Thursday, January 12, 2006

Zhuni clay is extinct!

This news came as a shock to me! It means that all modern zhuni teapots are fake, doesn't it? Even my 2 round zhuni teapots? I have made a thorough investigation in the last 36 hours and here are my results.

1. Date of 'relative' extinction.

A first (very lengthy, interesting, but sometimes incorrect article) dates the extinction in the 1970s. A more precise date of 1973 is confirmed here (in Chinese). That's the year when the main mine for zhuni clay got extinct. I write main, because zhuni clay can still be found, albeit in very small quantity, in other Yixing red clay mines. Besides, the extinction is only relative for several reasons:
- like for most natural resources, it's impossible to tell for sure how much and where there is some left in the ground. With luck, or funds for wide scale exploration, a new zhuni mine may be discovered one day. So far, with other clays available and cheap, there is not enough financial incentive to invest in digging for new zhuni mines.
- some potters still have inventories of zhuni clay dating back to before 1973, when zhuni was mined in big quantities.

2. Buyers beware

This means that over 90% of modern zhuni teapots currently on the market are fake. Such teapots are made with a mix of red clay, zisha clay and/or other hard stones. Some unscrupulous business people even add chemicals to the clay. This practice, unfortunately, is not limited to the copying of zhuni but of any kind of yixing teapot.

3. How to distinguish a zhuni from a red clay teapot?

Teaparker showed us the characteristics of a zhuni: under the surface, it's like there is some sand. It becomes even more apparent when the teapot is warm. This explanation also fits the name zhu-ni, which means red-sand. Let's notice that the name is not zhu-sha (like in zisha, purple sand). Ni refers to bigger sand like in Nitu (cement), while sha refers to smaller sand like baisha (in white sand beach).

4. Are my teapots of real, pure zhuni?

Yes, they are. My Taiwanese potter had been cooperating with the former State owned Yixing factory for some time, and 15 years ago approximately he bought a big inventory of zhuni clay from that factory. So far, he has used up half this original clay. He guarantees they are real and would compensate 10 times the value of one teapot if he were proven wrong, he told me as I was asking the tough questions.

If, like me, you don't want to take his word but want a second opinion from a reliable expert, let's turn to Teaparker. From his website, you can see that he is not very much into selling tea or teaware. Almost all his focus is on writing books about the world of Chinese gongfu cha. I'm his student and probably a little bit biased in his favor, but it's a fact that he enjoys a high standing in Taiwan's tea world. Just last Saturday, Ma Ying Jeou, the popular mayor of Taipei, Chairman of the KMT party, took part in a tasting of wild pu-erh with Teaparker.

With all his knowledge and experience, Teaparker confirms that these teapots are made of pure zhuni clay. He even goes as far as putting the logo of his website, which is the name of the non profit tea association he chairs ("Cha Jen Ya Hsin") on one of the teapots (see picture). Hereby, Teaparker is committing what is most valuable to him: his reputation. If this were a fake and he couldn't tell, his reputation would be trashed. However, since his usage of this teapot shows him that he gets the same results as with his old zhuni, he is able to endorse a rare modern zhuni teapot that makes very fragrant tea and is still affordable.

5. Is the teapot created by a renowned Master?

No. Otherwise, the price would easily be 10 times higher. This potter has decided to apply his brand name under the teapot. The chop of the skilled and experienced craftsman who made the pot is placed under the cover. His philosophy is to make good teapots that are simply aimed at brewing tea as well as possible.

6. Why didn't he tell they how rare zhuni clay is?

Teaparker often warns us when a tea or some teaware comes with a story. This is usually just sales talk aimed at increasing the price. Since the extinction is not widely known among consumers, the potter doesn't want to use the rarity of zhuni to promote these teapots. More important than the 'story' is the function of his zhuni teapots: they make very fragrant oolong and puerh because zhuni is harder and less porous than zisha.

