It was the end of a long day. Wanting to take a few minutes to myself, I went downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of oolong tea. Taking down my yixing teapots from up on the shelf, I slowly washed each one. Knowing each of them to be less than perfect, I recalled the experiments that Lim Kean Siew made a few years back on his own very large collection. As if a lifetime of the finest education and occupation wasn't enough, my man in Penang, upon his retirement from law and politics, set about to dash all the codified notions concerning teapots that had ruled Chinese tea drinking habits for over a thousand years.
Like all cultural practices, these codified rules concerning tea preparation are so taken for granted that-- like air- we don't even seem to notice them anymore. Red earthenware pots for oolong, darker pots for puerh, green tea in porcelain or glass teapots. Lim-sensei asked the obvious question, why? Was there some reason underlying these rules or does it just come down to preference? Setting out to uncover the answer, he went about his task by scientific experiment.
He first outlined his methodological principles:
All of his pots would come from a government factory in Yixing itself, choosing the Yixing Zisha Factory #1 -- where quality and standards were tightly controlled. He could, in this way, be assured that we were talking of real yixing of a certain knowable standard. His pots ranged from works of art created by living national treasures to simpler, more humble pots-- but all were guaranteed Yixing "purple sand" clay.
In addition, all his teas would be of the highest quality. Water would be standardized. Non-hard tap water. Tea would always be prepared in the same manner and he, along with a variety of tea connoisseurs would observe-- which pots went with which teas.
Famous teapots are like movie stars. They have superstar status in China, and found along with the finest inkstones and jade objects on any scholar's desk, they are prized even above jade. While the history of Yixing-ware can be traced back to 3000 BC, it was only in the Ming dynasty that Yixing teapots took center stage. Discovered by the literati-elite, who came in droves to Yixing (located not far from the legendary city of Suzhou) to enjoy the beautiful scenery and partake in the premium tea grown there, the Yixing teapot was held up as "the ultimate tea-making utensil;" -- the clay "more precious than gold, or even jade."
It is perhaps most reminiscent of the Medieval tea masters of Japan who paid huge sums of money for those large "Luzon ware" tea jars traded in the markets of Manila because they believed the volcanic properties of the clay worked to help preserve fresh tea leaves. So, too, do Chinese tea connoisseurs insist that the clay used to fire Yixing ware interacts with chemicals in the tea to produce the most delicious and fragrant pot of tea possible. Alchemy, they might say. My own opinion? I think most people once they use a fine yixing teapot will never go back to anything else.
Earthenware is like human skin. Soft and porous, handling unglazed pottery can be a very sensual experience; soft to the touch, it is warmer and more organic than porcelain or iron (tetsubin), for example. And, a teapot will fit right in your hands, perfectly-- like a tiny kitten. I have certain preferences regarding clay color and potting (shape)-- but more pleasing to me perhaps than anything else is the way a handmade teapot's lid fits to the body. It is never a perfect fit like something machine made. But that ever-so-slight human-made gap is what gives a handmade teapot that certain comforting sound when you fit the lid on.
All I wanted, I told him, was the perfect teapot. Just one, but it had to be perfect-- as if one perfect teapot could make everything right. A seemingly simple task, finding the perfect teapot was elusive as any great chase.
I first spent hours at the Teaware Museum in HongKong studying the teapots and narrowing down exactly what I wanted in my own "perfect pot." I was amazed to discover the way Yixing pots are hand-modeled (without a wheel) out of what is extremely hard clay. Like any great Literati art, one artist alone is traditionally in charge of the entire process from start to finish and therefore the artist's seal will be affixed to the bottom of the pot as it is in every way that artist's creation: one of a kind.
After looking at pots for weeks, I had decided on darker "purplish-brown" color clay of a geometric or square type (no applique, no color) I set out for days on end scouring the shops and galleries of Hollywood Road and Kowloon. I could spend the rest of my life in Hong Kong, and if I did, I would probably end up walking around Hollywood Road most of those days. In the end, I purchased 3 pots, 2 antique dishes shaped like fans, a set of rare yixing teacups and a little water container over the course of a year's wandering there. Looking at them all again tonite, again I was struck how none of them-- save one-- was quite right. My little water container, with its chocolate color clay and delicately etched plum blossoms-- I am quite sure few would argue it is perfect.
When something is "right" you just know it, don't you? Perfection somehow fits perfectly in your hands(*). It is something you long to touch it the moment your eye rests upon it, and no matter how many times you see it, you always seem to find something new about it; something else to fall in love with. It never ceases to delight you, in fact. That is how I feel about the water container. To me, it is perfect and makes the other less-than perfect acquisitions also somehow seem worthwhile as well-- as if it wasn't for them, I might never have stumbled upon that little water container.
So, what did Lim-sensei uncover in all his experiments? Well, first of all, that green tea can indeed be made using Yixing ware. And, puerh doesn't taste any better with black clay pots. Smaller pots are not a necessity for tie guanyin either. He tells us, "One must be reasonable," and urges us to look at the teapots themselves. For his experiments proved that just as tea connoisseurs have been telling us for a thousand years, the teapots themselves will inform us what tea should or should not be used. The wrong tea, a thousand years of tea teachers have instructed, will make a teapot turn pale and dry. And it will give us a less than perfect cup of tea. Earthenware-- like skin-- does react to heat and chemicals in the tea by changing tone or color-- it is visible to anyone using such a pot, and Lim-sensei urges us to stop and taking a deep breath, take a good hard look.
I originally wrote this is September of last year and less than a month later read that the venerable Lim Kean Siew passed away after suffering a heart attack. Studying at Raffles College in Singapore, Lim went on to study Law at Cambridge University. A magistrate, he later founded and become chairman of the Labor Party of Malaysia. He spent most of his life in his beloved Penang-- which is where he passed away at the age of 85.
Lim's experiments are described in his book, The Beauty of Chinese Yixing Teapots. The photos alone make this a really worthwhile book. Finally, this video is also worth taking a look at as it shows how a yixing teapot is made from start to finish. So much could be said about the video, but I hate to say anything more.
(*) Roland Barthes in his Lover's Discourse describes this perception of perfection using the word "adorable!" The object is loved in their entirety-- a state which no word can describe. For want of a better word, Barthes calls this adorable! I call it perfection which is to say, I love you because I love you-- "not for one or another of [their] qualities, but for everything!"
"By a singular logic, the amorous subject perceives the other as a Whole (in the fashion of Paris on an autumn afternoon), and, at the same time, it involves a remainder, which he cannot express. It is the other as a whole who produces in him an aesthetic vision: he praises the other for being perfect, he glorifies himself for having chosen this perfect other; he imagines that the other wants to be loves, as he himself wants to be loved, not for one or another of his qualities, but for everything, and this everything, he bestows upon the other in the form of a blank word: Adorable!"-- Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse