Terese Bartholomew, Curator Emeritus at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, offers an expert overview of Yixing ware, featuring highlights from the Irving Collection
1. What does Yixing mean, and what are the origins and history of teapot-making in Yixing?
Pottery has been produced in Yixing, situated to the west of Taihu, the Great Lake in Jiangsu Province, since the Neolithic period. The hills to the southeast of the county are endowed with rich clay deposits, and the centre of pottery-making is located around the small towns of Dingshan and Shushan, now known collectively as Dingshuzhen.
The ‘Pottery Capital’ produces dragon jars of all sizes, vessels, roof tiles, porcelains, and most important of all, the zisha or ‘purple sand’ teapots and objects for the scholar’s table. The term ‘Yixing ware’ generally refers to the latter — teapots and vessels of rustic elegance long sought after by tea drinkers and scholars of China.
Yixing teapots have been made since the 16th century, and there has been a steady stream of known potters since the Wanli period (1573–1619).
2. How are Yixing teapots made?
Yixing teapots are all hand-made rather than being thrown on the wheel. The hard clay is pounded with a heavy wooden mallet into a slab, and the bodies of the teapots can be made in three basic techniques: segmented teapots are press-moulded; round teapots are paddled, and square teapots are made by the slab method. Specialised tools of wood, bamboo, metal and horn, created through the centuries, are used during the process.
3. Are there different styles of teapot, and were different styles used for specific types of tea?
There are four main styles. The first style is geometric, such as the round lantern teapot shown below.
The three other styles are naturalistic, such as the blue lotus leaf-form teapot shown below left, and the works by Zhou Dingfang and Lu Wenxia (shown below right); ribbed or segmented; and miniature teapots (shuiping hu) for drinking gongfu tea.
4. What are the different types of clay used for making teapots?
The clay of Yixing is known collectively as zisha (purple sand), and there are three basic types: zisha, a purplish-brown clay; banshanlu, a buff-coloured clay, and zhusha, a cinnabar or deep orange-red clay.
By mixing these clays, adding mineral colours, and varying the firing temperature and amount of reduction in the kiln, potters can achieve a wide range of earth tones: from beige to light brown, cinnabar red to dark brown with a tinge of purple (hence the name ‘purple sand’), and dark green to black. The last two are early 20th-century innovations resulting from the addition of cobalt oxide and manganese dioxide.
Different coloured clays are used for all styles of teapots. However, the miniature teapots made for gongfu tea are usually of orange-red or cinnabar zhusha.
5. Who are some of the most prominent Yixing pottery artists?
Jiang Rong (1919-2008) worked in the naturalistic tradition, and is the most prominent among the Yixing artists offered in Contemporary Clay: Yixing Pottery from the Irving Collection (19-26 March). She was the only woman among the Six Old Masters chosen to teach in the main factory when Yixing ware was revived in the 1950s. Wang Yinxian (1943-2018), Xu Xiutang (b. 1937), Zhou Guizhen (b. 1943) and Bao Zhongmei (b. 1944) were among those who trained under her in the 1950s.
Wang Yingxian was an all-rounder noted for her ‘prunus’ teapots and for her co-operation with Zhang Shouzhi (Professor of the Department of Ceramic Art, Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, Beijing) in creating the curved teapot.
Xu Xiutang is foremost among the Yixing potters; Zhou Guizhen is noted for her traditional teapots and superb craftsmanship; Bao Zhongmei is famous for inlaying metal designs into his teapots.
Zhou Dingfang (b. 1965) and Lu Wenxia (b. 1966), both students of Xu Xiutang, are some of the most creative among the third generation Yixing potters. Chen Jingliang (Ah Leon, b. 1953) is a well-known Taiwanese potter working in the Yixing style; his American counterpart Richard Notkin (b. 1948) imbues his teapots with political and social messages.
6. What is the significance of an artist’s seal on a teapot?
Unlike the porcelain vessels of Jingdezhen, which pass through many hands, a Yixing teapot is made from beginning to end by one potter, and is stamped with his or her name. When a teapot is a collaborative work, such as those made by Lu Wenxia and Lu Jianxing, then more than one seal can be found.
7. An unusually large number of female artists seem to make Yixing pottery. Why is this?
Yixing pottery is a craft, and women work in every type of craft in China. Unlike other crafts, Yixing ware bears the names of its makers, which means there is evidence of the number of women working in this field. In Yixing, many people know how to make teapots — farmers and their entire families make teapots in winter, although their work cannot be compared to those of the artist potters.
8. What are the qualities new collectors should look for in a Yixing teapot?
There should be a good balance between the body and its spout and handle, and the surface should have a pleasing finish. If you intend to use it, test the teapot to make sure it does not leak, and that the water comes out in a stream. However, these teapots are made by master potters and although they may be used for tea, they are also collectors’ items.
9. How should these pieces be displayed and cared for?
Care for a Yixing teapot as though it were a piece of sculpture. When the teapot is put away, make sure there is a thin piece of soft tissue between the pot and the cover — the weakest area in a Yixing teapot is the rim of its cover.
10. Why did Florence and Herbert Irving start collecting Yixing pottery?
The first Yixing ware exhibition in America took place at the China Institute of New York in 1977 and it seems likely that Florence and Herbert Irving may have seen or heard of this show. Although they were extraordinary connoisseurs, most American collectors of Chinese art would not have been familiar with this field at the time.
The Irvings began to collect contemporary Yixing ware in 1992 after attending the Contemporary Yixing Teapot Symposium hosted by Garth Clark Gallery of New York. The contemporary teapots in the Irvings’ collection most likely all came from Garth Clark Gallery, which for 10 years held an annual teapot exhibition curated by Jim and Louise Hsu Anderson.
11. Who or what was the inspiration behind some of the contemporary Yixing designs?
Louise Hsu Anderson and Jim Anderson are collectors and dealers of contemporary Yixing ware who went to Yixing and worked personally with different Yixing potters to create teapots. At the time, potters had been more focused on traditional teapots requested by Taiwanese dealers.
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Two young potters, Lu Wenxia and Zhou Dingfang, were responsive to the Andersons’ new ideas, and began creating teapots based on observations of nature — such as the ginger-root teapot above — and of their surroundings. The Andersons purchased these new creations and were the sole suppliers of contemporary Yixing teapots to Garth Clark Gallery.
The Irvings appreciated the unique charm of Yixing ware and assisted the Andersons in encouraging and developing the new Yixing teapot forms of Lu Wenxia and Zhou Dingfang, which are a far cry from the traditional forms still practiced in Yixing today.
12. What is the significance of the Yixing teapot featured in Chop Suey, Edward Hopper’s famous painting?
Edward Hopper’s painting tells us that Yixing teapots were used in Chinese restaurants in the US during the early part of the 20th century. The teapot itself was a popular shape made during the 1920s. For Chinese tea connoisseurs, the Yixing teapot is considered the best vessel for brewing tea.