7. Why do I tell you then?

The principle of my blog is transparency and advanced gongfu cha knowledge. I write down and share what I learn and discover in the Chinese tea world. Some of you may have heard about it elsewhere, so it was important to clarify this issue.

14 comments:

luc said...

I appreciate the transparency of your blog. Thanks for charing these informations, the issue is very significant and I learnt a great deal about Zhuni clay and teapots !

alain thé said...

And what about Zi sha which is also a clay coming from Yixing ? is it a good clay ?

Stephane said...

Zi sha (purple sand) is a very good clay. It's more porous than zhuni. It's not extict in Yixing, but not all purple teapots are zisha. Many are fakes made with cheap clay mixed with purple chemicals.

Anonymous said...

Stephane:
How do you determine whether a tea is old enough for your aged sheng teapot? Is there a specific age or some other cut-off point that you use to determine this? Or is it based on your assessment of how far the leaves have gotten in the aging process (regardless of how old the cake is)?
Thanks,
Mike

Stephane said...

It can not be linked simply to age. Different puers, in different shapes (loose, qizi bing, zhuan...) and different storing conditions will all influence the aging speed.
So this depends on your own tasting and the teas you have. It can be tricky if you have teas from each year. For me it's easier: I have no tea between 1991 and 2000. So what's earlier than 2000 is young and what's older than 1991 is old (for me).

Anonymous said...

I recently acquired a Ching dynasty teapot made from Tianqing clay. Is this clay more valueable than Zhuni clay? Its grey colour and look very old with many traces of stained old tea.

Stephane said...

Hello Birmingham!

Talk to economists and you'll find out that "value" is a very tricky concept.
In terms of scarcity, Tianqing should be more valuable than zhuni as it went extinct long time ago.

Another more straightforward way to look at it is the price you paid! Did you mortage your house or did you the amount only involve 3 figures (of British Pounds)? or even less?

Then there is the utility you will make of it: will it end up gathering dust on one of your shelves or will use use it daily? And if you use it daily, will you first clean it and use it for the right tea, or will you use it incorrectly? Then the result could be even worse than if made with a 2 figues modern Yixing teapot!

There are many ways to look at a teapot and many ways to look at its value. But if you bought it, then something must have moved you (other than the prospect of reselling it at a profit), and therefore we congratulate you. I just wish you'd send me a picture of your antique Tianqing teapot...
stephane_erler@hotmail.com

Anonymous said...

What does "Tianqing" really stands for? Anyway I am slightly colour blind but from what I can see from the colour it is a kind of darkish old greyish green colour with speckle of tiny yellowish sand all over. its has Chinese character on one side and I think its one of the Mensheng teapot. Not sure who made it but there seems to be a kao of the maker and appraisal inscription on the base.
I like to use it but I may take it to the museum in Liverpool to have it authenticated, if interested I may loan it to them for display since they recently opened an Asian Exhibition section.

Stephane said...

Tianqing? Don't know, but I will ask...

Andy said...

I happen to have a 2-figures yixing teapot because I don't have that much money for teaware. Will it be so bad if I season it correctly for many years?

Stephane said...

Andy,
Most of the teapots in my selection are 2 figures. A good teapot doesn't have to cost much more. Yours could be good or bad, independently from the seasoning. Just compare the result with a gaiwan and you'll see the impact of your teapot. Good or bad.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephane,

I had some old zhisa teapots, some are antique and some are old (before 1985) but I am not sure that which is zhuni one. I 'd like to send their photos for your consideration. Might you help me? I have subscribe into your blog with email amtusa@gmail.com, please feedback through it. Thanks in advance,

Tusa,Vietnamese

Anonymous said...

Hello, thank you for your very informative post. Will you please kindly share where's a good place online to purchase yixing teapots? Cheers!

Stephane said...

Hello Anonymous,
Buying good Yixing teapots online is difficult.
I have some in my selection and I recommend you contact with at: stephane_erler@yahoo.com if you're interested.