Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Zisha Teapot as Philosophy

Image via The Dragon's Well blog.
If you've followed my blog for any amount of time, you know that I'm studying ceramics. Typical of me, when I start studying anything new (although it's been four years, now, so that's not exactly new anymore, is it?), I start reading and buying books like they were going out of style (which, with e-readers, I suppose they are...) and generally distract myself from deep study by discovering the next shiny thing on whichever topic has caught my interest.

It's a schizoid way of gaining knowledge. You don't have to tell me that; I know it. But I've been this way since day one, so now, I just go with the flow and laugh at myself and what passes for my "methods."

Of course, making ceramics and the study of ceramics has become a huge part of my life, and I've been at it long enough to know this is no passing thing. (I really would love to be the next Beatrice Wood, but sadly, I lack the debutante's cash flow. I do, however, have the potential to be as interesting as she...) Everything under the ceramics umbrella is fascinating to me, so much so that I can acutely feel the passage of time and with that comes the knowledge that I cannot possibly accomplish or master everything I would like in this field.

Which brings me to the point of this post at last! In the process of reading one of my Pottery Making Illustrated magazines, I ran across an article on the Yixing (pronounced Ee-shing) Zisha teapot. 
Image via China Flair Tea

The Zisha teapot is an interesting critter. It gets its name from Zisha clay, which is found only in and around the area of Yixing, China. The clay itself is a purple to a purple-brown color, which gives any ceramics made with it a very distinctive look. But it's the functional aspects of Zisha clay that make it so desirable for tea connoisseurs world wide.

Because of the particular porosity of the clay, it stays hot for extended periods of time, as well as absorbing the oils of the tea itself. This is why, for Zisha teapot collectors, one pot is used exclusively for each variety of tea (i.e. one pot for Oolong, one for green tea, etc.), and it is an absolute no-no to scrub out the un-glazed teapot with soap and water because you will lose the oils that enhance future pots of tea. (You just give it a rinse and let it dry.) Also because of the porosity of the clay, it can withstand thermal shock better than just about any other. 

Tea experts consider the Zisha teapot to be the best for brewing tea. It first came into use during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and became popular in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1645-1910). In fact, this type of teapot and Zisha clay are so valued in China, that they wrote a song about it. Here's an English translation:

With the sun and the moon in our hands/The jade-like Zisha are made out of the heaven and the earth/ Just like by God/Making all craftsmanship in the shade

The flame of the Long-kiln never/Never fades away for thousands of years/And the story of five-colors earth/Passes on from generation to generation
Jingxi gravel/the Fortune Zisha are/Turned out to be teapots/ the symbol of talent
Accompanying my adorable beauty/And embracing my bosom friends/I will cherish the lot, connected by the teapot/ reading the romance and the taste of the Han and Tang dynasty
Accompanying with my adorable beauty/And embracing my bosom friends/I will cherish the lot, connected by the teapot/reading the most beautiful lyrics from long ago
Image via Chinese Tea Culture
 The boccaro craftsmanship (boccaro refers to the color of the clay) from the Yixing area of China was listed as a Non-material Cultural Heritage award-winner. This is because the overall feeling of the teapot seems to capture the heart of the best of Chinese culture: the blend of ancient Chinese poetry and consummate technique-or the mixing of philosophy and craftsmanship into a beautiful, yet everyday object. Unfortunately, I don't think the Western world or the United States in particular has an equivalent award for something of this nature. Nor, I believe, does it have the equivalent of a Living National Treasure as are celebrated in China and Japan, but I digress...

Anyway, from a potter's standpoint, the Zisha teapot could arguably be labeled the penultimate ceramic work of art, and in China, you can't just hang up your shingle and say, "Hey! I make the real Zisha teapot here!" without any kind of apprenticeship. Meng Xu, the lady about whom the article in Pottery Making Illustrated was written, is a second-year student and has another year of apprenticeship to go before she will produce anything worthy to sell.

