At the first sight of this collection, one feels a rising burst of exhilaration mixed with awe. The eye dances back and forth between a multitude of treasures—here is an intricately carved cinnabar pot, bright as a jazz solo; there a Ming Dynasty masterpiece, simple as a Shaker hymn. A square pot brightly painted with scholars quaffing tea shares shelf space with utilitarian wares designed for the export trade. There are pots that are plain, painted, embossed, overlaid with pewter, decorated with dogs, water buffalos, and fanciful dragons. Yet these diverse vessels share a trait—they are all made from a material called purple sand, or zisha.
This unique product is found only in China’s Jiangsu province, near the city of Yixing, a pottery center since time immemorial. Purple clay has qualities that sound almost human—it is flexible, can breathe, and retains warmth. Its plasticity makes it the ideal medium for the appliqué ornamentation that enriches many Yixing pots. Because of its high mica and quartz content, it emerges from the kiln with a silky sheen, requiring no glaze. But more important than these characteristics is the clay’s ability to breathe and retain warmth—both functions of a remarkable porosity that makes Yixing tea wares the most sought after in the world.
Purple clay has been fired in Yixing District since the Soong Dynasty, but only after the first Ming emperor, Hongwu, ascended the throne did the teapot as we know it appear. Yixing teapots from Hongwu’s time are elegant in form but largely undecorated. Later, innovative potters like Gong Chun began using ornamental appliqués and varied shapes, creating the style of pottery called hua ho. Gong Chun made large wares, often reminiscent of gourds and pumpkins. The use of exaggerated natural objects as decorative motifs is a hallmark of his work.