Teapot testing

A couple years ago I wrote about how there are a few  people working on a new technology here that uses multiple lasers to analyze the chemical components of pretty much anything, and one of the things they could do is to test what’s in Yixing clay. I’ve been working with these folks since then to help them come up with ways that will have practical applications for people who use Yixing pots. They have also improved the technique they’re using as well as the sensitivity of the data, and I thought I can write an update on some of the things they’ve done recently with a few pots of mine.

Basically, I gave them four pots to test, without telling them previously what they were. The idea was to see if the analysis might yield any data that is interesting, and if so, what that might be. The pots I gave them were 1) a regular yixing pot I bought many years ago from a Shanghai tea market, 2) an antique that is an export to Japan, 3) a Japanese tokoname pot, and 4) a fake yixing (it’s so obvious it’s fake it’s pretty painful) but made in the style of a yixing pot, complete with “Zhongguo yixing” seal at the bottom, but the clay is obviously off, also bought from Japan. The experimenters also added one of their own, called “cheap” in the data you see below.

The way they do this analysis is to basically place the teapots on their testing platform, and do a series of laser shots to vaporize a little tiny bit of the teapot, then the second laser does a spectrum analysis of the puff that is created. It looks like this:

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So the results of the tests on the five teapots, visualized for simplicity, is as follows:

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The X and Y axis are simplifications of the actual data, of which they have about 51k datapoints for total for the five teapots. You can see that the yellow (Tokoname) and orange (fake yixing) almost completely overlap – and in fact if you go find the underlying data shows that there is basically no chance this is happening by accident. In other words, the fake yixing is probably of Japanese origin using Japanese clay that is substantially similar to tokoname clay.

This sort of thing is quite interesting, because if we can build up a database of teapots, then it’s possible to actually use the database to try to authenticate teapots, perhaps even periodize them if we have enough data. That’s for the long run, but it’s quite enticing a prospect.

In the short term though, there are other things that this can do – for example, testing for heavy metals. None of the teapots sampled had any traces of heavy metals, such as lead. Since the tests are conducted on multiple locations on the teapots, it is quite reliable and not down to a single datapoint. That in and of itself could be of interesting application as well, considering how so many people are worried about what’s in their teapots.

Playing with fire

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I’ve had this for a couple years now, but I haven’t tried using it until now. Living in an urban environment is not really conducive to using charcoal to boil stuff, especially in a hot place like Hong Kong where the weather is rarely cold enough for this sort of thing. There’s something wrong about lighting it up indoors when it’s 33 degrees outside.

Not having a yard or a barbeque at home, lighting up the charcoal means doing it right in the stove, which is a little harder than the tonnes of space you’re afforded in a barbeque. The easy way to do this is just to light it up in a charcoal chimney or some such, but without any of those tools, I was reduced to starting a fire in these stoves. Obviously, practice makes perfect, and since I don’t have practice, it took a few tries. Turns out, the trick is pretty simple – fan really hard once you’ve got a little fire going in there. Constructing the charcoal so that there’s good airflow is obviously important. Once started, all you have to do is to add enough fuel to make sure there’s enough heat coming off.

Using this setup really does change how you approach the tea. First of all, you don’t have a lot of water to work with, so you’ll economize. If you’re used to throwing water everywhere, well, if you do that with this setup, you’ll be out of water before you get your first brew. With my normal pot, I can get about 4 infusions out of this little kettle. It takes 15 minutes to bring cold water to a boil using this setup. So, obviously, you won’t waste water.

You also need to just sit there and not multitask, because multitasking is impossible. It’s quite easy to walk away from a tea session, attend to something, and then come back and continue if you have an electric setup. With this, you can’t easily do that. The water won’t wait, and will keep boiling, and the fuel also won’t wait. If you go away for 20 minutes, your water will probably boil dry, your kettle might crack, and your fuel might start running low. You don’t want to restart a fire. That’s hard work. There’s a reason in those paintings it’s always the servant boy doing that.

Now, does it actually make any real difference?

I don’t think so. I certainly don’t think any of those claims about “oh, charcoal boiled water is sweeter” or any such thing. Heat is heat, and while the charcoal does smell nice (I used longyan – or longan – wood charcoal), it doesn’t really do anything particular to the water. My normal kettle boils it just as hot, as far as I can tell. The biggest difference is probably atmospherics – you feel different doing this. There’s also probably some difference in the material of the kettle itself – iron, in my case, versus clay. I don’t think the source of heat makes any difference there.

