Teapots, essentially variants on the ewer, seem first to have been manufactured at Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain center, circa 1426-1432. Stoneware teapots from the Yi-xing potteries were in production by 1500 and became the most expensive and desirable pottery for tea. They were developed for China’s kung-fu tea ritual, which also dates from this period of the Ming dynasty and is thus over five hundred years old. Oolong devotees in south China have perfected this elegant way to make unbelievably wonderful tea. The art, besides being a delight in itself, is also a good deal cheaper than other forms of therapy. Kung-fu (gongfu in pinyin spelling) means “skill and practice” or “time and trouble” or “patient effort”. It refers not to the martial arts alone but to the human factor required to master any art. With a little practice using Yi-xing ware to brew tea, your kung-fu will be a wonder to your friends and an abiding pleasure for yourself.
And your tea will be superb. The flavor is so intense and the tea is so concentrated it’s sipped like brandy or liqueur from tiny, thimble-sized cups. After six to ten cups drunk in succession, deliberately and appreciatively, the aftertaste may linger half an hour or more. The whole experience is like a miraculous evening at the theater, the kind that leaves you wondering how such surprising delight was ever invented.
The basic idea is to make concentrated tea in a teapot that in turn is set in a container of boiling water. This procedure maintains high temperature, a critical element in extracting the tea’s flavor. Essentially, you rinse cups and pot with boiling water, then fill the pot one-half to two-thirds full of dry leaf. Rinse the leaf, discard this first water immediately, and refill the pot to steep. After four or five slow breaths, the tea is ready to decant into a small pitcher or directly into the cups. The leaf expands to fill the pot and because so much is used, pot after pot may be steeped with slightly longer time allowed for each. By the time your pot’s an old friend after many uses, it will make tea without leaves, so absorbent is the clay. It is a joy both to look at and to use for a lifetime.
To perform this ritual to perfection, the Chinese have developed a number of accoutrements: a metal or ceramic drainer for discarding water, a deep earthenware saucer or “tea boat” to catch boiling water poured directly over the pot during brewing to keep it as hot as possible, thimble cups with or without saucers and bamboo implements to handle the scalded thimbles and extract the infused leaf when finished. The accoutrements required can be obtained from the same sources that sell guywans. To start, at least, there’s no need for Yi-xing ware made by famous masters which cost thousands.