The world of Yixing Teaware is full of myth, misconception, and exaggeration. It can be quite challenging for someone new to Yixing teaware to make an informed decision when purchasing a teapot. Of all of the Yixing clays, perhaps the most mysterious is Zhuni, the famous orange-red clay. A great deal of misinformation standing in for factual information makes it difficult for anyone who is interested in acquiring a zhuni teapot. We often receive questions from customers about this clay and will do our best to answer some of the most common questions below.
What is Zhuni?
Searching for information online one finds confusing talk of “old zhuni” vs “modern zhuni,” of zhuni being “extinct,” and the claim that “modern zhuni” is in fact “hongni” or a mixture of hongni and other Yixing clay.
If we are using the original definition of “hongni,” then zhuni is a kind of hongni. Hongni 红泥 means red clay and was used to refer to Yixing clay that was red in color after being fired in the kiln. The charater 朱zhu in zhuni refers more specifically to vermillion or cinnabar red, a bright-orange red hue. The term zhuni was applied much later to some hongni teapots that exhibited a number of characteristics that were much sought after for a group of Yixing teapot collectors. Hongni teapots that were bright orange-red or zhuhongse 朱红色 and which appeared somewhat silky to the touch and gained a brilliant shine from use, came to be called “zhuni” 朱泥in contrast to the other darker, rougher hongni clay.
Zhuni can also be separated from hongni from the appearance of its raw ore and from where the ore is mined. Zhuni ore comes from soft mudstone, hongni is a kind of sedimentary rock. Zhuni ore is fragile and when mixed with water is very smooth. Hongni is harder and sandier.
Hongni and Zhuni react differently when fired. All zisha will contract / shrink to a certain extent when fired in a kiln, but not all shrink to the same extent. The shrink rate of hongni is about 13%, however zhuni will shrink from 17-25%. The high rate of contraction means that zhuni is more likely to break in the kiln, and fewer zhuni teapots survive firing than other kinds of zisha. Although modern techniques allow the artists to optimize the process, making it possible to fire more pots without losing as many of them in the kiln, and even to make larger teapots, most studios still err on the side of caution and avoid making larger zhuni teapots, as they are more likely to break in the kiln. Most zhuni teapots are 160ml or smaller.
What kind of tea is good in a Zhuni Teapot?
Yixing Teapot tea pairing is very subjective, however it is generally agreed that Zhuni is better than other other kinds of Yixing clay (known as zisha) for fragrant teas, like Taiwan high mountain oolong. It works well with black teas and other higher roast oolongs as well. Compared with other zisha, zhuni is denser, has smaller pores, and traps less air between its pores. As a result, it is better at conducting heat and does not absorb fragrance as much as zini or duanni. The result is that it acts more like porcelain, losing heat faster, so it doesn’t overcook more delicate teas, and it holds the fragrance, concentrating it, unlike zisha such as zini and especially duanni, which are often favoured to help “round out” a tea with harsher notes, like a young strong sheng puer.
What is 'Old Zhuni'? Is Zhuni 'Extinct'?
Is Zhuni mixed with other clays?
How to choose a Zhuni Teapot?
Find out the answers to these and other questions in Part 2 Here.
Jingdezhen Porcelain and the name China
Every Chinese child learns that the country has been making porcelain ceramics as far back as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907), and that the small town of Jingdezhen ( 景德镇Jingde town) has been the center of this craft. While Chinese porcelain is also famous worldwide, few outside of China may know the importance of this town or have even heard its name.
Jingdezhen has over 1000 years of porcelain manufacturing history. The abundance of all the required materials for ceramic production may help to explain this long history. The materials (clay and stone), fuel (pinewood) and the wrapping (bamboo) can all be found in Jingdezhen. During the Tang Dynasty, white porcelain from northern China (Xing kiln) and celadon (a blue-green glazed ceramic) from southern China (Yue Kiln) were very popular. A series of wars towards the end of the dynasty disrupted northern production and led to many white porcelain makers fleeing to the south to avoid the conflict. The town, later named Jingdezhen, welcomed these refugees. Mixing the styles of white porcelain and celadon, Jingdezhen artists created a bluish-white porcelain. During the early Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279), celadon was a very popular ceramic: clean, simple and elegant, the bluish white porcelain was similar to the Ru Kilnlater developed under the Song Dynasty.
So, why is porcelain called China anyway?
Prior to AD 1004, Jingdezhen was known as Changnan town(昌南镇), the name meaning “south of Chang river.” The word “China” actually came from the pronunciation of Jingdezhen’s old name “Changnan.” During that year, the Emperor signed an agreement with a northern neighboring country called Liao, and agreed to pay them with money and/or goods each year to maintain peace between the two countries. Celadon was very popular in Liao, so the demand for this kind of green ceramics increased rapidly. The Emperor started to pay more attention to this little town, and encouraged it to develop its porcelain and ceramics manufacturing industry, at the same time renaming it Jingde 景德, after the name of the year of the Emperor’s reign.