You do, however, learn to love your tea towel, because you need it. For this kettle, the handle gets hot, so without a towel it’s untouchable. If I want to do this a lot, I might want to get a slightly bigger kettle, so that the handle won’t get as hot (but with a definite tradeoff in boiling time) or I can try to buy another kettle with a top handle made of something like rattan.

This sort of setup also forces you to drink certain kinds of tea – I’m not going to drink a puerh that will go on for many infusions, because it’s quite impractical to come back to the tea later on, and so you want to pick something that will be done in a few kettles of water, at most. With that in mind, I picked an older dahongpao. It came out beautifully.

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Gambling in Macau

As many of you know, Macau is now the gambling capital of the world, having taken over Las Vegas for the number one spot a few years ago and now with a very sizable lead. I recently went, but not to gamble. One benefit to a city built on gaming revenue is that there often are things that are built around it because the city wants to attract tourists who (like me) don’t gamble – make them attractive enough so that their friends who might won’t get vetoed. Among these things in Macau, aside from the great food and the historical buildings, is a beautiful art museum. There’s a current show on teawares, with half of the items from the imperial palace, and the other half from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Some of the items there are stunning. There’s a supposed 150 years old ball of tribute puerh, a 400 years old yixing pot, and my favourite, a number of tea canisters for imperial use. I took a snap.

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This isn’t even for the highest grade of tribute tea, but rather the second highest. It’s not clear what’s actually inside though.

Or, take this charming box

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Being emperor seems like a good idea.

I did end up gambling a little – not by sitting at the blackjack table, but rather, buying some tea. There are a few older teashops in Macau in the more residential neighbourhoods. I ended up at one and bought a cake of what I think is 2003 Xiaguan.

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Not too expensive at all, and not too bad. Better than risking some scary looking thing on Taobao, although admittedly some of them are cheaper and maybe even better gambles. Then again, the store was so old looking and so run down, it was half the fun of shopping there. The female proprietor (I dealt with her husband) was sleeping on the bench in the shop, but covered herself in such a way that I didn’t even notice her until she woke up halfway through our exchange, giving me a bit of a startle. Who can beat that for excitement in a tea store?

Anyway, if you ever come by Macau, I heartily recommend a visit to the museum. It’s certainly worth the trouble.

Things that matter, things that don’t

Over the years I’ve seen/heard/read many purported “rules” when it comes to buying yixing teapots. They all claim to help you buy a good pot. I’ve believed some of them at some points, although, increasingly, I no longer rely on any of them. I thought I will list a few of the common “rules” that people have developed – ones that I think are actually leading you down the wrong path, and offer up an alternative instead.

Keep in mind that everything written here is from the point of view of someone buying to use their pots, especially smaller pots that are for, at most, 3-4 people. If you are looking to buy things for your collection – then it’s mostly a question of personal taste and preferences. I’m also fully expecting to see people who think what I write here is wrong. If you disagree, let me know why.

1) The pouring test – basically, putting water in the pot and then pouring it out. This test is supposed to check, mostly, for whether or not the pot drips or not. It is true that pots that drip are annoying, especially if you pour slowly, but actually, I’d argue that dripping is not the worst thing that can happen. The thing is, when it’s a small pot and you’re using it mostly for personal drinking (as I think many of my blog’s readers do) it’s actually quite rare that you will use it for pouring into multiple cups – that’s when dripping becomes a serious problem. During my normal day to day drinking, for example, I’d pour the contents of my pot straight into a cup that’s large enough for the pot’s size. Also, when pouring, the pot is tilted basically 90 degrees so the spout points down. In that case, whether a pot drips or not makes very little difference – it will pour into the cup, regardless. The same is true if you use a fairness cup and you empty your pot into that.

Instead, something to pay more attention to is actually the speed at which it pours. Crucially, it’s the speed at which it pours when it’s tea that is hot, not water. I’ve used pots that pour well when it’s cold water (what you’d use to test in a shop) but do poorly when it’s tea – tea has slightly higher viscosity, and in some cases, it does seem to matter. If you have a slow pouring pot, it can kill your tea drinking experience using it.

