For those of you just tuning into Tea People labs, in the beginning of the year, our team traveled to China and Taiwan on a trip to source all things tea. These are our stories... #sourced.
China is known for more than just their amazing loose leaf teas. There is also an ancient culture of making tea related ceramic ware. There are a variety of different styles popular today. The style most familiar to the west is actually called "china", but there is another style more specific to tea: "purple clay" (紫砂). The name refers to the specific kind of clay used to make the pots themselves. Interestingly enough, all authentic purple clay ceramics come from the same place. A place called Yixing (宜兴) in Jiangsu province.
We wanted to find out more about the process behind making these pots, and what really goes into the creation of a single pot. During our 2016 sourcing trip, our team set out to explore and understand the culture and process behind purple clay ceramics. We found something no industrial factory could ever replicate; a thriving community all working together with a common goal and common interest.
We were brought to Yixing by a our local friend Mr. Fu. Immediately, it was obvious that the whole town was centered around purple clay tea pots and tea. Store after store advertised "Top Grade Purple Clay Pots" or "One-of-a-kind Purple Clay Pots". Mr. Fu's family owns a tea ware shop on the main strip of Yixing, so that was our first stop. As soon as we entered the shop we were warmly greeted by Mr. Fu's relative Ms. Jiang.
Ms. Jiang told us the shop was more of a retail space even though they made their tea ware on site. Their studio was more hidden to the public. Ms. Jiang explained to us how they used molds and schematics to make their pots. This method allowed them to easily train new employees and create consistent products. She also explained to us how they get their raw clay from a communal mining plot.
To find out more in depth about purple clay, we were told to visit a "master's studio." To get there, we drove through one way streets and finally arrived at an unmarked store in a small alley. The first floor was a large room with three students working on their own tea pots. The room was silent and the students were very intensely working on their creations; heads down and completely quiet. We were told not to interrupt them because their training involved rigorous attention to detail and craft. This training was to ultimately gain the status of a "master" tea ceramist.
Making our way to the master's studio, the halls were lined with exquisite purple clay tea pots all on their own shelves. Thick smoke crawled through the air out of a small room in the back where we found the master smoking and crafting a pot. We asked him about his technique and he told us that every single pot he made was conceived from his memory. He never wrote down any schematics or used a mold like the ceramists we had visited and heard about before. Everything he made was an extension of his own creative mind.
After meeting the master, Mr. Liu brought us back to his personal office to drink more tea. He told us how the entire Yixing town was a community of artists who worked together. He said that while the majority of purple clay tea pots in foreign markets are made with preset molds and mass produced, within Yixing itself, there is a well developed network of artisans that are willing to help each other and cultivate each others skill sets.
We left Yixing with a few new tea pots and a wealth of knowledge to contemplate. It was truly amazing to experience an entire community that dedicated itself to carrying out an ancient tradition. Seeing the various levels of purple clay ceramic production was proof that any ancient art form still has application in our modern world. Not only were the artists making aesthetically beautiful pieces, they were making one of a kind tools for tea lovers around the world to use to make their tea with.