Let's consider that for a moment. I can image most Americans thinking, "A three-year apprenticeship to make a teapot? Are you kidding me?" Nope. I'm not kidding. Three years. That should give you an indication that its production is more complicated than it seems to the person uneducated in exactly what goes into a pot of this caliber.
Click on the pic to see an hour-long demonstration of
a Zisha teapot being made by Chinese National
Treasure Zhou Gui Zhen and master teapot
artist Zhu Jiang Long

The first thing to know is that each teapot is hand-built, rather than thrown on the wheel. Each pot is thoroughly thought out form the very beginning. The tools used to make the teapot are usually made by the artist. In the article, which includes pictures of Ms. Xu making a Zisha teapot, they recommend having a fully formed design, complete with measurements, before attempting to assemble one. 

After pounding out the pieces with a special mallet and using a compass knife to precisely cut out the bottom and the lid, there are a number of meticulously-executed steps to assembling the teapot. Among them is a buffing phase, in which Ms. Xu uses a piece of vinyl wrapped around a tool and her own facial oils to buff the clay. She does this because traditionally, Zisha teapots aren't glazed and the buffing process gives the clay a sheen that is seen in the final product. Throughout the process, the clay needs to be kept to a certain degree of dampness, and tools are used in contact with the clay more so than the hands.

It is an exacting process. That's why a Qing Dynasty Zisha teapot made by a master can cost collectors around $40,000. I think that speaks volumes of the value placed upon the mastery of a craft.

I think one of the most thought-provoking things about the Zisha teapot mystique, if you want to call it that, is the whole concept of mastery. I think in this instance, the word, "mastery" is used in the old-school apprentice/journeyman/master process. The creators of these teapots truly master their craft.
Typical restaurant teapot: $4.00,
wholesale from a restaurant supplier.

I know that sounds repetitive, but understand that I come from the place of being a maker of ceramics (ceramics being the redheaded stepchild of the art world, although that perception is changing), and I am a Westerner. What I mean by that is that, in the U.S., at least, the arts have been undervalued, if not under active attack, for decades. The word, "craft," brings to mind bored housewives making eminently re-gift-able items on their kitchen tables, and as such, the word, "craftsperson," doesn't inspire respect.

The whole idea of a person undergoing an apprenticeship in the old definition of the word is almost utterly foreign to us in the first place, let alone the idea of mastering an art form that also happens to produce a functional object. We suffer from a bad case of "it's good enough to make money. Sell it,"  and we have very little regard for the process of striving for the highest quality work we can achieve.

To us, it seems, functional equals utilitarian/not pretty. It is certainly not spiritual.

Zisha teapot masters describe their work as striving for the perfect balance between mind and hand, poetry and technical expertise. The forms they create echo the mountains they see every day or perhaps represent the towering power of the Han Dynasty. One artist likens a piece to his life, which is about sweetness and bitterness in his life and work, and points out that each teapot has emotion and warmth like human beings. Their work matures as human beings mature, making the teapot more of a sensory experience the longer it is in use.

I suppose what I'm driving at is that I truly wish that our culture was more appreciative of both art and craft, that a sort of personal honor would drive us to uphold higher standards in what we make and choose to do for a living. 

Mind you, I'm not saying that Chinese culture is the most perfect thing ever and is completely without drawbacks. What I am saying is that we can look to the best parts of that culture and draw from them to make our culture better and stronger.

What would our culture look like if we did apprentice people in the old way, rather than view mentorship as bringing up our competition? What would happen if we realized that in some cases, at least, our elder population has a lot of knowledge and experience to pass on to us? What would our cultural experience be if we weren't always hungry for more stuff and the latest model (which we got last year but now have to upgrade because it's "old")?

What would it be like to live in a world of craftspeople, whether that craft were medicine or making car parts? No more "C's get degrees" mentality. 

Wow. What a world that would be.



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