A generation later, the celebrated Shi Dabin pioneered the use of small, one-person pots, renowned for a glittering finish reminiscent of a star-filled sky. Yixing tradition evolved to embrace all sizes of vessels and eventually included painted, inscribed, and inlaid teapots.
When the first wave of tea washed over Europe in the 1600s, purple sand ware rode along on the crest. Small pots of zisha clay were the universal method for brewing the new beverage. Packed amongst tea leaves to prevent breakage, they filled the hulls of the East India Company’s ships, and a healthy export trade kept the Yixing kilns humming.
The large porcelain teapots we know today appeared 100 years later when the British gained control of the black-tea market and introduced blends. These mixtures of different teas were chopped so finely that large pots with filters were devised to prepare them.
Sitting in the Orchid Tea House, one is surrounded by mute objects that have witnessed these developments and in company with the erudite man who can give them voice. Part collector, part scholar, and part connoisseur, Kingston Lam knows not only the provenance of each piece he owns but also its context in the rich tapestry of Chinese history.
Born in rural Fujian province, in a village still strong in the old ways, Kingston came to the United States with his family when he was 14. On a trip home to China a few years later, he saw a couple of Yixing pots at a local market. “I bought them—I wanted to brew tea and see if they were really better.”