Chinese drinking vessels by prominent artists were recently treasured by the literati for their excellent craftsmanship and classical refinement. Their aesthetic criteria were continuously alluded to and emulated by generations of later artists.
In the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), many artists were involved in making drinking vessels. Some notable personalities were Shen Cunzhou, Chen Mingyuan, Yang Pengnian, Chen Hongshou, Qu Yingshao and Zhu Jian.
They participated in the design and production of a broad spectrum of tea wares and stationery objects such as wine cups, tea caddies, brush rests, water pots, ink paste boxes, and oil lamps.
Many exotic forms were conceived. Vessels were decorated with poetic inscriptions. Calligraphy, paintings and seals were incised into the surfaces. The literary and artist embellishments of these works arouse both the mind and the senses.
No other object in the scholar’s studio can match their artistic complexity and richness. Even the grandeur of archaic bronze vessels pales in comparison.
Upheaval and war are recurrent. For every vessel that has survived, dozens more would have perished. Moreover, everyday objects risk damage, making their presence today rare. Those retained in art collections can also be randomly dispersed.
Tea and wine had been ordinary food items in daily life. In ancient China, however, scholars developed the rites of tea drinking and wine drinking, studied and worked out the ways of degusting them, and even linked them with poetry and literary works.
In this way, tea and wine were elevated to a status higher than that of other beverages in the life of scholars, who treated them as top grade food items.
The good taste of tea and wine was not only pursuit of scholars. They also wanted to enjoy the delight cultivated in a life with tea drinking and wine drinking.Therefore, they were particular about the environment in which they drank tea and wine and they adored pretty and delicate tea sets and drinking vessels.
Previously, craftsmen produced these wares just to meet people’s needs in ordinary life. As scholars highly praised and greatly adored them, they had become works of art and utensils of practical use simultaneously.
Along with scholars’ being more and more fastidious about tea wares and drinking vessels, the craftsmanship involved had been undergoing refinement and improvement.
For example, over the last millennium, a lot of changes had occurred to the look of wine pots. The pot body had been transformed from a big urn to a small bottle; the previously short neck had been elongated to a slim tube.
At the beginning, the spout was wide and short, and was later made narrow and long; the mouth had become smaller and smaller; pots in the early days had four or five ears, which were later made bigger and evolved into one big single handle that facilitated carrying and lifting.
In regard to teapots, the changes made to them had even become a special branch of art in the Qing dynasty ardently studied by many and they became popular items of collections.
Nowadays, it is impossible for us to degust the tea, the soup and the wine in the past. Nevertheless, when we appreciate the ancient scholars’ literary works on tea and wine, we can also adore the tea wares and drinking vessels they had left behind.
The hu-vessel has existed in China since the Neolithic period. Painted pottery water vessels of Banshan type have been discovered at the site of Yangshao culture in Gansu province dating to approximately four thousand four hundred years ago.
Oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang dynasty (c. 16th century - 11th century BCE) depict hu as having a round body, a small covered mouth and a circular foot at the base.
In the Western Zhou period (c. 1050-771 BCE), the bronze inscription of hu delineates almost the same shape as its counterpart in oracle bone script, only somewhat more ornate. The Shuowen jiezi describes hu as a round bodied pottery jar with cover.
From the Shang dynasty to the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), hu were cast in bronze and used for storing wine. From the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 AD) to the Northern and Southern dynasties (420–581) there are two types of hu-vessel: round and square. The round one was called zhong (bell), and the square one, fang.
These hu vessels were made of bronze. Those made of pottery were used as burial objects.
During the Jin (265–420) and Tang periods (618–907) a type of green-glazed ware with a dish mouth, handle and a spout in the shape of a chicken head was known as “chicken head” ewers.
During the Tang dynasty hu were also made in gold and silver alongside ceramics. Almost all of them were wine vessels.
In the Song dynasty (960–1279), vessels with stands were also kind of hu. In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), ewers with under glaze decoration of floral scrolls were made at the kilns in Jingdezhen. There were two types: tall and short, both with a handle and a cover.
In 1976, a dragon kiln for firing zisha (purple clay) ware was discovered at the Yangjiao Mountain in Yinxing. The vessels restored from unearthed shards included a hexagonal hu with appliqué decoration of persimmon design; a round ewer with a dragon-head spout, and a round ewer with an overhead handle.
In 1965, a pair of glazed- zisha vessels was discovered in an old well in Qianyao village, Dantao Xian, Jiangsu province. In 1966 a large hu with overhead handle was excavated in Wun Jing’s tomb in Nanjing.
These finds show that zisha hu of the early Ming period (14th century AD) were still modelled on the forms of the Song and the Yuan (1271-1368) periods, with hardly any new designs.
Legend has it that in the late Ming period, a monk of the Jinsha Temple began making purple clay wares. Since then the art of making purple clay ware passed from generation to generation, creating a unique tradition for purple clay teapots which survives today.
The monk of Jinsha Temple is said to have moulded purple clay to make hu and other vessels, using his finger prints as the potter’s mark. An official with the surname Wu lived and studied at the temple. His attendant, Gong Chun, secretly observed the manufacturing process, and after many trials, finally became a master teapot maker.
He used the print of his ring fingers as his potter’s mark. The art of teapot making was then passed to Dong Han, Zhao Liang, Yuan Chang and Shi Peng. Together they were known as the “Four Masters”.
Shi Peng taught his son Dabin the craft. Dabin imprinted the fingerprint of his thumb onto the handle as his potter’s mark. After Dabin, teapot masters included Chen Zhongmei, Li Zhongfang, Xu Youquan, Shen Junyong, Chen Yongqing and Jiang Zhiwen.
During the Wanli era (1573-1620), prominent Yixing pot makers rivalling Dabin included Ou Zhengchun, Shao Wenjin, Shao Wenyin, Chen Xinqing and Chen Guangpu.
The reigns of Tiangqi and Chongzhen (1621-1644) saw the emergence of prominent Yixing pot makers such as Shao Gai, Zhou Houxi, Shen Junsheng and Chen Chen.
In the Chongzhen reign few well-known pot makers were recorded in documents, except for four masters, namely Xu Lingyin, Xiang Busun, Shen Ziche and Chen Ziqi.
Around this time, Shen Cunzhou from Jianxing was renowned for making pewter ware. In Chapu –Manuscripts on tea- Gu Yuanqing mentioned in the section “Choice of grades”: “Those teapots made of silver and pewter are the best; those of porcelain and stone come second”. Hence we know that silver and pewter tea utensils were highly regarded in the early Qing period.