As if violent storms and vicious pirates were not enough, European trade ships also had to worry about trouble from rival nations. Boarding their ships, stealing the cannon and the cargo, they would usually set fire and sink them, killing everyone on board. Anything to win more ground in the bid to rule the dazzlingly lucrative trade routes that existed between Europe and Southeast Asia and China. From Guangzhou to Malacca, the Desaru almost made her destination-- but alas she was ambushed very close to Malaysian shores.
Ambushed and shipwrecked.
The year was 1830 and the cargo was mostly ceramics. Mainly export-ware quality utility items fired in the kilns of Thailand and Vietnam. There were about 10 large dragon vases, lots of jars and pots-- and among the Chinese ceramics (which comprised 10% of the salvaged cargo), there were some stunning yixing teapots.
My man in Penang-- Lim Kean Siew had a very large collection of yixing teapots. As if the finest education and a lifetime of contribution wasn't enough, upon his retirement from law and politics, Lim 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, and found along with the finest inkstones and jade objects on any scholar's desk, they are prized maybe 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, nothing is more delightful to the senses that yixing clay. A yixing teapot will also 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 (clack!) 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 when we were back in Japan , 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 adore it and think it perfection.
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.
Yes: love=care=really looking.
*This video, 葛陶中制壶全过程, is worth taking a look at to see how yixing pots are entiredly modeled by hand- from start to finish
*This video, the Deseru Shipwreck, is interesting to see the way the yixing teapots were stored inside large ceramic jars or pots
*Lim's experiments are described in his book, The Beauty of Chinese Yixing Teapots.
And Roland Barthes below on the perfection of perfection as being "adorable" whereby: 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
"Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase" (Ambrosius Bosschaert)