Zisha Clay – Not Just for Those Tiny Teapots, It Seems

By Aaron D. Peacener
as told to A.C. Cargill

Teapots hold great appeal for me, especially those made in China of zisha clay. I have even been known to refer to myself as “that crazy teapot guy” (a proud banner to bear!). So, of course, when I saw a complete, intact set possibly by Gu Jingzhou (顾景舟, 1915-1996), the greatest zisha clay artist, especially during the later years of his lifetime, come on the market, my excitement level soared! The pot was very much like the famous papaya pot design by Gu Jingzhou. In fact, because of this, I thought at first it was a coffee set. The authenticity was also a question. A sign of this authenticity (as having been made by Gu Jingzhou) would be if the pot is ceramic coated. In any event, seeing this set had me feeling that this could be either the greatest zisha ware lover’s discovery recorded in the last 30 years or at the very least historic in some way. For one reason, it was a complete set. A moment of hesitation… What the heck! Might as well go for it!

My Background

Before we take a look at that set, I wanted to give you a bit of my background and my reasons for being so excited. My interest in tea and thus in zisha clay wares began almost a decade ago with a massage and a cup of tea at the Mandala Wellness Center (now Mandala Tea) in Winona, Minnesota. My mild interest turned into an obsession, studying all I could about zisha clay and the artists creating with it. Then, I bought a pot or two, basic designs, learning more as I went, dealing with the real ones and the fakes (which seem to vastly outnumber the real ones). It’s a real “feel your way” kind of thing, but you can soon tell by color and touch which are real or not. Along the way I also continued learning about teas and trying various ones.

The Set

Here are the photos:

Several things say this set is for Western style tea steeping instead of Asian style tea steeping:

  1. The larger pot.
  2. The cups have handles (for gongfu or Asian steeping of tea, they would not make tea cups with handles).
  3. Saucers for the cups (again, a Chinese potter would not make such a thing for tea out of zisha clay normally).
  4. A creamer and covered 2-handle sugar bowl (for British-style tea).

The pot is definitely for tea, not coffee, due to these two points:

  • A coffee pot would be nei ci wai hong (ceramic coated inside, red clay outside).
  • This pot is nei zi wai hong (purple clay inside, red clay outside).

The sugar bowl, creamer, cups, and saucers are nei ci wai hong and therefore are suitable for either tea or coffee.

The set turned out NOT to have been made by Gu Jingzhou. However, the good news is that it is pre-Gu and possible a model for Gu Jingzhou’s papaya coffeepot lid. And it’s not too surprising that this is not Gu, since there is no Gu Jingzhou papaya coffeepot known to exist in modern times, nothing published in any publications, and since this appears to be for tea, not coffee. Having this set show up at all was a marvel, and I couldn’t resist taking that one in a million chance!

This set was made for export to the USA and European markets in 1920-1930 by Guo qi Lin who studied pottery in 1921 under the tutelage of Fan Dasheng and Cheng Shouzhen at the Cheng Ding shop. The condition was very good, with a tiny chip on the lid and a good cleaning needed. The chip actually looks like it might have happened during firing and so is part of the history of the piece. Each piece also has its import CHINA stamp. All of this lends to the historical importance of the set. A great find, even if it’s not Gu Jingzhou.

A side note: in the old days the firing of the pots was done for up to two weeks; the temperature had to be maintained at just the right level during this entire time, so kiln operators worked in rotating shifts. The kiln style was called “dragon kiln,” based on its shape (like a dragon with a smoky head at the base of a slope and a tail upslope). It usually uses wood for the firing and was in use for many centuries in China. This type of kiln firing makes the older pots more desirable to us teapot aficionados. The potter and the kiln operator had to be a team of equally matched superior skill.

The Artist

Even though the set turned out not to be by Gu Jingzhou, I want to present a bit of information on this great artist so you can better appreciate his work in case you happen to come across some (often on display in museums these days).

