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March 2, 2024

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Yixing — teaware not the only draw in the ‘capital of pottery’

WHEN one thinks of China’s greatest export, one thinks of tea. Yet, how can good tea be had without good teaware?

And when one thinks of China’s greatest teaware, one thinks of those from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. Jingdezhen, nicknamed the “capital of porcelain,” was where imperial kilns churned out masterpiece after masterpiece, now prized by museums worldwide.

Yet, how can discussions of great teaware be complete without regard to those from Yixing, affectionately dubbed the “capital of pottery?” Teapots made of zisha (紫砂) are no less beloved (with auction prices to match). Zisha, literally “purple sand” or “purple clay,” are found in and only in Yixing.

Hence, I made a point of going to Yixing in Jiangsu Province to find out what zisha-ware is all about. My port of call is the twin-museum complex of the China Yixing Zisha-ware Museum and the China Yixing Ceramic Museum.

The complex is, unsurprisingly, located in Dingshu Town, the center of zisha-ware production and a township named after the hillocks Dingshan and Shushan. The fabled zisha, however, is mined in Huanglongshan, another hillock to the north.

You will get to see zisha in its myriad forms at the zisha-ware museum, which occupies the second floor of the Historical Ceramics Hall of the complex.

Scholars still debate when zisha teapot crafting began. However, its golden era was undoubtedly the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, when key techniques were perfected, master makers emerged and zisha teapots became collector’s items for royalty and academics alike.

It is interesting to note that the master of tea Lu Yu praised tea from Yixing, formerly known as Yangxian, highly enough that Yangxian tea was designated a tribute item as early as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), long before zisha teapots became all the rage.

In any case, the art of tea appreciation evolved with the emergence of zisha teapots, with some believing that one must dedicate one teapot to a specific type of tea — the reason being the unglazed clay of the teapot absorbs the tea’s flavor. You don’t want to mix up teas!

The zisha-ware museum will stun you with teapots of all shapes and sizes, and may make the exhibition of pottery-making history in Yixing (on the first floor) seem like an unworthy sideshow. However, I was impressed by some of the eclectic modern zisha creations on display, such as a most realistic football.

The museum complex also comprises two exhibition halls displaying two noteworthy collections of zisha-ware and a gallery dedicated to the legendary maker Gu Jingzhou. A Gu teapot was sold in Hong Kong for more than 9 million yuan (US$1.3 million) in 2013.

My favorite hall, however, is the one displaying contemporary artist Han Meilin’s zisha-ware. Han is the artist behind Air China’s logo as well as the five iconic dolls for the 2008 Beijing Olympics; he has collaborated with various local teapot makers to produce delightfully creative modern-day zisha teapots.

There are also plenty of natural attractions in Yixing, such as the largest bamboo grove in east China and the many solutional caves. Shanjuan Cave, Master Zhang’s Cave and Linggu Cave are known as the “three wonders of Yixing.” I opted for culture, however, and headed to Yixing Museum instead.

I did not expect my visit to occupy the rest of my day. Just as the zisha-ware and ceramic museums are twinned, Yixing Museum is also twinned with the Yixing Art Museum. Although the museum gives a good account of the city’s rich history and has quite a few remarkable items on display — the most noteworthy being the stunning white marble paifang (a traditional Chinese archway of a memorial or decorative nature) that greets you as soon as you step into the building — it is its twin that steals the limelight.

I long knew that Wu Guanzhong, considered by some — myself included — the greatest modern Chinese painter, was a Yixing native. I also knew that one of the greatest Chinese painters a generation before him, Xu Beihong of equine portraiture fame, hailed from the city. Little did I know, however, that Yixing has been producing countless fabulous painters and calligraphers up till the present day. Discover them for yourself, as I did.

I did not leave the city hungry. Before catching the last direct train back to Shanghai, I made a pit stop at the noted restaurant Jiu Fu Lou at 258 Renmin Road S. and had a wonderful “lion’s head” (meatball) in broth — only that, unlike the common variety found in Shanghai, it is made of Chinese longsnout catfish meat rather than pork.

Oh, and delicious yellowhead catfish wontons too. Yixing prizes freshwater fish as much as any other city in Jiangnan, regions south of the lower reaches of Yangtze River.


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