Another Look at the World of Yixing Teapots

A few years back, as editor of a tea vendor’s blog, I presented a 3-part article on yixing teapots. This was based on my experience with some of this type of teapot that were gifted to me by someone selling them on the side (a part-time thing in addition to his full-time job – many tea vendors and sellers of tea-related items have started out this way). Time to do an update. And to share with you some important lessons learned since then.

My original three:

Lessons Learned

  1. Not all Yixing teapots are created equal – clays vary, makers vary, cheap yixing abounds
  2. My Yixing teapots were worth every penny of what I paid (i.e., zero)
  3. Yixing teapots are a big nuisance and not worth the effort
  4. The hype about Yixing teapots is just marketing hoopla

Mankind seems to have a penchant for looking for ways to improve things and then ditching those improvements to go back to the old, not-as-good things (labeled as “traditional” to make them seem more appealing and to tie in with that feeling of nostalgia many of us get as we age). It happens in agriculture with “heirloom” vegetables and fruits. It happens in medicine with the rise of “traditional medicine” from China and India (with no scientific verification for most of it). Teapots are no different. These Yixing teapots, being unglazed and therefore porous, were the precursor to glazed pottery and ceramics, which was also developed in China. Unglazed is cheaper. But many maker convinced tea drinkers that the teapots, being porous, would therefore soak up some of the tea flavors and make teas taste better over time. The catch: whatever tea you steep in the teapot would then flavor whatever tea you steeped next, so you would either have to stick with one tea per pot (and have lots of these pots and have a way to keep track of which was for which tea) or settle for all your tea tasting alike, which defeats the purpose of having all those different teas out there. And frankly I have used one of my teapots repeatedly and can’t seem to get that metallic clay flavor to go away. Give me glazed, sealed pottery or glass every time. Easier to clean. No keeping track of which tea it was seasoned with. No weird flavor in the tea. Simpler. Better.

All that being said, here is the article from back when with some editing to take out references to things no longer valid:

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THE ORIGINAL 3-PART ARTICLE (with minor edits)

Part 1

Some of the most treasured teawares are made from a special clay called “zisha” by artisans who train for years. The clay and the best artisans are from the province of China called “Yixing” (pronounced “Ee-sheeng” or “Yee-sheeng”). I have always been a bit leery of taking the plunge and buying one or more of these little gems, but have finally decided it’s time to dive into the world of Yixing teapots. [Note: the teapots featured here were actually gifted to me by the vendor.]

Tea lovers have written of their treasured versions of these steeping wonders. Many have waxed rhapsodic about theirs. But before you take the plunge yourself, learn about the things you need to look for.

Getting the Real Deal — As with anything that achieves a certain status of value and collectability, Yixing teapot fakes abound, so know what you are buying and how to tell if you are getting the “real deal.”

Some ways to determine whether your teapot is authentic or not:

  • There will be a potter’s chop mark on the bottom of the teapot and the lid.
  • When tapped lightly against another Yixing teapot of the same variety, the ceramic should make a metallic sound.
  • The fit of the teapot’s lid should be seamless, and there should be a little air hole in it; to test the seamlessness, fill the pot with water, put the lid on, place your finger over the hole on the lid, and tip the pot over to see if the flow of water is halted — if it is, the lid is seamless.
  • Avoid the fake clunky looking teapots made of yellow clay that first became available around 2007. These are usually shaped like bamboo shoots/stalks, dragons, or Chinese coins; the clay is rough and crude and has a strong, unpleasant odor that can affect your tea’s flavor.
  • Antique Yixing teapots are a bit trickier to authentic; consult an expert.

Getting a Good Deal — Check the general condition of the teapot, looking for cracks, chips, and other imperfections. How vital these things are depends in part on why you are buying.

Some key reasons people buy a Yixing teapot:

  • Primarily to steep teas — you will probably want teapots with a more simple design and minor chips won’t be an issue.
  • Because it strikes your fancy — your own aesthetic will be your guide here (some snobs calls this type of purchasing “garbage collection”).
  • To have as a collectible (antique and/or master craftsmen’s works) — check out very carefully what makes a teapot collectible and only buy from reputable dealers.
  • For the symbolism of the design — again some study is in order so you know what is being symbolized; for example, the cicada means long life, resurrection, and spirituality while the bamboo stands for nobility and growth and the dragon by itself is beauty and wisdom (when shown with the phoenix, the dragon is the Yin and the phoenix is the Yang, that is, male and female).
Cicada close up with shining black eyes.
“Cicada” close up with shining black eyes.

If you, too, want to dive into the exciting world of Yixing teapots, you can find hundreds online. Better yet, find someone who has one and see where he/she bought it. Do your homework and be sure to check out the return policy of the online store in case your teapot arrives damaged or turns out not to meet your expectations.

