Jian Shui Zi Tao Pottery March 11 2014
You can't be on a puerh journey without coming across tea wares. They are the tools of the trade. You can give the best piece of wood to a carpenter, but without his saws, chisels, hammers, and drills he can't express the true potential hidden inside the wood. It is exactly the same with quality puerh. If you took the best puerh leaves in the world and put them in a cramped tea bag, in a plastic cup, filled it with tap water, and tossed it in the microwave for 5 minutes you won't ever experience what those leaves have to offer.
So far on my puerh journey I have been happy with my tools. I have a Yixing tea pot I bought at New Century Tea Gallery in Seattle's International District. I have glass fairness cup that holds my brewed puerh. I have a very nice tea table and set of tea tools. I have simple white cups that show off the color of the tea liquor. I have a couple porcelain gaiwan that brew a consistent brew. These are the essential tools.
With these basic tools in hand I have been traveling the road of puerh and experiencing what this amazing tea has to offer. My focus has been on learning about puerh. I haven't focused on the details of the tools. Most of the tools in my gongfu toolbag are straight forward and don't require anything special. The one critical piece for brewing amazing tea is the tea pot. This is where things get confusing. Yixing clay teaware is a broad topic that has almost as much depth as the field of puerh tea itself. There is great confusion, speculation, and uncertainty in the West when it comes to the clay teapots we lump into the category "Yixing".
Yixing is a city in Eastern China that has been a traditional center of stoneware production for hundreds of years because of easy access to quality clay in the area mountains. The specific mineral content of this clay is what gives added flavor to teas brewed in them. Additionally they are semi porous and allow transfer of oxygen which enhances the tea flavor. The porous nature also allows the teapot walls to absorb the tea flavor over time. Each new brew will be enhanced by every brew that came before it. This is why it is important to only use one type of tea in a specific teapot. You don't want to mix your flavors. Like I was taught as a kid growing up in the south "You don't cook catfish in your cornbread skillet!"
A lot of the confusion comes from the exhaustion of quality clay from the Yixing area. Finding the right clay is an expensive process. There are many cheap imitations using who knows what. It makes some buyers in the West hesitant to buy a "Yixing" teapot at all.
Like any tool quality comes at a price. Rare clay comes at a premium. Handmade teapots require years of skill and that adds to the cost. Certain well-known artists can command higher prices. Add in vintage/antique teaware and you have an industry that is quite complex. This is the main reason I have been happy with my first teapot purchase and have spent my energies on learning about puerh.
I was in the Jin Shi Tea Market in Kunming a few weeks ago and stumbled across a tea shop advertising "Jian Shui teapots". I was intrigued and we talked with the store owner for a while and determined that Jian Shui was a city in Yunnan with a long history of pottery. Local artists use local clay to create beautiful stoneware for brewing tea. The Jian Shui pottery had a very unique shiny look to it that I was unfamiliar with. We decided we would need to make a side trip Jian Shui on our road trip to Xishuangbanna.
Jian Shui 建水县
Jian Shui is a an old city a few hours drive south of Kunming. Like many larger cities in Yunnan it used to be a hub for trade. The city itself is over a thousand years old. There are many well preserved architectures presenting a glimpse back into history. I however was here for the pottery.
Our first stop in Jian Shui was a corner shop on the main street advertising "Zi Tao" Pottery. Zi Tao means purple pottery and is the blanket term used to describe the local wares. In my experience corner shops on main drags are often targeted at tourist dollars because of their prime location. We stopped in anyway and I am glad we did. The shop owner was very welcoming. Her kindness was matched by her knowledge. When I asked where the pottery in her shop was made she yelled to the convenience store next door and an older man came running. She asked him to watch her store and told us to follow her. We went around the corner 50 feet where she pulled up a garage door and told us to go upstairs.
When we got upstairs I couldn't help but grin. The pottery shop looked and smelled just like all those ceramics classes I used to take in high school and college. For many of my teen years I studied ceramics extensively and am at home getting my hands dirty in a shop like that. It brought back a flood of memories. She introduced us to the 'factory' manager and he gave us a tour. He explained in depth every step of the process from obtaining the clay to the handwork used to build them. He said that his artists work on 10-20 pieces at a time and on average it takes 3 days to complete one.
The kiln is propane powered and take roughly 7 gallons to finish a cycle. The target temperature is 1100°C and the firing time is 12 hours. Temperature is determined by holding a lighter to an inspection hole and visually matching internal color to the different colors of flame from a butane lighter. After 12 hours the kiln is turned off and allowed to cool for a full 24 hours before opening. On average 20% of the pieces will fail. The most common reason for failure is improper temperature control.
After the tour we went back to the shop to see what the prices were on their tea pots. We were told that they didn't actually have any of their own tea pots in stock. The Chinese New Year tourist rush had wiped them out. Additionally since everyone in the factory was on vacation for the national holiday they were still getting caught up replenishing their inventory. They explained that the inventory they had was made by famous artists (whose names of course I had never heard of) and surely demanded a much higher price. We decided it would be wise to get a better perspective on overall market price available in other local shops before we set to making any purchases. We left their store and made our way to Wan Yao Village
Wan Yao Village
A half an hour of walking westerly from the city center will bring you to Wan Yao Village. This is the traditional home to Jian Shui Zi Tao pottery. The narrow, winding streets are hot and dusty. Swallows dipping down for attention ride the hot wind that carries the smell of clay to your nose. It's welcoming and intrusive at the same time. Each shop carries both amazing pottery and cool shade. We availed ourselves of both. Still in the learning, exploring, and investigatory phase we chose to stop in each shop and ask all the questions we had. With only a quick honk of the horn as warning we dodged industrial trucks and motorcycles all moving too fast for the enclosed space as we went door to door.
