History, One Cup at a Time

Another bless­ing shared by tea lovers is the rich his­tory that has been handed down to us by our predecessors.

It is trans­mit­ted in the form of rit­u­als, writ­ings, and trea­sured objects that have been pre­served for our present enrich­ment, and to be passed down yet again.

In some cir­cles, the high­est form of tan­gi­ble tea his­tory is said to be the Ido chawan.

The Ido story begins in Korea, where pot­ters made these rus­tic bowls for every­day use. Many say they were intended as rice bowls. The wheel-thrown shapes were rough; often uneven or show­ing fin­ger marks.

Another sign of their hum­ble begin­nings are the wads of clay in the cen­ter of the bowl. This tech­nique was used to stack sev­eral tea bowls together in order to fire a larger load, with­out allow­ing the glaze on the piled bowls to fuse together.

It is not clear when this style of pot­tery first became known in Japan, but by the time of Sen no Rikyu and his dis­ci­ples, the bowls were touted as among the purest expres­sion of their wabi esthetic, and highly prized by both the tea men and their patrons.

There were other types of Korai (Korean) bowls imported by the Japan­ese cha­jin, but Yamanoue Soji is cred­ited with iden­ti­fy­ing the Ido bowl as the best among them. He even selected an Ido chawan for the col­lec­tion of Toy­otomi Hideyoshi.

Another dis­ci­ple of Rikyu, Oribe Furuta, sought inspi­ra­tion from this pot­tery in order to infuse more of their wabi char­ac­ter into his own chawan designs.

Look­ing to get even closer to this ideal, he sought to under­stand the con­struc­tion of the Korean climb­ing kilns, and recre­ate them in Japan.

Due to the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the style, Japan­ese began mak­ing com­mis­sions to Korean pot­ters or send­ing their own designs for teabowls to be fired in the climb­ing kilns. Unfor­tu­nately, with the cha­jin in ser­vice of the war thirsty Hideyoshi, this vol­un­tary trade soon turned very bloody for the Koreans.

Hideyoshi had deluded him­self into think­ing that he could cap­ture the many riches of China, if only Korea would guar­an­tee him safe pas­sage through their penin­sula. When the Korean envoy rejected these terms, Hideyoshi pressed on to war any­way. He never reached China, but the Japan­ese army razed the set­tle­ments of Korea almost beyond repair. As a spoils of war, they returned with dozens of Korean pot­ters as their cap­tives, and set them to work back in Japan.

From that point on, the nation of Japan con­tin­ued to toil at extract­ing the wabi essence of the Ido chawan, but the orig­i­nal is still con­sid­ered the pin­na­cle of the form.

The cha­jin strug­gled with the idea of cre­at­ing wabi, as mak­ing some­thing that appeared to be with­out inten­tion was nat­u­rally an inten­tion itself. Per­haps the fail­ure to sur­pass the char­ac­ter of the Ido chawan is proof that no amount of force (of will or mil­i­tary con­quest) is capa­ble of coerc­ing real beauty.

Per­haps reach­ing for some­thing and never quite grasp­ing is part of what wabi is about, after all. One may never reach this state of imper­fec­tion per­fectly, but while we pon­der it, we have Ido to enjoy.

Fur­ther read­ing:
Chanoyu Quar­terly #18
Dawan, Chawan, Chas­s­bal
Toki
War­rior Tea Man (Manga)

Silver Lining

For a few years now, I’ve been watch­ing the patina grow on my favorite teapot.

In the West­ern mar­ket, tea drinkers often end up buy­ing a few pots in the begin­ning that don’t quite “fit.”

Maybe the size is wrong, the clay is poor, or is sim­ply not a match to any of our desired teas. Per­haps the shape and crafts­man­ship are just not pleas­ing to us.

Own­ing bad teapots, expe­ri­enced col­lec­tors will remind you, is “tuition” that helps you start to rec­og­nize bet­ter teapots from the others.

After a hand­ful of these tuition pots, this shui ping was the first pot I pur­chased with both excel­lent clay and artistry, and it has been in con­tin­u­ous use ever since.

