So, the basic definition is out of the way, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere now, does it? For 99.99% of us, knowing where an extinct source of clay is from really doesn’t help us any when it comes to evaluating the material in question, which is zhuni.
This is the part where it gets tricky. Upon my reading of Qing texts on Yixing pots, the first thing I noticed is that by and large, the pots coming out of the kilns were described variously as “pig liver colour” or “much like iron or metal pieces”. Some are also described as a brownish colour. Rarely, if ever, do I see anything about pots being in vermillion. In fact, in the whole of Yangxian Mingtao Lu 陽羨名陶錄 (The Record of Famous Pottery from Yangxian – Yangxian is the old name for Yixing county) the only place I found the word “vermillion” is in the line that describes Zhaozhuang mountain Shihuang clay. That’s it. Nowhere else.
So, the historian in me wonders, is the fascination with zhuni really a later phenomenon? If the Ming masters all made pots that used what we probably now recognize as zisha, rather than zhuni, then why all of a sudden do we have this great fascination with zhuni, with the astronomical prices to go along with it?
Unfortunately, I don’t think I have an answer to that particular question. It does make me think that zhuni pots, as we know them now, tend to be manufactured after the initial golden period of Yixing pots. There are probably economic reasons for this — if the original clay was unweathered, and therefore harder to process, then it would make sense that until you have greater resources, you will forego the use of such clay in favour of other things that are more immediately available. It also makes me think that if somebody claims they have a zhuni pot from, say, the late Ming, it would sound very suspicious. Otherwise we should have at least seen more of a mention of it.
Or, alternatively, they are simply rarer. This rarity argument would go a long way towards helping the value of zhuni pots. But something else makes me think this is not the case — the teas that were being drunk back in the day were very different from the teas we are drinking now. They did not have fresh, vegetal oolongs to drink. They did not drink beany green longjings. They roasted their teas, even green teas (more like Hojicha, perhaps). Oolongs, in a form that we would recognize now, is more or less a 19th century invention. Zhuni’s claim to fame is that it accentuates the high notes of a tea much better, and will allow them to flourish in a brew. It’s not usually noted as a type of clay that will clean out odd flavours as well as some of the zisha. So, maybe, the taste and production of tea changed and therefore the requirements for clay also changed.