Readers steeped in Vietnamese classics will recall a tale by the writer Nguyen Tuan in which he described the pleasure that old Confucian scholars and artists derived from drinking tea and collecting teapots.
Not all of these traditional pursuits such as enjoying tea, admiring flowers, exchanging calligraphy and entering poetry contests still survive but they have certainly enriched Vietnamese culture.
When it comes to teapots, none were more coveted than “purple sand” clay teapots.
The idiom “First the chicken liver colored glaze of The Duc, second Luu Bo glaze and third Manh Than glaze” was quoted by Nguyen Tuan in his short story “Terracotta teapots”. Antique collectors agree. Purple sand teapots are highly prized by modern collectors, known for their fine clay, skilful joints and outstanding designs and calligraphy. The name “purple sand” is “tử sa” in the ancient Chinese-Vietnamese language. This name refers to the shiny purplish color of the baked clay.
In reality, this type of clay varies greatly in color, from green and purple to terracotta red, orange and yellow. These teapots originated in Yixing in Jiangsu Province, China, which boasts a rare type of clay found nowhere else. The first purple sand teapots reportedly appeared in the Ming Dynasty when noblemen and well-educated scholars and artists grew obsessed with tea.
As time went by, pottery workshops developed their own teapots. Collectors distinguish them by the teapots’ shapes, inscriptions and workshop seals.
Manh Than teapots bear inscriptions on the bottom, while Luu Boi and The Duc teapots are sealed with zhuanshu scripts. Sometimes, inscriptions are sealed within the pot, which is difficult to achieve as the inner surface is concave. Looking closely at the workmanship we are struck by the skill needed to produce globe, elongated globe, fig and persimmon shapes. The teapots’ handles are quite slender and their spouts – whether long or short – emit smooth streams of tea.
While novice collectors may think the mouth of the tea pot and the upper end of the spout should be on the same level, they are mistaken. Among the many varieties of clay teapots is a line called “Yang Guifei’s Bosom”. Characterized by a curvaceous shape, short spout and upside-down handle, this teapot reminds us of the allure of one the Four Ancient Beauties of China. These teapots are quite rare and owners seldom agree to part with them, no matter how much money they are offered.
Modern teapot collectors usually have to explain to youngsters the differences between single teapots and dual teapots. Single teapots are about as big as your palm and hold but a single serving. These teapots were made for ancient Confucian scholars eager to enjoy their tea in solitude while admiring nature. A traveling tea-connoisseur would visit a beauty spot, admire the landscape and write poetry while enjoying some delicious tea.
Dual teapots are bigger and hold enough tea for two cups. Imagine a pair of old scholars sharing their deepest feelings and ideas while sharing some tea. Good tea was intended for soul mates, not the snobbish masses.
Collecting purple sand teapots is not only costly, but requires dedication. Over the last 20 years, Vietnamese workshops have produced some fine purple sand teapots, yet they don’t compare with those produced hundreds of years ago.
Time seems to flow over the teapot’s surface. As dusk wanes, the air is filled with the swirling aroma of tea and sweet memories of years gone by.