Yixing Clay: Zhuni Part 2
(Originally published September 13, 2018)
This is part 2 of our article about Zhuni Clay, a kind of Yixing clay or zisha used to make teapots in the town of Yixing, China. In this two part article we answer some of the more common questions we have received about this clay. Click here to read the first part of our article.
Zhuni Teapots ready for the kiln! Zhuni clay turns from yellow to red when fired.
What is “Old Zhuni”?
When distinguishing “old zhuni” from “new zhuni” we first need to distinguish “old zhuni” from antique zhuni. “Old zhuni” lao zhuni 老朱泥 is a term from the zisha industry that refers to how long zhuni clay has been aged before it has been shaped into a teapot and fired. All zisha clay, zhuni included, has to be aged before it can be used. Aging the clay means that after the ore has been mixed with water and processed, it will be allowed to sit so that the organic matter in the mixture decomposes and ferments. Whether zhuni is old or new depends on how long it has been left to ferment. Zhuni left for 1-2 years is “new zhuni” xin zhuni 新朱泥. Zhuni left for 3 or more years is “old zhuni.” “Old zhuni” continues to be used today in Yixing. This is different from antique zhuni, which refers to zhuni teapots made long ago.
Is Zhuni Extinct? Did they close the mine?
We are often asked whether real zhuni is still available or whether it is “extinct.” Zhuni is not extinct, but it is rare. The myth of its extinction comes from the restrictions on zisha mining. Fear of overmining and environmental degradation led the Yixing government to greatly restrict mining operations beginning in 2005. All official mines were either closed or had their operations limited. This includes operations in the famous three spots: Huang Long Shan 黄龙山, Zhaozhuang 赵庄, and Xiaomeiyao 小煤窑.
Despite these restrictions, mining of zisha continues to this day. Zisha is still mined to a limited extent from official mines, but also from mines on the outskirts of Yixing, from construction and infrastructure projects in Yixing, and from “unofficial” mines in the town. The large amount of clay mined up until 2005, the need to age zisha before use, and the large size of the industry relative to the town, means that a certain amount of clay has survived in storage. This includes zhuni. A small amount of zhuni continues to be mined each year as well.
Zhuni is scarce compared to other zisha and it is in the interest of the people who sell the clay and make it into teapots to exaggerate how rare the material is. Stories that zhuni is extinct - except for a small amount that was hidden away by this one studio - circulate in order to drive up the price of teaware being sold.
How rare is Zhuni?
If we take Huang Long Shan as an example: Only 3-5% of the mountain is made up of Zisha ore; within that zisha ore, 80% is zini or purple clay, 12% is duanni, and only 8% is hongni. Zhuni makes up only a small amount of that hongni. It is still available and it is still being mined, but it is a small proportion of the total amount of zisha ore being mined.
Within that small amount of zhuni there is an even smaller percentage that is “Dahongpao” zhuni, a very rare zhuni with a deeper red hue.
Zhuni Teapot, 2010s
How to avoid fakes?
There are lots of fake Yixing teapots in the market, and zhuni teapots are no exception. Because zhuni ore is rare and very little is extracted each year, many fakes have flooded the market. These fakes attempt to mimic the appearance of zhuni using non-zisha clay, impure clay, chemicals and coloring mixed with real zisha or other clay.
Some of the fakes are easy to spot, others less so. Teapots that look very shiny before they have been used, that feel sandy or muddy to the touch, that have a bad or chemical smell, should all be avoided. Other selling points that sound too good to be true are also red flags. If a zhuni teapot is being sold for $50 USD or less, there is probably something wrong with it.
Fakes that use zisha clay mixed with some chemicals, other clay or pigments are harder to spot for someone who hasn’t used a real zhuni teapot before. Before getting into this business we had the misfortune of buying a fake zhuni teapot. It wasn’t until later when we had a lot more experience and were able to compare it to a real zhuni teapot that we noticed the texture and feeling wasn’t quite right. We stopped using the teapot as there is no way of knowing what was used to make it. After looking at different teapots on the market, studying about zisha and asking around and meeting with different studios we began to have a better understanding of the process of making Yixing teapots and of how to distinguish genuine Yixing and Zhuni from the fakes. After getting to know Lin Hanpeng and Chen Chunhong, seeing and using their teapots and observing their process, we decided to choose them as our suppliers because we know the products we are providing are genuine, safe, and a pleasure to use. The Yixing teapots, including a zhuni shuiping that we use daily, were all made by this studio.
Is Zhuni a mixture of clays? What is “original ore” zisha clay?
Original ore zisha refers to zisha clay that only contains zisha clay and is not mixed with any other kinds of clay, chemicals or pigments. It is safe to use.
At this point it is important to discuss mixing clay. It is important to distinguish between zhuni mixed with other zhuni clay, mixed with other zisha clay, and zhuni mixed with non-zisha clay and/or chemicals and pigments.
Different kinds of zisha clay are often mixed together before being processed. This is a normal practice in the industry and goes back hundreds of years. The people who process the raw ore before it is sold to potters often have recipes passed down through generations to produce zisha that will yield the desired textures, colors, and other characteristics sought by the potter and the customer. Zisha mixed in this way is perfectly safe and does not have any harmful chemicals. Real zhuni used for teapots in the past and today, consists of clay that may be 1) zhuni ores from different mines mixed together (Huang Long Shan + Zhaozhuang + other mines), 2) processed zhuni mixed with unprocessed zhuni, 3) zhuni mixed with small amounts of other zisha (such as hongni). All of these processes are safe to use, however mixing with other kinds of zisha clay is perceived to have a negative effect on the texture, shine and character of a zhuni teapot.
The "bones" and "meat" of a pure zhuni teapot formed from different sized particles of zhuni ore mixed together.
The desirable and common way to mix zhuni is by using different sifters to sieve zhuni ore into different sized particles. Clay that is mixed in this way will show larger particles in the skin of the teapot (the different sized particles in the zhuni clay are referred to as “bones” and “meat”). If it is good quality zhuni, then no other mixing is necessary.
The zhuni teapots we sell are 100% pure zhuni.