2) The lid test – there are various versions of this out there. The simple one is just whether or not the lid fits well or not – if it wiggles, the theory goes, it’s a badly made pot. The extreme ones claim that you should put water in the pot, fill it to the brim, put the lid on, hold the pot by the handle and spout while covering the spout, and then turning the pot over. A supposed truly well made pot will have a lid that doesn’t fall out.

Aside from the very obvious problem of running the risk of having the lid fall out and break (and thus making it very unlikely that vendors will let you try this before you pay) it also serves no purpose in tea making. A tight fitting lid doesn’t actually make your tea better. It doesn’t really help pouring (in fact, it might exacerbate slow-pouring problems) and it doesn’t even necessarily denote good craftsmanship. Most pots these days are made with molds – which seriously lower the bar set for tight fitting lids. Just because it fits tight doesn’t actually mean much for the drinker. A lid that is a bit loose, as long as it’s not excessive, is perfectly acceptable. We are not talking about lids that are almost falling into the pot here – those are annoying (I have one). A bit of wriggle won’t really matter much though.

3) Factory 1 is everything – there is a certain fascination with factory 1 teapots. In case you missed the memo, Yixing factory 1 was the main factory for making teapots back in the state-controlled days. Many famous potters got their start there, and so many early period pots might have (emphasis on might) been made by said famous potters. There are various theories out there as to what the signs are for a master-made pot – seeing, for example, 宜興南孟臣製 as opposed to 荊溪南孟臣製 as the seal, for example. The idea is that factory 1 controlled the best clay, the best talent, and so the pots they made were the best.

Sure, that may be the case, and in terms of collectible value, a verifiable factory 1 pot is certainly worth more than one that isn’t. However, there’s a problem – it takes a serious amount of work to learn to distinguish what’s a factory 1 and what isn’t, and most people who sell these things haven’t a clue. They are just told by their friends (who sold them the pots) that they are, indeed, factory 1, and pass them on as such. There are probably way more factory 1 pots out there than factory 1 ever produced, just like there are far, far more Lao Banzhang on the market than all the tea Lao Banzhang has ever made in its entire history.

This is even more of a problem when you buy pots online, as many of my readers are likely to do. The signs of a well made pot – clay, craft, etc, are hard to discern through pictures alone. Unless and until you can handle the pot, or, if you feel adventurous, buying online is a real gamble. And also, given the cost of a real factory 1 pot these days, it’s a non-trivial amount of money (hundreds of dollars) to be gambling with.

Finally, the supposed value of a factory 1 pot is not really in tea making – and even if it does somehow improve your tea slightly, as I’ve stated a long time ago, the incremental difference (if any) is going to be pretty minor, all things considered. If you are hoping to buy one of these pots because you think it will dramatically improve the tea in your cup, you should invest the money in buying better tea leaves instead.

4) XXX clay is good for XXX tea – there has been an explosion of the names of clay types in recent years. An old teapot dealer here in Hong Kong who’s seen more teapots than I have drunk cups of tea tells me that until maybe 15 years or so ago, nobody cared what clay a pot is made with – the names are simply “red clay” “purple clay” or “duanni”. None of this “dicaoqing” “qingshuini” and a million different types of zhuni, etc etc. That, he thinks, is all just a ploy for sellers to get people to buy more pots – and I can sort of see why, as the completists in us want to collect something of everything. To him, the only thing that matters with the clay is whether it’s good or not – which is told not by the type (or more specifically, the name) of the clay, but rather by its texture and look and feel. He can’t name you what it is, but he can most certainly tell you if it’s good clay or not. Likewise, the idea that a certain type of clay, itself a dubious idea, is only good for certain type of tea, is a double dose of such myth perpetuation. Don’t buy into it. You don’t even need to use a pot with one single type of tea – using it with one family of teas is usually good enough.

At the end of the day, if you’re buying a yixing pot, just know that you’re not buying a power-booster to your tea – that’s not what it’s going to do. It may change your tea that you normally brew in, say, your gaiwan, but it won’t necessarily improve it – in some cases (depending on the pot) it may even make the tea worse. If you buy a pot, it’s because you want to use a pot and like to use a pot. If you want flexibility, stick with gaiwan. They’re cheaper and more versatile. Just don’t buy an expensive one – it will break.

