The 19 Areas of Yixing & The 3 Types of Yixing Clay

It has been known as late as the Ming Dynasty that tea was most suitably brewed in a Yixing teapot. The special Yixing clay helps to refine and round out flavor profile of fine Chinese tea, and can help you achieve the ultimate goal of GongFu – brewing good tea.

I'm smiling becuase you have no idea what comes next

Yet finding, sourcing, and understanding Yixing can quickly become an expensive and sisyphean undertaking. The vast majority of “Yixing” wares available on the market are frauds, made out of industrial clay using slurry molds. Learning to identify real Yixing requires experience with known samples of known provenance and known age – that’s particularly difficult given that Qing and ROC yixing artists were faking Ming Dynasty pots with real high quality clay for generations. Determining the age or provenance of a teapot is difficult or impossible even for experts.

Should you find a Yixing you trust as real, the task continues to grow exponentially in complexity; not all Yixing pots are created equal, and there is in fact a wide range of sub-types of Yixing clay commonly used to make Yixing teapots – some of which should only be used for specific teas or under specific conditions.

At the Tea Institute (of which I am only an advisor) we have set out to analyze the chemical composition of the clay, the clay’s effect on the sensory attributes on various classes of teas, and the chemistry that causes these sensory changes. Eventually, this research will yield a better scientific understanding of the magic and allure of Yixing clay.

I accidentally slipped into my investor pitch for a moment - sorry!

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I’m Back

Baller Status Unlocked

Namaste friends, romans, 茶人, & countrymen! It has been far too long, with far too little tea and tea related adventures since I last posted.

But the wait is over.

After this most successful event, the 2015 Yixing Teapot Exhibition, hosted by the Tea Institute at Penn State, I feel alive to the allure of tea once again.

Ryan Ahn (狮子) has done an unbelievable job of taking over the institute I founded and I am so happy to remain involved in an advisory role. Ryan and his executive team are 100x better at recruiting than I (and my executive team, sorry guys) ever was/were.

one of us one of us one of us

Under Ryan and the new executive board, the Institute has grown to 44 active members! (all of whom are directly descendent from my tea linage, making me far more proud than the parents of an honor roll student)

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Anthropology of Chinese Tea Ceremony – Part 1

This is a draft section of my upcoming book “An introduction to the art and Science of Chinese Tea Ceremony”. Please help improve it with your comments, suggestions, and hate mail! 

Anthropology is the study of human culture throughout time, a large topic that can be studied through many vantage points and lenses. By focusing on the historical patterns of production and consumption of tea through the dynastic to modern period, we can shed light on the culture that gave rise to the tea ceremony that we practice today. 

 

Throughout history, the majority, the global underclass from the tip of Portugal to the Korean Peninsula could not expect to gain anything not produced by the toil of their own labor and the sweat from their brow. Life was oft short, difficult, and brutish (to quote Hobbs), in the cities and villages alike. This, I suspect, is in contacts to the usual portrait of idyllic life in an earlier time. Famine, disease, and death were never far from their minds; even as China became the pinnacle society of the pre-industrial age during the Tang Dynasty, the world at that time offered little in the comforts and inanities we take for granted today.

The vast regions of China are home to a diverse set of ethno-culturally distinct people. Life often changes drastically from village to village, valley to valley; culture, language, sustenance, and production were all dependent on the topography, resources, and skills of the city or village.

Tea is a product formed by that most natural of human agricultural experiments; improve on what is already working. As tea moved from its use as a spice and masticant, to become commonly consumed as a beverage, it went from ‘unprocessed’ to a processed good; that processing lead to value and specialization, such that the farming of tea became viable in a world of sustenance agriculture. All of the resulting teas of the past and the teas of today (green, oolong, pu’er) owe their existence to the experimentation of these farmers of yore.

Tea, as we think and write of it, was the domain of the rich. From the ceremonies’ earliest popularized formalization in LuYu’s ChaJing, tea required wealth to partake in its practice.

The first large farms were run by the monasteries. As holders of land and with accesses to the labor of the resident monks, monasteries became fabulously wealthy in the mid to late Tang Dynasty. The production of tea became a source of wealth both spiritual and monetary; it kept the monks awake during their hours of meditation, and the tea could be sold to the local populace and resting travelers.

