Chinese ceramic culture appeared in the 16th century BC (Shang Dynasty), and had fully developed by the Eastern Han Dynasty, by which time celadon ceramics had already had 1,600 years of continuous production history. A thousand years later, by the Song Dynasty, the shape Chinese ceramics had fully matured from these ancient roots. Zisha ceramics had a different history, however. While it too inherited its cultural foundation from ancient china, Zisha gradually developed for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until the Wanli Period of the Ming Dynasty that it totally matured. By around 1600 AD, Zisha ware had become a unique category of Chinese works of art.
Zisha ware, especially zisha teapots, is one of the mysterious arts of China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties. One of the great mysteries of this art is that while there are many historical records documenting this art, to this day its history and makers still remain relatively unknown. Another particularity of this art is its material—although ceramics were invented by many world cultures and share many common characteristics, including common ceramic clay materials, purple clay has only been discovered in Yixing China. To this day, ordinary people have a difficult time telling the authentic purple clay from other similar ceramic clays. Zisha’s beauty is dependent on its unique dark and matte color. Of the many zisha forms, it is the zisha teapot, which is most cherished because it is beautiful as well as functional. To fully experience these teapot’s beauty we must appreciate tea and enjoy drinking tea. During the tea ceremony, we communicate with the pot and can sense its beauty during the entire process. If we only buy zisha teapots as an investment to put in the closet, then we loose the ability to fully enjoy the teapot.
From the 17th century (late Ming period) to the 1950s and 60s, the production and major market of Yixing zisha wares was always in Shushan South Street, Dingshu Town in Yixing City.
紫砂泥 Zisha Clay紫砂泥是紫泥、本山绿泥和红泥三种泥料的统称。紫砂泥是矿体，夹杂在陶土的甲泥矿和嫩泥矿内，开采时质坚如石。陶土开采出来以后，经人工挑选出紫砂泥，所以，紫砂泥又有”泥中泥，岩中岩”之称。宜兴陶土矿中，紫砂泥含量仅占百分之几的比例。它们即可以单独用作原料，也可以相互掺配制壶，这三种色都有深浅不同的色差。
Zisha clay encompasses three categories of clay: purple clay (zini), benshan green clay (benshan lvni), and red clay (hongni). Zisha clay is mineral based, with jia mud and soft mud mineral deposits mixed in. When excavated, the material it is very hard and has to be refined by skilled hands, which is why zisha clay is called “mud from mud, stone from stone.” Among yixing clay mines, zisha clay deposits only account for a few percent. Once unearthed, the material can either be used directly as raw ceramic material or it can be mixed together with other clays. The three categories of clay also have different dark and light colors.
练泥 Refinement of the Clay，岩石自矿层中开采出来以后，露天堆放，风吹雨打数月后，自然松散如黄豆大小，再碾碎，用不同规格的筛网筛选后，倒在容器中加适量的水拌匀，就地掇成湿泥块，这就是俗称的生泥；再用木槌压打，重复数十次，即成为可以用来直接制作紫砂器的熟泥。
After the zisha stone is unearthed it is put into the air for several months, and it will become brittle and turn into pebbles as big as beans. Afterwards the material is milled, and refined by different sized sieves. This power material is then poured into containers with some water and kneaded into bricks of zisha clay. This is what is called raw clay. Finally, the raw clay is beaten with wooden mallets as many as ten times at which point it can be directly used to make zisha ware. This clay is known as matured clay.
There are basically two ways to prepare zisha clay, by hand and by machine. In the Classified Collection of Qing Dynasty Notes (Qing Bai Lei Chao), the book describes the typical method of hand production: “when the clay is freshly transported out of the mountain, it is as big as coal bricks. Then it is beaten by mallets several times, sieved and the refined parts are collected in a pool with plenty of water. After several months the coarse elements begin to sink down so that the most refined clay can be found at the top level. When the refined clay has good tackiness it can then be directly used for making the wares.” In later times, after industrialization, the process of “beating by the mallet” improved. Instead of being milled into clay power, stone wheels were used for this step, and instead of using a sieve, a Ramon grinder was used instead. Wind power is utilized to control the amount of powder that is made, water is added and the mixture is first put into the refining machine and then again into a vacuum refining machine. In this way, the material finally becomes the mature clay that can be used for clay ware.
成型 Shaping the Clay，紫砂艺人制作紫砂壶时，从打泥片、裁切泥料到成型后的精加工，每做一道工序都要变换一次相应的工具，所以长期以来，紫砂艺人已形成特有的生产习惯，每做一式必有好几把。做紫砂壶，在选好某种款式后，总是一”市”一”市”地做。所谓”市”，就是同时制作的一批紫砂壶，一”市”砂壶一起有序地施技加工。每”市”做多少，要看档次的高低及各人的习惯，一市多则十多把，少则三、五把，因为是同一”市”的茶壶，所用泥料相同；但是，又因为紫砂壶是手工制作，所以同一市的茶壶之间仍会有细微的差别。新手开始做种新造型时，由于没有模型，要做到满意，总要做到三市以上才能达到标准，俗话说的”三市不入样”，就是这个道理。
Preparing zisha clay begins by first by beating the mature clay into flat pieces, which are then cut and finally shaped by hand in a process requiring high levels of craftsmanship. From the beginning to the end, each step in preparing zisha requires different tools and therefore it is common for each maker to have special methods for completing the work. For example, several potters might simultaneously work on several pots, each focusing on creating one of the parts at one time. As soon as a zisha model is chosen, makers always produce more than one, this is what is called streamlined “batch by batch” production. During each batch, the potter determines how many pots are made, it can be more than ten or as few as three. Because they are all in the same batch, the pieces are made from the same clay material but because they are handmade, each piece might have slight differences. When a new zisha model is created, because there is no mould to base it off of, it often takes at least three batches for the maker to reach a satisfactory result. There is an old proverb that says, “the first three batches are usually not good enough.”
烧成 Firing Zisha Ware，烧成时，窑中的温差对烧成效果有很大的关系。每一种泥料有一定的烧成温度，若与自身最佳温度有高低5℃之差，就会出现太老或者太嫩的缺憾，因此，一把好的茶壶烧到最佳效果并不是轻而易举的事情。
When zisha ware is baked in the kiln, the temperature of the kiln has tremendous impact on the final effect. Every kind of clay has its correspondent temperature. If the temperature is too high or too low, even by as little as 5°C, it the final work will too under-baked or over-baked. Therefore, it’s not easy to fire a teapot to its ideal effect.
According to the scientific analysis, zisha clay is a kind of kaolin clay, including mineral elements such as silicon oxide, ferric oxide, calcium oxide, magnesium oxide, manganese carbonate, potassium oxide, etc. Out of these mineral elements, ferric oxide is the most common. Generally, Zisha’s baking temperature is normally between 1120-1150°C when baked in an oxygen rich atmosphere. Normal red clay is comparatively lower, about 1100°C.