Raising a yixing pot

How to season teapots? That was one of the comments on my last post. It’s actually not that difficult, although advice on the internet being what they are, and just from the first page of google results looking for “how to raise a yixing teapot“, I see some instructions that are of dubious utility (the first link, funny enough, has pictures of a ceramic cup, not yixing pot, and the second step of the second set of instructions is a death wish for a pot, as I will explain shortly). The basic premise is – keep it simple, and don’t do anything that will endanger your pot.

Before you use the pot, the instructions will tell you to do the following:

1) Clean the pot. 2) Boil it. 3) Brew some tea in it and then discard the tea. 4) Use

Now, the general outline of this I can agree with. Cleaning the pot is simple enough – wash it with water and clean out any debris that might be in the pot, which in brand new pots is often present. If you’re buying antiques or older pots, you may need to do more deep cleaning – ranging from acid baths to bleach baths. For pots that are new, that’s unnecessary.

I think I have, at some point in the life of this blog, also mentioned the need to boil a teapot. I have to say I no longer think boiling is a good idea, and since it is a very risky activity, I do not encourage people to do it unless they have a death wish for their pot. I have personally damaged two of my pots in the process of boiling them, and I am not sure if there’s any good reason to do so that cannot be achieved just by soaking the pot in very hot water for an hour in a pan/bowl that has been pre-warmed (along with the pot) and covered and perhaps insulated. The theory behind boiling the pot is that it opens up the (some say mythical) pores on the surface of the pot and “prime” them for seasoning. I’m not sure of the truth of this need – but if you believe in it, I think a hot soak will do the trick.

The problem with boiling is that even if you simmer, at the lowest heat, the water will still bubble up, unless your heat is so low that the water is kept only warm, and not hot, in which case you are doing what you can do with just a covered bowl with no heat source. When the water bubbles, however, the parts of the teapot in the pan will rattle, either a little or a lot, depending on your luck, and once in a while, it will rattle in such a way as to damage it – usually the victim is the tip of the spout or the edge of the lid. If you insist on boiling, start with cold water with the pot already in the pan and heat everything up, very slowly, together. Putting the pot in boiling water, like Verdant suggests, is extremely risky. Putting anything extra, like a spoon in the pot (as they also suggest) is even riskier – the less things the pot can knock against, the better. I know people here who boil with some elaborate contraption they’ve devised with wet towel lining the inside of a rice cooker or something along those lines. I, frankly, don’t see the point.

Whatever your belief regarding yixing clay’s porosity, I can personally attest that they do soak up smell very well. For example, the pair of pots in my last post – I just tried, for the sake of experimentation, to brew some tea in the relatively unseasoned pot the other day without doing any cleaning. What I got was a slightly salty and old-sock like smell from the pot and the tea – and the tea did not recover even when I transferred it to another brewing vessel. This tells me I needed to clean it, and it also tells me what many yixing users already know – the pots do, over time, take on smells. In this case, it’s the musty smell of whatever storage facility it was in.

So having picked a tea to use the pot with (I’d generally suggest wide genres – oolongs, pu, black, greens, and not be too fussy with specificity – as in a previous post) I normally will actually soak the pot in said tea – spent leaves are fine – for some time, usually a few hours at a time, and refresh if deemed necessary. This should drive away the fresh clay smell (a mixture of sandy and clay-y). Then, your pot is more or less ready to use.

When using it, I almost never pour water over the pot, nor tea. There’s a reason for this, especially if your water source is high in minerals – over time, there will be a nasty ring of mineral deposits on your pot, usually right around the edge of the rim of the lid. This rim will be difficult to clean. The point of using the brush, as some of you might have seen people do, is to distribute the water evenly throughout the pot, so that this line of mineral doesn’t form (or at least, form a lot slower). Also, as a good chemist friend pointed out a long time ago, pouring water over a pot actually helps it to lose heat faster – that water evaporating off the surface of the pot is taking heat away from your pot. I do not believe that there is any tangible and discernable benefit to pouring water over the pot. Some believe the extra heat (if any) will help get more flavour out of the tea, but since your infusions are quick (a few seconds) and the difference in temperature between water in the pot and water-on-pot is minimal (a few degrees, at most?) I have a hard time imagining a physical process that will help you extract meaningful amounts of flavour out of the leaves in that short period of time.

