost in the mist. Over years, depending on the tea and the way the owner pours the water, the teapot gets darker and darker and creates a shiner, smoother surface. When you hold a Zisha teapot in hand, you will get a decorous feeling, the material and process of combining multiple minerals together creates a high density clay. A good Zisha pot gives a concrete feeling which is not abstract, it is tradition and beauty.

Through material, Zisha pots represent not only a way of tea drinking, but also an art and an attitude of life. When raising a Tea Pet through the years of change in material, it creates a habit; when pouring the water onto the teapot, it lets you enjoy a slow life. The material itself is very rare and it takes a very complicated process to become the material it is. The surface is not glamorous, the color is solid and warm, but it is full of texture and story, it is pursuing a life back to nature and simplicity.

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