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The invention of the tea pot

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that followed the Yuan, in reaction to the Tartar invasion, tried to restore former Chinese ways in a cultural renaissance. The founder of the new dynasty, Chu Yuan-chang (reigned 1368-1399) was a man of humble origins who enjoyed drinking leaf tea and he wished to promote tea production by the state. In 1391 he decreed that caked tea should no longer be produced, and that all tribute tea should be leaf tea. The production of caked (brick) tea for the imperial court had been a highly complex and very expensive process, an extravagant source of corruption and waste. Once cake tea was no longer available, the ritual of preparing whisked tea from powdered tea was quickly abandoned. By 1487, powdered tea was only used by very conservative literati in a few regions. At the same time, the laws forbidding private production of tea that had been formulated in the early years of the new dynasty were rescinded and tea production flourished. Chinese society was becoming increasingly commercial, there were more and more wealthy people wishing to practice cultivated pursuits.

It was during the Ming dynasty that the method of allowing the tea leaves to soak (steep) in hot water for a time before drinking became general. This produces a transparent infusion, where powdered tea contains the actual leaves. The Ming aesthetes continued to look for the "true flavour" of tea, as before, by this new method. Writers praised the tea from particular sites, and recommended using the water from specific wells to make them. Every aspect of tea preparation became an object of connoisseurship.

In about 1500 the first teapots as we know them came into being, made at first of unglazed brown or red clay, the tiny, unglazed I-hsing "purple sand" teapots with their equally tiny cups that are still popular in southern China and Taiwan, and that are often used in Korea when Chinese tea is being drunk. The first person to have made teapots from this special clay of I-hsing is said to have been an unnamed monk from the nearby Chin-sha Temple. From him, Kung Ch'un, a young man who was a native of I-hsing, learned the art, at the start of the 16th century. While he was still young, Kung Ch'un became a  servant in the household of Wu Lun (1440-1522), also a native of I-hsing and one of the leading tea masters of the age. Wu Lun cultivated a reclusive life among the hills and streams outside of the city, but he had many well-known friends whom he would sometimes visit in Suchou. His son passed the official metropolitan examinations in 1514 and used to prepare for the exams staying at Chin-sha Temple. This would be the time when Kung Ch'un learned the art of teapot making. The first teapots seem to have been rougher and larger than those popular later. During the 17th century the art of clay teapots flourished but at the same time many preferred to use metal pots and cups.

During the later Ming, literati came to prefer white porcelain for teacups, since it allowed the colour of the tea to be admired. The art of tea was by this time virtually complete, and every true connoisseur had his tea room, located in an attractive spot near his library and study, equipped with beautiful utensils, often of considerable antiquity, where he could offer a variety of exquisite teas to his discerning friends.

Finally, in 1644, the Manchus invaded China and took power as the Quing dynasty, that continued until 1912. It was only near the start of their rule the tea makers discovered the secrets of controlled "fermentation" or oxidation of the leaves before and during the drying process, which gave birth to the immense variety of tastes found in oolong (lightly oxidized) and red (black) teas (much more fully oxidized). The new methods of making tea demanded a cup that would emphasize the delicate colour of the brew. This is why so many more recent tea cups are white.

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