Yixing Clay: Zhuni Part 1
(Originally published September 6, 2018)
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 ore on the left beside a hongni teapot
Zhuni ore on the left beside a zhuni teapot
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.
Zhuni teapot on the left, zini teapot on the right. Both teapots were the same size before firing.
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.