Thursday, September 19, 2019

History Of The Teapot


It may seem as if teapots have been around as long as tea itself, but that's not actually the case.  We all use them, but do you know when they originated? Let's get a little deeper into the history of teapots.

Teapot History- Song Dynasty to Ming Dynasty
Teapots may not have been around as long as the tea steeped in them, but the design is still quite ancient.  We need to look to Chinese tea history to learn more about teapots, as the leaves themselves shaped the need for a steeping vessel.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279) tea leaves were not processed they way they are today. Leaves were steamed, ground, and molded into brick forms. In order to prepare the tea, pieces of the brick were broken off and boiled in cooking vessels.

A little later during this time period tea was pulverized into powder form and whisked, just like matcha. Since the leaves were either boiled or whisked, a teapot-like vessel wasn't needed. Porcelain was invented in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and was largely the material used for tea cups and bowls used for tea, but teapots hadn't been in use yet.

You may be thinking you've seen teapots from this time period in books or museums, but these were most likely ewers used for water or wine. The shape of these vessels will play an important role, however.

It appears that the teapot was created during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when changes in tea processing style led to steeping loose leaf tea. From the book The True History Of Tea:

Instead of the age-old custom of steaming the leaves, the monks on Songluo Mountain in Anhui province discovered that stir-roasting them in a dry hot wok improved the color, fragrance, and flavor of the finished tea. 

Tea production in the Wuyi mountains used the new method the Songluo monks created, and after much trial and error semi-oxidized oolong teas were born. The loose leaves needed a vessel for delicate brewing, in order to extract the right body and flavor of the tea. Through this necessity, the teapot was born.

Teapot History- Yixing 
Small teapots resembling the ewers I mentioned earlier were developed in the city of Yixing, in Jiangsu province of China around 1500. It seems likely that the water and wine vessels were used as a model for tea.

If you're a Yixing pot collector you know the vessels are made from reddish or purple 'zisha' clay (zisha translates to 'purple sand pot'). The clay has a special mineral composition that makes it ideal for brewing tea, and creates a porous material perfect for capturing the essence of the tea. The teapots were very small (and still are today), made for personal use. Small porcelain cups were used to sip with, but I've also seen mention of people drinking directly from the teapot's spout. I need to give this a try! Maybe at home when no one is looking...

It's actually tough to say for certain if teapots were really created in 1500, as the great James Norwood Pratt argues in the New Tea Lover's Treasury:

It strains credulity to believe so inventive a people as the Chinese never thought to brew tea in their so-called wine ewers.
That makes sense, doesn't it? Since teapots look so much like an ewer, wouldn't someone have thought to use one for tea before 1500? But, I'll leave that for Norwood to debate.

Chinese Ewer, image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Teapot History- Western Europe and Beyond
Once Chinese porcelain started making its way to European countries (to learn more about the history of European porcelain you can check out my previous post), Europeans couldn't get enough of the beautiful porcelain. They raced to figure out how to create their own porcelain, which eventually led to designing teapots and other teaware.


The pots originally exported to Europe were small with straight spouts, similar to the Yixing styles. The large porcelain and silver styles seen today came much later, when tea drinking became part of  the European lifestyle.

There is so much more to learn and discuss about teapot history and design, but it'll need to be saved for later posts. Next time you use a teapot think about how it evolved and where it came from. Maybe even have a sip from the spout!

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting article :D I also thought teapots were much older ^^'

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