A few months ago, I knocked it off the table and onto the floor while rush­ing to set up for tea. I could hardly stand to look at the dam­age, let alone take a photo. There was noth­ing to be glued back together, the tip of the spout was com­pletely pulverized.

By some mir­a­cle, teachum Pamela was on the scene — with a Master’s degree in jew­elry design and a pen­chant for dig­ging up unusual materials.

Inspired by a 19th cen­tury repair, she crafted a sil­ver cap to replace the dam­aged part of the spout.

For bond­ing, she man­aged to secure a small amount of med­ical grade sil­i­cone along with a hard­en­ing agent. This is the same stuff used in pros­thetic limbs, and now, in pros­thetic teapots.

With its new spout affixed, my teapot is back in fight­ing shape, and look­ing bet­ter than ever. It seems like it might even pour a bit faster than before.

I couldn’t be more pleased to be brew­ing in my favorite pot once again.

The Beauty of Yixing

“The old teapot is dif­fer­ent from the newer teapot because… the crafts­man­ship is very obvious.”

“It’s abil­ity… when it’s per­fect, but not mechanic. When it’s mechanic — it’s like you are print­ing a straight line with a com­puter, using a printer. But if you draw a per­fect line with your bare hand, that’s the beauty of art.”

Kingston teaches us about a pair of late Qing dynasty Shui Ping style Yix­ing teapots — made of Duan Ni clay — for King Rama V of Thailand.

After­wards, lead­ing lady Dae took some great pho­tos of the pots.

Evaluating Yixing Teapots — Part Two

This is Part Two in a two part series about eval­u­at­ing Yix­ing pots.
It is inspired in part by Michael Wong of The Tea Gallery.

And Now the Conclusion…

After test­ing the pot with water, the log­i­cal next step is to add tea to the equation.

The most obvi­ous thing to do might be to add some leaves, hot water, and taste some tea.

Instead, this test allows you to dimin­ish the dif­fer­ences in ther­mal prop­er­ties or pour times that might add vari­ables in such an exper­i­ment, and focus for the moment on the effect of the clay on the tea liquor.

To have enough tea for the exper­i­ment, brew two rounds of tea in a gai­wan and com­bine them in your fair­cup. Fill the pre­heated teapot with half of the tea for the pitcher, and once again leave it for a moment.

In your match­ing cups, serve one cup per guest with water from the pitcher — being brewed in the gai­wan, this has no influ­ence from the pot.

Next fill the sec­ond set of cups with tea from the pot, either directly or from a sep­a­rate fair­cup. Taste the tea side by side and make note of the dif­fer­ences. We did our test­ing with an aged Lao Cong Shui Xian, and found that high flo­ral notes were muted by the teapot. This might sug­gest that I was cor­rect in pair­ing this pot with much deeper Hong Kong style roasts.

To expand on this idea, you should of course repeat this process with other teas. But I also like to share with guests the com­par­a­tive strengths and weak­nesses of two teapots by per­form­ing this method side by side. Instead of serv­ing tea straight from the gai­wan and then from the pot, sim­ply com­pare tea left in two dis­tinct pots.

I can’t wait to hear what addi­tional exper­i­ments you come up with.

Cred­its: Pho­tog­ra­phy by Dae. Hand­some mod­el­ing by David. Nar­rated by Majel Barrett.

Evaluating Yixing Teapots — Part One

This is Part One in a two part series about eval­u­at­ing Yix­ing pots.
It is inspired in part by Michael Wong of
The Tea Gallery.


The world of Yix­ing teapots can some­times seem a daunt­ing mys­tery. Among tea lovers, few sub­jects gar­ner so many strong opin­ions. Pref­er­ences among col­lec­tors can be based on size or shape of the pot, the type or qual­ity of clay, age, or craftsmanship.

In this short series, we make no claims about the desir­abil­ity of any of the above prop­er­ties. Instead, we offer a series of exper­i­ments to aid you in eval­u­at­ing any type of teapot. We hope they will be use­ful in both eval­u­at­ing new teapots, and per­form­ing a “check up” on a well-loved pot.

