The beauty of imperfection

This is one of the most beautiful pots I own.

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It is also one of the ugliest.

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The reason I say that is quite simple – if you look at it from afar, the pot looks quite nice.  If you look closely, it has all kinds of flaws.  The shape is uneven, the body is slightly collapsed on one side, and the lid, oh the lid — you can see how it seems to be sinking on one side, and it’s not even round — in fact the pot is not round.  It is more like an oval.

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As you can probably imagine, the lid doesn’t fit all that well.

Yet, there’s beauty in this.  All too often, I find newer pots to be entirely without character or personality.  A pot that is made exactly to shape and size is, in my opinion, very boring — I can find a million of those in any tea market, anywhere.  Give me a tea mall and I can find you a thousand perfectly made shuiping pots of all sizes.  I can assure you, however, that walking through a tea market for a whole day will not yield one that looks like this pot I have here.

All those supposed tests for trying out a new pot — whether or not the water will stop if you cover the air hole (this doesn’t), whether or not the lid will fall if you fill the pot with water and the flip the pot around (I haven’t tried, but I’m sure it will) and whether or not the pot has all its elements lined up perfectly in a straight line (no, once again) are, when you think about it, completely useless for tea brewing purposes.  There will never, ever be a situation where, mid-pour, you just need to stop the pour by covering the air hole.  Nor is there any real reason behind why a perfectly fitted lid will brew better tea (think the airhole that allows flow doesn’t leak air? think again).  So, these so called “well made” tests are, in effect, tests of whether or not a pot is made to perfection.  Why, yes, sure, they can be done by hand, but so can a machines.  Why do you need paintings when you have photographs, if perfection and precision is what you want?

I like this pot because it has personality, and because it’s full of contradictions.  Looking at the pictures, you may think it has very rough skin, but in fact, when you touch it, you’ll find that it’s silky smooth.  Its shaped with quirks that you only find in older pots – a slightly upward bending spout, a joint line that isn’t even remotely concealed, clay that still shows you what’s in it, and of course, the lack of any filters.  Pots like this one make me very happy – they tell a unique story that you can’t find anywhere else.  No wonder MadameN calls them my concubines.


Comments

The beauty of imperfection — 21 Comments

  1. I stop midpour many times because I use two cups often and wish to drink top brew and bottom brew (of the pot) seperately. Of course, this is with a gaiwan, so still a bit off topic.

    Perfection, otoh, is desirable for the everyday affairs, such that things go your way without having to think about it. Imperfection is more interesting perhaps, but only if you have the time and space for contemplation of your actions and senses.

    • What you’re doing is the functional equivalent of using a pot that doesn’t stop when you hold the air-hole, since the only way to stop a gaiwan from pouring is to tip it back.

      If you don’t have “time and space for contemplation of your actions and senses” while drinking tea…. then I’d suggest grandpa style as a much better way of handling your caffeine needs.

  2. “There’s a crack in everything,/that’s how the light gets in”, as Leonard Cohen sings. At the risk of seeking perfection, I’d like your advice on whether a separate Yxing is needed for every Oolong one steeps.

  3. “So, these so called “well made” tests are, in effect, tests of whether or not a pot is made to perfection. Why, yes, sure, they can be done by hand, but so can a machines.”

    Interesting illustration of a common phenomenon: criteria relevant to one era of production and consumption are carried over to another.

    Before my first trip to Japan, I had 60 hours of one-on-one language lessons, read volumes on business practices and manners, etc. One point made in a couple of books was this quaint custom: when entering an unfamiliar sushi bar, order only the tamago (cold scrambled egg). If it isn’t good, leave without paying.

    I mentioned this bizarre and uncharacteristically rude-seeming practice to my host. He laughed, and said that it was only found – not often – in the postwar poverty of the 1950s. Sugar was in short supply; if the tamago were not sweet, it might indicate stinting elsewhere, especially freshness of the fish.

    In a day of hand manufacture, near-perfection would not only be aesthetically pleasing, and perhaps performance-enhancing, but also an indication of care in water, wedging, firing, and more. Now, it’s more of a bore. So many expensive clothes and other commodities use artificial “flaws” to prove authentic old-style manufacture (= “hand work”).

    A nice exposition of how fashion, values and style do and don’t track with the times. Thanks for the example.

    • I think you’re quite right – those tests can indicate flaws and imperfections in otherwise unremarkable pots, but having believed them for a long time, I no longer subscribe to them because I find them boring, unappealing to me. I think that is more likely to happen once you’ve walked through tea markets with thousands of pots at your immediate disposal – should you choose to do so. After a while, they all look the same, and it’s the ones that are different, unique, and interesting that stand out.

  4. I find the subject of the perfect/flawed teapot to contain similar aspects to the question of artificial raising of the teapot (pouring tea over the exterior of the pot etc.) For sure, there is much beauty in flaws, after all that’s what makes them unique individual pieces, at least externally.

    However, I think we’re starting to move on dangerous waters at the point where naturalness becomes the norm. For example first seeing the artificial raising to be unnecessary or the flawed teapot to be acceptable, and then moving to the point where artificial raising begins to be viewed as unnatural/inappropriate and the perfectly molded (or even machine-manufactured) teapot to be impersonal.

    Somehow this naturalist emotion driven thought seems to be reducible to traditionalism and essentialism, but in a warped way. It’s noticeable (especially) in the way the unnecessary becomes unnatural and shunned (& imperfection the norm for personal).