Gu Jingzhou (sometimes written Gu Jing Zhou or Gu Jingshou) was born in 1915 and so lived through the last days of imperialism in China as well as all the changes and turmoil that followed. He died in 1996 but in-between became a master at pottery in the traditional styles. It was a long road and many years of learning and doing, starting at the tender age of 18. A little over 2 decades later, he was appointed as the ceramic technical guide by the Jiangsu Province government. Many of his students became well-known artists, too. They include Xu Hantang, Gao Haigeng, Li Changhong, Shen Juhua, Su Fengying, and Wu Qunxiang. Gu Jingzhou, however, remains the master of the pot art world even today.

The real papaya coffee pot would be a dream to own. I owned a fake awhile back, but it’s not the same. (The fake was made of the same clay type but had a fake Gu Jingzhou seal on the bottom.)

The Training

Creating works of art out of clay, whether they are for steeping fine teas or for your aesthetic enjoyment, takes talent, skill, guidance, and practice. In October of 1958 the Chinese government established “Factory No. 1” for making zisha clay wares. The makers there established standards, mining and mixing the clay as well as taking courses over a 3-year period. They began as “Assistant Master Craftsman” and worked up to “Master Craftsman,” “Senior Master Craftsman,” and “National Master Craftsman.” For about 5 years they got sidetracked by the Chinese cultural revolution, where anything Western or created as a form of self-expression (aggrandizement, as they called it) were forbidden, so a lot of Shui Ping style teapots were made, with an inferior quality but historic significance. When they returned to normal production in the 1970s, new ranks for the makers were introduced:

  • Technician (Xing-siu)
  • Craftsman (Ji-su-yuan or Gong-yi-mei-su-yuan)
  • Craftsman (Ming-jian-yi-ren) – independent porters
  • Assistant Master Craftsman (Zu-li-gong-yi-si)
  • Master Craftsman (Gong-yi-si)
  • Senior Master Craftsman (Gao-gi-gong-yi-si)
  • Provincial Grandmaster
  • Grandmaster Craftsman

While pottery made during the cultural revolution were signed with characters meaning “Yixing,” pottery made after and before bear the seals of the craftsmen who made them and are an important part of each piece. These days, well-known masters often work on commission and can be booked for 2 years ahead or more. No matter, since collectors and aficionados are glad to wait.

Don’t Just Let Those Pots Sit There!

I use my zisha clay pots, and you should, too. It’s good for the pots and the tea is good for you! Sipping liu bao tea (六堡茶) now steeped in one of my favorite teapots.

The Shui Ping is a traditionally shaped pot, very simple, elegant, and with perfect symmetry (except for the finial which is slightly off but barely noticeable). It is made entirely by hand, no molds used. The pot’s interior is one of the cleanest I have seen. It holds 100ml and is about 1/3rd lighter than other pots of that capacity (usually around 95 grams). That is because the sides are eggshell thin. There is a metal on metal  sound when rubbing the lid against the body of the teapot, indicating that the zhuni (choo-nee) clay has a high iron content. You would have to see and handle a pot like this to tell how this real teapot stands out from the fakes.

As for the tea, Liu Bao dates back to the Qing Dynasty Jiaqing period (1792-1820). It comes from the town of Liu Bao, Cangwu County, Guangxi Province, China (teas are often named after the place where they are produced). The leaves used are thick and a bit rough in appearance, and there might even be twigs in the mix. The leaves are fermented in shou fashion at the tea factory, but for a much shorter period (about 7-10 days instead of the 30-40 days typical for shou), and tends to be sweeter and milder with a more pleasant aroma. It is great for those who want something a bit lighter than regular shou but still want that touch of earthiness. When first made, Liu Bao leaves were packed in bamboo baskets, pressed into small flat discs, or stuffed into fresh cut bamboo (and thereby absorbing some of the bamboo-ness into the leaves). Today, those flat discs (cakes) and also loose versions are common. Some tea makers also still stuff leaves into bamboo stalks.

Thanks for reading and may your hunt for the real thing be a successful one.

© 2016-2020 Aaron D. Peacener and A.C. Cargill photos and text

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