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Special Exhibition

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Journey of the Zisha Teapot to Taiwan and Beyond

Recent trends in narrating history from a global point of view have cemented the now familiar story of how Chinese blue-and-white ceramics dazzled the world in the 17th c. to become its first global brand. Less is known about another Chinese ceramic, zisha ware, which made its own appearance outside China at about the same time. Unprepossessing and plain, yet strong and sturdy, zisha teaware forms went onto establish the classic shape of teaware around the world. The current exhibition focuses on this unique and exceptional ceramic and will explore the image that zisha conveyed at different times and different places, with a focus on Taiwan, along a 400-year journey that began in China and that continues into the present. The objective will be to leave the viewer with an understanding of, not simply what zisha is, but what it means.


Zisha” is a type of Chinese ceramic of which the teapots of Yixing, located in China’s Jiangsu province, were the most well known. The Yixing teapot is characterized by its singular potting characteristics and refined clay body, and possesses many properties uniquely suitable for tea. Its influence soon extended far beyond its city of origin, a phenomenon that owed a great deal to the art and etiquette of tea drinking which took off and made its way across the globe in the 17th c. Against this backdrop, the images conjured by zisha ware are understandably varied from place to place and intimately connected to local perceptions, as revealed by regional imitations, adaptations and appropriations of zisha wares to suit local customs and tastes. For example, zisha teaware not only played a key role in the “gongfu tea ceremony” practiced in the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, but it was also indispensable to Europe’s tea drinking aesthetic as well as Japan’s sencha tea ceremony. Significantly, kilns in the Chaozhou and Shantou regions of Guangdong province, in Europe, in Japan and in Okinawa all strived to reproduce the “zisha teapot”, securing zisha ware forms as the archetype for teapots all over the world ever since.


Taiwan, in particular, has a relationship with zisha ware that can be traced to the period in the island’s history known as the Kingdom of Tungning (i.e., Koxinga dynasty, 1661-1683). It was during this period that the first significant wave of Han Chinese, encouraged by the Qing court of China, emigrated from China to settle in Taiwan. Subsequently, Taiwan came under Qing rule (1683-1895) and, along with subsequent waves of Han Chinese, came the various tea implements of southern China. Teaware in Taiwan developed in diverse ways throughout the succeeding centuries, weathering political changes and adapting under a 50-year period of colonization by Japan (1895-1945) to attain their present forms.


Due to a convergence of various favorable factors and the increasing refinement of Chinese tea traditions, Taiwan, over the last several decades, has found itself playing a crucial role in the domain of collecting zisha ware and promoting research into zisha tea culture. Thus, along with addressing zisha consumption patterns and consumer tastes, including imitations and adaptations of zisha ware, within a global historical framework, the exhibition will specifically explore Taiwan’s zisha heritage and define its historical place within the parameters of the Guangdong and Fujian cultural sphere.


As such, this exhibition will be presented along three main themes: The Entry of Zisha Ware onto the World Stage, Zisha Teaware and Taiwan and A New Era of Taiwanese Tea Ware. Let us now embark on a connoisseur’s journey of tea culture, aesthetics and ceremony and roam, together, the world of zisha.


     Yixing zisha clay enjoys a reputation as a clay among clays as it is among the few clays that can be used to produce ceramic objects without the addition of other ingredients. Zisha technically means purple clay, purple being its signature colour, but it also encompasses a range of other colours, such as red and green. In this exhibition, zisha signifies a category of ceramic epitomized by Yixing’s zisha teapots.  However, in its broadest sense, zisha may also refer to any ceramic made from any clay, regardless of locale, that seeks to imitate the zisha ware of Yixing

Red stoneware teapot, with applique flora déco and “Arij de Milde” mark, Delft, the Netherlands, End of 17th century, Rijksmuseum, AmsterdamRed stoneware teapot, with applique flora déco and “Arij de Milde” mark, Delft, the Netherlands, End of 17th century, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Entry of Zisha Ware onto the World Stage

Looking at today's teapots, we can see, more of less, all the hallmarks of Yixing zisha from centuries ago. How did this come to be? This section of the exhibition demonstrates how, from the 17th c. onwards, zisha teaware formed an integral part of Chinese trade ceramics and traveled from one region to another in tandem with the spread of tea drinking trends. It alse illustrates how certain regions responded to market demand to gradually produce local copies of zisha ware and, finally, how different areas conjured up different versions of zisha ware, each with their own particular characteristics, thus revealing the ways that zisha teaware was interpreted, utilized, imitated and appropriated from place to place.

Zisha teapots, from “the Teek Seeun” shipwreck, Yixing, China, Early 19th century, Wang Du  Collection, TaiwanZisha teapots, from “the Teek Seeun” shipwreck, Yixing, China, Early 19th century, Wang Du Collection, Taiwan

Zisha Teaware and Taiwan

What kinds of connections were fused between Taiwan and zisha teaware through the changing political landscape of the last four centuries? This section of the exhibition begins by relating zisha’s voyage across the seas through “Shipwreck Records”. Archaeological artifacts, shipwreck finds, related texts and survival zisha implements are used to explain how the origins of zisha teaware preferences among Taiwan’s immigrant circles can be traced to the Chinese tea drinking conventions of the southern Chinese (Jiangnan) cultural region, and of Guangdong and Fujian provinces. They also serve to illustrate the numerous developments which led to contemporary Taiwan’s distinctive tea culture.

The large 17th c. zisha teapot reflecting the Jiangnan style preferred by the new immigrants to Taiwan; the 19th c. zisha teapot and accompanying celadon tea washer reflecting the burial customs of southern Fujian province; the zisha gongfu teapot that once belonged to Lien Heng (1878-1936), renowned author of A General History of Taiwan; a Japanese-style tea set used for the sencha tea ceremony, introduced to Taiwan during Japanese occupation; a Western-style tea set for drinking black tea, and so on. All of these interconnected threads tell the tale of zisha teaware and its complex relationship with Taiwan.


Red stoneware teaware set, Hsieh-te factory, Nantou, Taiwan, First half of 20th century, Private Collection, TaiwanRed stoneware teaware set, Hsieh-te factory, Nantou, Taiwan, First half of 20th century, Private Collection, Taiwan

A New Era of Taiwanese Teaware

The allure of Taiwanese teaware continues to enthrall even today. What explains its timeless appeal? From the period of Japanese occupation until the end of WWII, a nascent industry of imitation zisha ware took form at Nantou, Yingge and other Taiwanese kiln sites. After the mid-1970s, Taiwanese domestic tea consumption increased as tea drinking became increasingly fashionable and tea drinking aesthetics increasingly refined, culminating in a moment of vigorous production of teaware at the Yingge kilns. Concurrently, a high level of connoisseurship was being developed in Taiwan through the research and collecting of important teaware, such as early zisha teapots dating to the Ming (1366-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, teapots created by contemporary master zisha potters, as well as 20th c. "factory" teapots which were a product of the strict standards of Yixing's zisha factory system. Thus, at this favorable juncture of rising socio-economic conditions and a flourishing tea culture, tea aficionados, industrialists and artisans alike came together to play a part in producing teaware, culminating in a dazzling array of material, forms and functions that we see in the teaware of Taiwan today.