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The History of Teaware - Shui Ping Teapot Design

Posted by Boyka Mihaylova on

Pairing a tea with the right teapot in terms of shape and clay type is a question every tea lover faces sooner or later amid their tea journey. It is an ongoing subject of extensive discussions and a never-ending field of experimentation searching for the ultimate tea experience. Clay alone plays a huge role in revealing - or concealing - the true character of the tea. Significant variations in the clay's origin, composition, physical and chemical properties greatly influence the nature of the tea vessel. The same tea can become unrecognizable by brewing it in two different teapots. Furthermore, the teapot shape is another major factor for tea to reveal its inner character. On the contrary, an unsuitable teapot body shape might cause the tea to remain somewhat concealed, withholding its qualities and never living up to its full potential.

Clay and its properties have been a discussion topic more than once, including this blog post. Today we'd like to elaborate more on a classic teapot design and its influence on the tea brewing process. Sometimes, this subject remains shadowed by the ever-mighty quest for the most suitable clay to pair with a specific tea type. It plays, nevertheless, a low-key yet significant role in the way we experience a particular tea, letting it literally unfold in front of our eyes and live up to its full potential. 


In today's blog post, we'll talk about one of the most classic teapot designs, called Shui Ping. People in the southern parts of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau to Malaysia and Singapore particularly appreciate this design, that spread along with the prevailing Gong Fu tea culture. Simultaneously, it has cemented itself as a household name in Yixing's ceramic industry. How did that happen?


Before discussing in-depth the nitty-gritty details of the Shui Ping pot, let's start with a brief history of the teapot as we know it and how it became the vessel of choice for brewing and experiencing tea.


ceramic teapot


A brief history of the ceramic teapot 

It might seem like using a teapot for steeping our tea leaves has been a custom forever. Yet, considering the millennial history of tea, people only recently adopted and turned the ceramic teapot into a designated teaware. Tea prides itself with a history going back as far as five millennia. However, it was neither prepared nor served the way we do it nowadays. 


The pot from Antiquity to Han dynasty

The first documented usage of tea leaves was during the Shang dynasty (1766–1050 BC) in what today forms the South-Eastern territories of China, namely Yunnan and Sichuan. Tea was equally used as a tribute gift to the emperor during the Zhou dynasty. It wasn't before the Han dynasty, though, that tea became a widespread beverage. A contract between a man named Wang Bao and his servant from that time states the duties of the servant that include, among others, "buying tea from Wuyang" 武阳买茶, and "boil tea and prepare utensils" 烹茶尽具.

This humble document communicates two significant milestones in how tea consumption evolved during the Han dynasty's rule. First, tea has become a market commodity, freely available to the middle class. Second is the appearance of utensils dedicated to solely preparing tea for the first time in Chinese history. Although people have been consuming tea for quite a while already, they still utilized already available dishes to prepare it. These were primarily earthen pots used for serving food or wine or wooden bowls for medicinal purposes. 


In 1990, archaeologists managed to unearth a batch of bowls, pots, cups, and other utensils in Shangyu, Zhejiang Province. They were dated from the Eastern Han Dynasty and arguably represented the earliest tea set in the world.


After the earliest tea sets appeared in the Western Han Dynasty, the widespread use of tea sets in society went through a long development. During this transition period, shared tea sets and specialized tea sets took shape and coexisted. Shared use indicates that some tea utensils are dedicated only to preparing tea, and some double as tableware and wine utensils. Although tea has become a drink in people's daily lives, there was a lack of a more profound understanding of the culture and aesthetics of tea, which began to take shape only during the Tang dynasty. 


Tang and Song dynasty - the appearance and flourishment of tea culture

The tea preparing process became more elaborate during the Tang dynasty, and a new vessel appeared - the water-boiling cauldron. The water had to reach the exact boiling temperature when the milled tea powder was swiftly added inside and seasoned with salt - a practice that gradually subsided with the upcoming Song dynasty.

By the time Song came into reign, the tea preparation process had further transformed. Tea bricks were still milled and ground into powder; however, people started to prefer pure tea without additives. New tea utensils emerged - a spouted and handled ceramic bottle for boiling the water and adding it to the tea bowl. The production of Jianzhan tea cups, a representative of the black glazed ceramics, emerged and flourished. Tea was a significant source of aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual quests, putting painters, scholars, priests, and literati alike under its spell. A vast and multilayered culture around tea was gradually taking shape. 


The Song dynasty reign period counts as a golden era in the development of the Chinese empire - it was a time of expansion and abundance. The whole aesthetics of the age was exuding splendor and flamboyance.  


The tea preparation was a lengthy and intricate procedure involving over 20 steps. Gold and silver tea utensils were most favored. Tea makers used molds with ornate designs, and the pressed tea cakes featured complex patterns. Typically, those were accessible only to the rich and noble, including the imperial court. 