Thus, even as tea ceremony became a practice of the rich and scholarly, with its collection of wares, implements, and rare samples of famous leaves, all of the production and the bulk of the consumption were dominated by that global underclass of farmers and villagers; a group rarely written about. Tea was traded, purchased, and drunk by the villagers, towns folk, and urban elites alike; but tea was only produced in the villages and tea ceremony was only practiced by the bourgeois class; tea ceremony was (and in many ways still is) the domain of the wealthy. This discrepancy in the written history skews our knowledge and perception of the production and consumption of tea; it’s the victorious, welthy, and educated who write the historical records, and it is their practice of tea we have passed down and continue to learn and practice today.

Tea Ceremony as a living art

Chinese Tea Ceremony is a living art. It is an art that has been propagated through the culture and the skill of individuals. As you progress in your practice of tea ceremony, your approach will change; the wares you use, the settings you create, and the focus of each session will change.

The goal of Chinese tea ceremony is to brew good tea. As the teas available and produced changed with the years, the ebbs and flows of history, the changing of dynasties, imperial decrees, and climate, the practice of brewing good tea has changed.

Today, top practitioners use Japanese tetsubans or silver kettles to make water lighter and sweeter, we use wood-fired wares from Europe or Korea that match our tea’s brewing parameters and our ChaXi’s aesthetic, we use filtered spring water, machine made ceramics, and bring the (often) modern western ideals of beauty into the tea room. Today, our practices of tea ceremony have changed.

Since its inception Tea Ceremony has known nothing but change.

This constant state of change that we find tea and tea ceremony in is good. The practice of tea would not, could not, exist any other way. This constant state of change has allowed tea ceremony to become a living art, beholden to the wants and needs and desires of its practitioners. As we, members of our culture, change, we bring with us just so much of the past, and the rest is left to fade. Should tea ceremony have remained about scented tribute tea, or roasting wax tea, or boiling powdered tea, the practice would not have been carried into the future; the practice of tea, as tea ceremony, would not exist today.

At the Phenomenist level tea ceremony is not an art that can be viewed, or tasted, or felt; it must be experienced. To call tea ceremony a “living art” is to say more than it has survived the test of time; it is to say that tea ceremony is kept alive by the living. Tea ceremony is only a practice, and a practice must be practiced to be a practice. I hope this is less circular than it seems; many arts have lost their practitioners, and survive today in a petrified state. Consider Japanese Archery, originally an art of war that included Zen practice, it is today mealy a ‘sport’, and had had little development in practice, let alone practitioners, since the WWII. Consider the art of cartography, the making of maps, which has been overtaken by GPS and computerized graphics; there is no true artistic development to the modern practice of map making, and most hand painted maps are made to look old, in the style of cartography’s former glory

This is not to cast any shame on the current or past practitioners of these arts; it is that these arts are effectively dead. They are not living arts the way the practice of tea is a living art.

Tea Ceremony is not safe from this fate. A cursory overview of tea consumption in the western world, and most of Asia, shows tea to be an afterthought. Brewed with little skill, leaves of an unknown provenance, had ‘on the side’; tea may be fading into the recesses of history. We, the practitioners of modern Chinese Tea Ceremony, may be the death rattle for this dying art to be lost to history.

Or we can be the vanguard of this tradition, preserving, innovating, and most importantly appreciating the experience through the Phenomenist approach. It is though our practice and presentation that tea ceremony will continue to thrive, and tea ceremony will continue to change.

The experience of the practitioner is different from the experience of uninitiated; the practitioner can reason, while the uninitiated can only question; the practitioner can appreciate, while the uninitiated can only observe; the practitioner can feel, while the uninitiated can only think; and the practitioner can experience, while the uninitiated can only remember.

Without having experienced a proper tea ceremony, the spark that ignites the will to practice, it would be impossible for a new student of tea to begin their own practice. There is no impetus, no memory, and no experience. Recorded knowledge is not enough; if tea ceremony dies, it can never be revived. The experience will be impossible to re-create from writings, photographs, and video.

The path to become a practitioner includes seeking out experiences with tea, followed by study and practice. Your practice is what keeps tea ceremony alive. You are now the vanguard.