Part 2

When you first dive into the world of Yixing (“Ee-sheeng” or “Yee-sheeng”) teapots, you need to be sure to get the real deal and a good deal (see Part 1). That accomplished, you are then faced with the scary question: “Now what?” A bit of research will show you how to prep them properly for use and then how to use them.

Prepare for First Use — There is a ton of info online about how to prepare your Yixing teapot for its first use of steeping tea. Some involve several days of your time, but hubby and I found the one below to be sufficient.

A simple preparation process:

  1. Rinse the teapot and lid in cold water. DO NOT USE SOAP.
  2. Put the teapot and the lid in the bottom of a pan large enough so that the teapot and its lid aren’t touching each other.
  3. Cover both the teapot and the lid completely with cold water.
  4. Bring the water slowly to a boil. (Quick temperature changes could crack the teapot.)
  5. Reduce heat to medium-low.
  6. Simmer for about 30 minutes to remove any wax and to sterilize the teapot.
  7. Carefully remove the teapot and lid from the water.
  8. Let them cool completely and air dry. Caution: do not put the lid on the teapot until both are completely dry to assure that mold does not start to grow inside them.

Assign a Tea to Your Teapot — Yixing teapots are not glazed, so they are not sealed and therefore tend to absorb flavors and odors around them into the clay pores (microscopic spaces between the clay molecules). They especially absorb the flavor and odor of the tea steeped in them. For this reason, you should ideally use your teapot for only one general type of tea (and also keep your teapot away from anything with a strong scent such as scented candles or a package of cinnamon flavored tea).

The teas I designated to each teapot:

  • Green teas for “Simplicity”
  • Oolong teas for “Cicada”
  • Pu-erh teas for “Dragon”

Steep a Seasoning Potful — The all-important first potful will affix that type of tea to that teapot. This tea is not to be drunk. It is to season the teapot, so steep it up extra strong.

Here is one recipe:

  1. Place 4 teaspoons of loose tea leaves in the teapot.
  2. Fill the teapot with boiling water. Caution: The tea leaves will float to the top, so be careful as you pour.]
  3. Put the lid on the teapot. (Be sure there are no leaves around the rim so that the lid will sit properly and seamlessly on the teapot.)
  4. Steep the tea until it and the teapot are cool (be patient — I had to let my teapots sit overnight to cool thoroughly).
  5. Empty the teapot, discarding the tea liquid and leaves.
  6. Rinse out the teapot with water.
  7. Repeat steps 1 through 6.
  8. Allow the teapot and lid to completely air dry before putting the lid back on the teapot (a good practice every time you use your Yixing teapot).
“Simplicity” and the hot water pour!
“Simplicity” and the hot water pour!

Once this is done, you are ready to steep that first drinkable potful, as you will see in Part 3.

Part 3

Part 1 gave you some idea what Yixing teapots were all about while Part 2 showed how to prepare your teapots for use. It’s finally time to start actually steeping tea in your teapot to drink and enjoy!

The First Drinkable Potful — Once the teapots are ready for use, select one of them to prepare your first steeping of drinkable tea. Then select one of the teas that matches what you specified for that pot.

We steeped some a green tea in the “Cicada” teapot. This style of teapot has a “built-in strainer” comprised of tiny holes inside over the spout opening, so you can toss loose tea leaves in the pot and not need to use a strainer when pouring out the tea liquid.

The ones inside the “Cicada” teapot
The ones inside the “Cicada” teapot

Not having a tea boat (a special tray to collect any water and/or tea that overflows the teapot — all part of the steeping process) is no problem. You can make do with a cookie sheet and a cooling rack. Not pretty, but very utilitarian for now until you can shop for something appropriate. The teapot sits on the cooling rack which sits on the cookie sheet.

“Cicada” on a makeshift teaboat.
“Cicada” on a makeshift teaboat.

The tea leaves are in the teapot and the hot water is poured in. The water is let overflow the teapot (be careful, since the tea leaves will float to the top and may flow over the sides of the teapot — pouring more slowly as you get to the top of the teapot will help prevent this).

“Cicada” gets busy!
“Cicada” gets busy!

We were generally pleased for now, the flavor being what we had experienced in our earlier tastings. We are looking forward to the tea flavor deepening with each use of the teapot, though. A patina will build up over time on the teapots as we use them and will enrich their colors. All part of the joys of this type of teapot.

There you have it — the basics of our dive into the world of Yixing teapots. Your turn. Take the plunge!

UPDATE

Peachy – the latest addition and as yet unseasoned and unused. She’s just a show piece. And one of her peaches is missing.

“Peachy”
“Peachy”

© 2016-2020 World Is a Tea Party photos and text

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3 thoughts on “Another Look at the World of Yixing Teapots”

    1. Well, Peachy and the others were priced at $25 to $55 by the seller, with Peachy being the highest price. Since she is missing a peach, she would go for about $35 plus shipping. Price range on Yixing is very wide and depends on the quality of the clay as well as the maker. Some potters are so sought after that their works go for hundreds of dollars.

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