  

As all tea begins with water, so does our explo­ration of Yix­ing. You should stick to the water you use most often and are best acquainted, avoid­ing things that might change the tex­ture of the water. Since I have been using the Maifan stones for most teas recently and have become accus­tomed to their influ­ence, I decided to keep them for this test.

Begin by fill­ing the teapot with water (bonus points for test­ing both cool and boiled water), leav­ing it some time to min­gle with the clay. Decant. Serve iden­ti­cal cups of water directly from the source, and from the pot. Note the differences.

Does the water have a thicker feel­ing, a last­ing feel­ing in the mouth, or any fla­vors picked up from the pot? From this par­tic­u­lar pot, we noticed both a live­li­ness in the mouth and a slight flo­ral taste. The pot is heav­ily sea­soned with Wuyi tea.

Also note any feel­ing to occur in your throat, pos­i­tive or negative.

When pour­ing water from the pot, also take spe­cial notice of two things.

First, how long does it take to empty the pot. Is it dif­fi­cult to empty all water from the pot? (I most often have this prob­lem with ball shaped filters.)

A long pour (> 10-15s) can be detri­men­tal to your brew­ing of sen­si­tive teas. Remem­ber to fac­tor pour times into your brew­ing. Also watch for drips, usu­ally from the front of the lid. It is not uncom­mon for even a well crafted pot like this one to lose a few drops when you first start pour­ing. Exces­sive drib­bles or drips after the very start of the pour could give a pot neg­a­tive marks — but some old pots are beau­ti­ful enough to use in spite of their flaws.

Take your obser­va­tions on changes in water and try to imag­ine how these qual­i­ties might be a ben­e­fit or dis­ad­van­tage to your favorite teas.

Read on to Part Two, where we exam­ine the effect of the clay pot on tea.

Cred­its: Pho­tog­ra­phy by Dae. Hand­some mod­el­ing by David.

Best Friends

Today we had a chance to exam­ine a beau­ti­ful pair of pewter teapots from the Qing Dyanasty. They are owned respec­tively by a pair of real life tea pals.

The han­dle of the smaller pot was expertly repaired with sil­ver “nails.” The repair is indica­tive of work­man­ship from long past.

The tall pot had its orig­i­nal spout carved from stone.

So it goes in the case of these two col­lec­tors, and many oth­ers among us, that your favorite tea buds are also friendly rivals.

The mod­ern inher­i­tor of Chi­nese tea cul­ture is striv­ing to demon­strate the finest tea, teaware, and hos­pi­tal­ity to his friends, and often will come into com­pe­ti­tion for the same rare items. When admir­ing a piece that we lost out on to a good friend, our say­ing goes like this — “I loved it first!”

The ear­li­est story I have heard of such friendship/rivalries dates back to the Han Dynasty, where the Impe­r­ial Court and the Emperor him­self trav­eled to hold for­mal tea com­pe­ti­tions in Wuyi, demon­strat­ing their taste and skill. Gath­er­ings of tea pals are pop­u­lar in the area to this day, and it was only a mat­ter of time for this tra­di­tion to find its way to the New Continent.

Royal Orchid Tea Museum

We made our sec­ond trip to the Royal Orchid Tea Museum, cur­rently under a seri­ous pro­gram of improvements.

The event car­ried a water theme — an exhi­bi­tion of Shui Pin Yix­ing teapots from Ming to mod­ern, and, a sam­pling of sev­eral Shui Xian teas.

I offered two pots of my own — 1970s hong ni and 1930s zi ni. Kai sug­gested my elder pot was orig­i­nally made for export to Japan.

To break up sev­eral rounds of Shui Xian, we also enjoyed a spe­cial puerh from old trees. The bun­dle of leaves was so large that we had to cut it in half to fit in the widest gai­wan we could find.

I was allowed to exper­i­ment with a Japan­ese sil­ver ket­tle — one of the most stun­ning pieces of teaware in the col­lec­tion. The freshly boiled water really punched up some 90s puerh I was brew­ing, but did lit­tle for my pot of Shui Xian, already gone flat after many brews.