    Lately I’ve been pondering whether the personality in the teapot is after all merely the personal taste and the subject-object relationship being projected to the teapot. At least it explains how the bland, probably machine-made, Chao Zhou first-gongfu-teapot-of-mine demonstrates such amazing personality for me. On the other hand, maybe just that dull precision is an imperfection. Well, that would take us to some deep sheet.

    • You mentioned that this is moving onto “dangerous waters”. I’m not sure I see the danger there. Isn’t the pursuit of perfection in something also dangerous in its own way? After all, if it is perfection you seek, what’s the real difference (other than cost) in a perfectly made pot that’s done with the aid of molds and machines, and a perfectly hand made pot that didn’t use anything? Perhaps the most expert can tell the difference, but to pedestrian consumers, there’s no difference at all.

      I think you hit the nail on the head with your second to last line – dull precision is, in my opinion anyway, an imperfection. I expect dull precision when I buy a keyboard, but I don’t want dull precision when I buy my teapots.

  5. You are so right about these great tea pots. Though I must admit my western sensibleness were surprised by the small size. As I opened my package to find a tea pot that fit in my hand my first thought was “I wonder where my tea pot went…this would make a great Christmas ornament!” But over the weeks and months I came to love it more and more.

  6. If everyone suddenly preferred badly made pots like this one, what would happen to all the artisan crafts folk who have honed their teapot making skills over their lifetime (if not over generations)?

    Having a well fitting lid means no drips and staining of your worktop.

    Being able to stop the pour with a finger on the lid’s hole means that a small vacuum is created when you pour the tea – and this in turn stops the lid from falling off if you should tip the pot over a little to far.

    Over the (many) years, tea drinkers and pot makers have identified what makes a great teapot. You have just decided to ignore this vast experience and knowledge. I charge you with indulging in the desire to be different for the sake of being different. The usual and established method of pot evaluation can be measured and quantified. Your method is based on a “gut feeling” or some sort of perceived aesthetic which is impossible to quantify.

    I am very glad for you that you get joy from this badly made teapot. It has been interesting to see such a rubbish example of a teapot and I thank you for that too. And perhaps it can indeed muster a sympathetic feeling of affection – in the same way one is drawn to the runt of a litter. I will not, however, be looking to acquire one for myself. I will continue to revel in the feeling a perfectly made pot brings – a pot that represents the culmination of a master craftsman’s dedication and passion. All that work and skill, just so I can have a cup of tea! It is something to be cherished and supported.

    I find your sentiments somewhat disrespectful to the artisan potter.

    • I’m surprised someone in the creative industry utterly fails to see the point here.

      On a technical note, no, a vacuum does not get created when you pour the tea from your perfectly shaped pot, because if it does, your tea will not come out. By definition, air has to go in for your tea to come out. Also, I’m not sure why your finger isn’t on the lid at all times.

  7. Sorry if my occupation fails to live up to your expectations.

    I believe I understand your point perfectly.

    Yes, a vacuum is created when you put your finger over the hole.

    With the hole free, air goes in and allows the tea to flow – true… but with a typical small hole, there is still a pressure difference between the inside and the outside of the pot, this pressure difference usually keeps the lid in place during the pour.

    All my good pots demonstrate this. The small hole reduces the speed of flow somewhat, as you pour. It regulates the speed of flow with no sudden gush at the beginning of the pour. And obviously a good fitting lid with a small hole also brings better heat insulation. These are all desirable properties of a good brewing tea pot, I would have thought.

    Once the tea has been poured the lid will become loose as air enters via the spout and equalises the pressure difference between in the inside and the outside of the pot. This is the time when a finger needs to be in place! (and yes, my finger will be holding the lid from the start, just to be safe)

    And I am sure you know all this anyway!

    Obviously we brew tea in all manner of ways. There’s nothing wrong in brewing in any particular way – whatever rocks your boat. However, there are certain qualities a good yixing teapot will bring to the brewing process. These are qualities I value when I’m trying to make great tea.

    You said…

    “All those supposed tests for trying out a new pot”… “are, when you think about it, completely useless for tea brewing purposes.”

    Well, I thought about it and I disagree.

    But hey, lets not get concerned about this. You brew tea in what you like and I’ll brew in what I like.

    BTW, I really enjoy your blog posts – keep up the good work. I never meant (or mean to) to be argumentative. I was just trying to be chatty 😉

    • Thanks for the comment.

      With regards to the lid and the air pressure – actually, pressure must be equalized constantly with the hold allowing air flow. If the pressure in the lid is lower than outside, your tea will not pour. This is why pots with air holes that are too small or clogged will flow slowly, and the last thing you ever want with gongfu brewing is a slow pouring pot, because you’re stewing your leaves. A fast pouring pot is always more desirable – because it is always possible to slow down the pour by adjusting how you pour, but it is never possible to make a slow pouring pot pour faster unless you try to physically alter it – enlarging the hole, for example.

      As for heat retention, the amount of heat you may lose via air flow is minimal, at best, especially if your infusions only last seconds. An ill fitting lid will keep heat in just as well as a tight fitting one – the difference will be so minimal as to render the point moot.

      It is well known among pot collectors that among older pots the lid fit is mostly poor, because they lacked the modern tools that are now available to make more precise pots. That doesn’t diminish the skills of the artisan, but rather, in my eyes anyway, enhance them. These days so many pots are pumped out using molds and other aids that makes perfection much easier to achieve than ever before. If you want perfect, then those are the way to go.

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