Then, once again, a profound change started with the settling of the following Yuan and settled during the Ming dynasty. The dominating aesthetics changed completely and transformed how people prepare and enjoy their tea. Much as we know it today, a new kind of vessel - the ceramic teapot - was born.  


The Ming dynasty - the appearance of the ceramic teapot

The Ming dynasty brought profound changes in society and within the literati circles. New trends aesthetic principles settled in as a reaction against the ongoing display of power and riches. The demonstration of luxury and extravagance got replaced by an aspiration towards austerity and simplicity. The literati sought seclusion and inspiration in nature, and the lavish and expensive gold and silver decorations and utensils receded to more simplistic, natural materials like wood, stone, and ceramic. New artistic concepts emerged for a minimalistic approach, inspired by natural objects and phenomenons. During this time production of ceramics and porcelain reached its heyday. 


During the late Ming dynasty, the clay from the district around today's Yixing established itself as the best clay for the newly emerging teapot production. At the same time, the ареа around today's Jingdezhen asserted itself as a center of ceramic and porcelain production. 

shui ping teaware



The Shui Ping pot history

One of the most prominent teapot artists of the period was Hui Meng Chen. He created a myriad of captivating teapots with clean and functional design, inspired by natural forms and objects. The design of the Shui Ping pot already existed at that time; however, this artist made it widespread and turned it into the timeless classic it is today.

Hui Meng Chen designed a series of pots called zhū ní xiǎo pǐn 朱泥小品. Zhū ní, also called vermillion mud, is a type of red clay with excellent pot-making properties. The zhu ni xiao pin pots came in smaller than usual size, preferred by tea drinkers in the southern parts of China. One of them was the Shui Ping pot.

The Shui Ping design interpretation of Hui Meng Chen was by far its most successful version ever. Its clean lines, minimalistic approach, and simplistic yet functional body became a favorite among tea drinkers in high society and ordinary people. So much so that people started to call this small vermillion pot "Meng Chen" instead. 

Southerners quickly adopted the design and spread it along, making it an integral part of the emerging Gong Fu Cha culture. To this day, you can notice people in many areas call the Shui Ping pot "Meng Chen" instead. 


The evolution of Shui Ping design - legend vs. reality

There is a story about how the Shui Ping pot came to be. People in Guangdong had a particular liking for more miniature teapots. However, their limited capacity hindered tea making process. The small body caused the tea liquor to cool off too quickly, and the insufficient space for water didn't allow a proper infusion of the tea leaves.

The clever southerners thought of a workaround by creating a new way to make tea: they placed the pot on a large plate filled with boiling water. This way, they killed two birds with one stone: the boiling water in the dish preserved the heat of the tea soup for longer. Additionally, it generated enough heat inside the pot to better infuse the tea leaves. 

However, new problems arose. Different shapes and out-of-balance proportions caused the teapot to lose balance in the water and roll over easily. Moreover, water occasionally leaked inside the vessel, altering the taste of the tea. People had to invent a new design to overcome these troubles. That led to the creation of Shui Ping, which name translates as "leveled".


So, how did the ancients tackle those problems, creating in the process a design that remains as fresh and relevant today as it was almost half a millennium ago?


Main features of the Shui Ping pot

First, let's have a closer look at the spout of the Shui Ping. Unlike other Yixing designs, it faces upwards, looking towards the sky. This simple twitch makes it harder for the surrounding water to reach the opening and come through. At the same time, it eliminates the dripping water after the pouring. Indeed, Shui Ping is a pot design that is least prone to leaking compared to other counterparts.

Second, Shui Ping pots have a steady, proportionate design, accounting for an outstanding balance. There are three basic rules for achieving this:

  1. The lid and the walls always need to have the same thickness.
  2. The spout and the handle should have precisely the same weight. This step alone is very cumbersome, as those need to be separately weighed and measured before compiling the elements of the pot.
  3. This pot adheres to the "three points and a line" principle, where the spout, the lid, and the handle should merge into one straight horizontal line.  


The three rules ensure correct positioning of the gravity center and balanced weight distribution, preventing the pot from tilting and rolling over in the boiling water. To this day, the Shui Ping design remains one of the most balanced and proportionate classic teapot designs.


Based on Mengchen pot, the Shui Ping pot has become an industry standard in today's ceramic market, followed and used by Zisha artisans. The design pairs well with clays like red mud (hong ni), vermillion mud (zhu ni), and purple mud (zisha, zini). The Shui Ping shape is especially suitable for broad-leafed, high aroma tea types like Guangdong Dan Cong OolongsSheng Pu-erh, and Fujian oolongs to reveal their full potential. The pot's ample round belly gives enough space for big leaves to open up fully and concentrate their intense aromatic bouquet. Look for a pot with a clean appearance, attractive color, and crisp and pleasant metallic sound when the lid and the pot body touch.