What we learned is that each shop was owned by individual artists. All the product available was hand made by them. Men and women were equally represented. Most styles were on a common theme. Individual expression came through painting with different colors of clay on the outside of the pottery.
Jian Shui has 5 colors of clay all locally sourced in the nearby mountains. Many artists source the clay themselves. The colors available are white, black, yellow, red, and a blue/green. By mixing these you can achieve a great range of color options. All the pottery made in Jian Shui is handmade from locally sourced clay. This is fantastic attribute for those looking to brew puerh. You can brew your puerh in a teapot made from clay sourced in the same area that the tea trees used for puerh are grown. That's amazing to me.
Like Yixing stoneware these teapots are not glazed. The biggest difference is that Jian Shui Zi Tao clay does not contain sand. This is a pure clay. The lack of sand allows the finished stoneware to be polished. By using sandpaper and polishing stones of varying grits you can achieve a near mirror polish on the outside surface. The inside surface is never polished. Sometimes the finished pieces are sandblasted or left unpolished for different textures. Each of the different color clays will look different polished or unpolished. You can achieve a bronzed metal appearance by polishing the black clay. Some of the pieces using mixed clays present some really beautiful varying shades of color across the surface of individual pieces.
You have all the same benefits brewing tea in Jian Shui Zi Tao as you do in the various Yixing stonewares. The minerals from the clay added to the brew will enhance the flavor and make your teas taste better. The tea pots are durable and resistant to rapidly changing temperatures. The three major benefits Jian Shui Zi Tao has over Yixing stoneware in my opinion are:
- They can be polished from the outside for visual appeal.
- You know where the clay comes from.
- There is a Yunnan connection to puerh tea trees
These are solid advantages. We were determined to purchase as many as we could to bring back for our customers. After some time we found a couple shops that we liked. We stopped in a shop called Jiu Long Tao Yi, this means Nine Dragon Pottery Art. The store owner is Jiao Ching Ling. Her daughter wisely married a ceramics artist with a background in traditional Chinese ceramics from Eastern China. His name is Tang Meng. He moved to Jiang Shui to create with the local clay.
Tang Meng has considerable skill and we were impressed with the pieces available. His skill has brought some notoriety and fame to Jiao Ching Ling and Jiu Long Tao Yi. She was a pleasure to talk to and answered our questions personally for some time. She took us upstairs and showed us a special collection of pieces ready for pickup by customers. These included 2 teapots designed and commissioned by Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming.
Mrs Jiao explained to us that Jian Shui has a very long history of pottery extending back hundreds of years. Most traditional Jian Shui pottery was used for cooking. This included pottery made for the local delicacy of qiguo ji 汽锅鸡 (steam pot chicken). A hollow tube in the center of the pot allows steam to pass through while it cooks chicken. It takes about 3 hours. It was only in the early 90's that Jian Shui began to focus on making pottery for brewing tea. This was an important economic move by the town as there is a lot more money in teaware than there is in chicken cookers.
Given the long history of teaware from the Yixing area Jian Shui pottery is definitely young. They've gained great skill and experience in the last two decades though. One interesting local addition is the process for adding external art to the tea pots. After the teapot is finished but before it is dried and fired in the kiln, designs are carved into the outside. Contrasting colored clays are pressed into the carvings. After firing when the exterior is polished smooth the design is revealed. The designs are generally small poems written in Chinese or themes of nature. Flowers take the dominant role. Yunnan has many beautiful flowers to provide inspiration.
Another shop called Zhen Tao Guan had a few pieces that we really liked. Their construction quality wasn't as good as those made by Tang Meng, but their external designs were beautiful and ornate. They also had a discard pile. These tea pots all had defects from the kiln firing that made them less than perfect. Regardless they were finished with the same skill and sold at a discount. We were assured that brew quality would not be compromised it was all cosmetic flaws. I jumped at the chance and picked out a few pieces I thought were still impressive and we bought them.
We stayed in Jian Shui much longer than we had intended. Our original plan was to shop around for a few hours and then head on south. We spent so many hours exploring and shopping we had to stay an extra night. Of course the next morning we were right back in the pottery shops! Now that we knew the average market values we again visited the corner shop and picked up a few pieces from them to take home and sell.
Jian Shui is a pretty awesome town even if you're not into teaware. The local cuisine was delicious. We may try to return before we head back to the US. If you have a chance to visit by all means do! Budget enough time to explore all the pottery shops. You'll be glad you did.
We learned a lot in Jian Shui and are glad we went. We ended up buying 11 pieces to take home and sell. All the pieces shown in this blog are for sale. If you're interested in staking a claim on a piece let us know by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Once we get home I'm sure they'll move fast.
As we left Jian Shui and made our way winding through the local mountains south to Xishangbanna we were amazed at the colors. Exposed cracks revealed deep reds, blacks, yellows, and whites. These hills are mineral rich and the local residents have a rich resource to draw on.
This beautiful piece is by the artist Xu Rong Gang.
All images © Crimson Lotus Tea 2014