Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The big cheeses and purple clay teapots

By J. Jia

Ancient China is the birthplace of tea, and the Chinese boast an ideal material for making teaware - Yixing purple clay. For hundreds of years, from emperors to celebrities, a number of people have one common ground -- they adore tea and purple clay teapots. Here, you can learn about two of these great men. From their stories, you may realize how much purple clay teapots have some to mean in China.

Ancient poet Su Dongpo (1037 - 1101) and his original purple clay teapot

Su Dongpo was the most eminent writer of the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279). His works feature an unconstrained and enthusiastic style. Chinese people are so lucky that Su has left some 4,000 ancient poems to them. Besides, he was also a very famous calligrapher and painter.

The funny thing is that Su enjoyed tea and purple clay teapots very much, and he created a well-known pot of his own style called a Dongpo Cross Beam Pot.

Su once lived in Yixing, the only area where purple clay is found, for some time. He used to enjoy tea when doing with his creative work. But what got on his nerves was that the teapots at that time were usually rather small, so he had to keep brewing tea at short intervals. This kept him from concentrating on his work.

So he set out to invent a bigger pot, with a large handle to help him carry it. He took some of the local clay, but time after time failed in making a pot that could match his dream.

Then finally, as the poor poet was still worrying about the pot, a boy attendant came over and invited Su to enjoy a small meal with him. Su's face lit up as soon as he took notice of a lantern in the boy's hand. "Great! I will make a large teapot based on this lantern!" he thought.

After just a few tries, Su perfected the lantern-shaped teapot. But there was a problem: it was heavy and slick, so no one could hold it. Even attaching the standard teapot handle was not enough. After thinking for some time, Su crafted a long, U-shaped handle that hung over the pot and attached to both the front and back. This handle was easy to carry, and gave great leverage when pouring tea out of the large belly of the pot.

From then on, Su often enjoyed tea carrying the 'beam' of his large purple clay teapot. He loved this pot as if it was his own son. To memorize this uniquely shaped teapot, a lot of potters have tried to imitate it. They named this kind of pot after the famous writer: Dongpo Cross Beam Pot.

Here's a photo of one such pot, taken in Su's old home:

A famous emperor and purple clay teapots

The Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty was one of the oldest emperors in history and ruled for one of the longest periods of time.

One of his secrets to healthiness was enjoying tea every day. Here's one of his comments: "A king is not supposed to live without tea even just for one day." It tells us how important enjoying tea was in his life. He used to travel to all parts of his country dressed as ordinary people, and he savored all kinds of Chinese tea.

As a tea connoisseur, Qianlong also called for Yixing purple clay teapots to match his tea. So he amassed a large collection of first-rank purple clay teapots, as he thought it was very clear that a good purple clay teapot could bring out the original color, scent, and taste of his tea. He boasted their superior quality and functions. He called purple clay teapots 'The best tea ware on earth.'

Emperor Qianlong appointed specialists to select the best purple clay teapots from Yixing, or to design the most appealing styles. Favored by emperors like Qianlong, Yixing purple clay teapots earned a great reputation soon. Nowadays, people are proud of owning good purple clay teapots. Although we have no chance to being an emperor for even one day, we can pick a purple clay teapot and experience the pleasure that emperors used to have.

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