Jingdezhen and the Porcelain Road
One cannot discuss the history of Jingdezhen without mentioning Kaolin. After the rapid increase of production under the Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279), the china clay was greatly depleted around the Jingdezhen area, leading to a search for new material. During early Mongol rule over China, known as the Yuan Dynasty (AD1271 – 1368), a new kind of clay was found in Jingdezhen – Kaolin clay. Kaolin has a high density and is also thermostable, allowing the temperature to be raised to 1300℃ during firing without destroying the porcelain. This material is also high in alumina, so the whiteness in white porcelain is much purer than previous China clay. With the invention of kaolin ceramics the world had passed from the era of soft porcelain to hard porcelain.
This period also saw a boom in cross border trade through the silk road. It was around this time that Arab merchants brought a blue pigment that contained cobalt (cobalt blue) to Jingdezhen, requesting the potters to manufacture porcelain for them decorated with this blue pigment. This is where China’s most famous ceramic export originates from, the famous Blue-and-White porcelain that later attracted so much European interest. Cobalt blue and white were popular colors used in patterns in the Arab world, and once produced for export, this new blue and white porcelain was a huge success in the Muslim World. That’s why, of the 100 Yuan Dynasty pieces of Blue-and White porcelain, there are 60 pieces in Turkey.
During the Song and Yuan Dynasty, painting over the surface of porcelain was considered tacky and fell out of favor. As the street culture appeared in late Yuan Dynasty and early Ming Dynasty (mid 12th century), painting on porcelain began to reappear and gained in popularity.
Blue and White China
Cobalt blue pigment is used to paint the pattern on the kaolin base clay body, and then a layer of transparent glaze is put over the porcelain, and then the piece is fired once in the kiln. Once applied, the blue pigment will never fade, and because kaolin is such a strong and forgiving material to work with, there is a very low scrap rate during firing. The result is the perfect candidate for early mass-production and exporting.
This Blue-and-White porcelain quickly became very popular in Asia and Europe during the 16th century, as there was no ceramic like it outside of China. During the Ming Dynasty, a Muslim Chinese sailor working for the Emperor, named Zhenghe, sailed to southeast Asia and Africa (AD1405 – 1433). While travelling, he carried a large amount of blue and white porcelain to give as gifts to the kingdoms he encountered. From then on, Jingdezhen Blue-and-White porcelain came to symbolize China for the rest of the world. It was also at that time that the sea wave pattern in cobalt blue became popular.
During the Ming Dynasty (AD1368 – 1644), the multi-colored(五彩 wucai) style of porcelain was perfected and popularized.
During the Qing Dynasty (AD1616 – 1912), enamel was brought into China and popularized by the Qing emperor – Kangxi(康熙). However, this kind of porcelain never gained the popularity of previous forms as it had been kept within the Imperial court as the Emperor’s personal hobby. It wasn’t until much later, only the last few decades in fact, that a few Jingdezhen artists have revived this technique.
The five famous kilns producing porcelain during the Song Dynasty were: Ru kiln, Ge kiln, Jun kiln, Ding kiln and Guan kiln. The techniques once lost during the late Song Dynasty due to war, were brought back by Jingdezhen artists during the Ming Dynasty and have been subsequently passed down to later generations of Jingdezhen artists.
The secret of 1000 years.
The ceramic industry has lasted for over 1000 years in one small town, and it has given the country an international historical influence. What’s the secret?
1) Local availability and abundance of building materials and fuel.
2) Support from the Emperor: Since the Yuan Dynasty, Jingdezhen has gained Imperial support, including contracts, finance and protection. During the Ming Dynasty, official kilns were also built in Jingdezhen. Official Kilns only produced porcelain and ceramics for the exclusive use of the royal family, and even the manufacturing process was under the supervision of an official sent by the Emperor. It ran under strict guidelines and all of the paintings on the porcelain were created by artists from the court. Only 4 pieces of porcelain were chosen out of 100 pieces to be sent to the royal family, the rest of the porcelain had to be smashed to pieces and buried. This production was not be shared outside of the royal family.
3) Division of Labor: By the Ming Dynasty, the division of labor in the porcelain industry had been well developed in Jingdezhen. To make a cup required 72 separate steps and required several dozen workers. This division reduced the training and learning time of new workers by simplifying the work of each craftsman, and therefore encouraged more people to join the industry.
4) Demand: From the story of the Blue and White porcelain road, we can see that Jingdezhen craftsmen have a history of being sensitive to the demands of the market, and using creativity and innovative materials to produce truly unique art that is popular worldwide.
The artists from our studio QingKexuan清可轩, hold the highest respect for this history and consciously follow the techniques that have been developed over the centuries. Every time I pick up one of their teapots or cups I can feel the precipitation of history and respect for the craft and artistry of Jingdezhen porcelain. The product is a message from the maker developed through each step in the production process. The first time I bought a piece of Jingdezhen porcelain – a cup – I told the seller that I was going to place it on the shelf, because it was so beautiful and not as cheap as the factory-made cups from the supermarket. He waved his hand, “Don’t. It’s a cup, use it how it was meant to be used. Through use it will develop character and soul.” He was right, we should use the porcelain the way it was meant to be used. This is the tie that binds the artist, the porcelain, and the user.
Chinese Dynasties and dates mentioned in this article:
Tang Dynasty (AD618 – 907)
Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279)
*Yuan Dynasty (AD1271 – 1368)
Ming Dynasty (AD1368 – 1644)
Qing Dynasty (AD1616 – 1912)
*Yuan Dynasty is the Chinese name given to the Mongol Empire’s rule over China.