Now, you will often read about the need to polish your pot, usually with the suggestion of using a wet towel, maybe with tea, after every single use. I normally don’t do this either, for another reason – very frequent use of a wet towel to polish your pot will result in what people often call, derisively, “the monk shine.” 和尚光 This is in reference to a Buddhist monk’s shiny, hairless head (although in reality, any bald head will do). Pots that have been over-buffed will be really shiny. Some people prefer it that way, others think it crass. The right hand pot in my last post, in person at least, is borderline “monk shine.” Personally, I prefer my pots seasoned but not shiny – like the lion pot here. If cleaning is a must (and sometimes it is – because of stains, etc) wet a cloth with warm water, and wipe, gently, the pot while it is warm.

When done drinking, clear the pot of leaves and rinse it out if you wish. Whatever you do, please do keep the lid off until the pot is absolutely dry. I know people who close the lid while it’s still wet because they want to season the inside. Sometimes it’s tea in there, other times it’s wet with clear water, but even then, when I open the lid of those pots, sometimes I can smell a bit of an off smell – mold. It’s far too easy to grow something in a pot if it’s wet and closed. Dry it out. If you use your pot often enough, it’ll season through use. There’s no need to rush, and if you forgot to clear the pot just once, you’ll have to start over by cleaning it inside out. There’s nothing worse than realizing that you forgot some tea in a pot you left around because you wanted to season it, and to discover that what was tea has now turned into a gooey, sickly smelling gel-like substance. I’ve done it before, and it’s nasty. Clean, and keep the lid off.

Finally, a word of etiquette – I was chided a long time ago for doing this by friends with far more experience. If you are drinking tea with friends and you want to admire someone else’s pot, ask before you pick it up, and when you pick it up, keep either the lid or the body on the table when you look at the other part of the pot. Never, ever hold the pot in one hand while you hold the lid in the other (or worse, the same hand) when you’re peering into the pot. Even if you think you have steady hands, all it takes is one accident. Two hands on one pot or one lid is far better than thumb and index on the lid’s knob while your hand holds the pot itself. It’s someone else’s pot, and someone else’s effort – the pot might not be worth a lot, but the time and effort and the memory it comes with are not replaceable. Minimize the risk to others by respecting their wares. You can always break your own teapots.

Addendum: A friend also suggested I add two things to the etiquette section. The first is don’t knock someone else’s pot against itself – in other words, don’t use the lid and hit the body of the pot with it. Yes, some people do that to test to see if the pot rings, but yes, it sometimes can damage the lid or the body of the pot. It happens, and you don’t want to be the one doing it. The other thing not to do is to start doing water tests or whatever else tests you do with pots as if you’re buying them – it’s someone else’s pot. They already bought it. Unless they asked you to evaluate it, don’t. You don’t size up someone’s kid (or cat, or car) and start testing their IQ or kicking the tires, so why would you do that with a teapot?

Separated by accident

Some friends have been saying I should post more of my pots online. Well, here’s one, or two, rather

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I’m a real sucker for these pairs with matching pouches, conveniently colour coded so that they are easily identifiable without needing to fish them out and check. There’s a reason that’s necessary

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As you can see, they are different – but actually, not that different. The two were clearly made the same way. The only thing is, the one on the left seemed to have, early in its life, suffered an accident. The tip of the spout seems to be filed down to give it the current appearance. It should’ve looked like the one on the right, but for reasons of accident, it isn’t (there’s some residual damage under the spout). As a consequence, whoever owned the pair probably never really used the broken pot, and stuck with the one that isn’t broken. So, now you have even more difference – one has a lovely, shiny patina, the other one has none. If you want evidence that Yixing clay seasons over time, well, this is exhibit A.

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You can see that under the lid the clay of both pots are virtually identical.

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You can think of these as identical twins who suffered different fates. One got an unlucky break early on, and as a result, is loved that much less and spent that much less time with the owner of the pot. Whoever owned it took enough care to fix the broken pot – it probably had an ugly break of the tip and so the tip was filed down for aesthetics, but for whatever reason, it never got the attention it needed. The other got everything – loving care, attention, all the tea it needed to nourish its surface. So, many years later, I see the end result of it. It is probably safe to say that most will find the seasoned pot much more pleasing to the eye, but now that I am the owner of these two, maybe I’ll try to right the wrong and give the broken pot some love. It deserves it after all these years.

A small curiosity

Over the years I’ve collected some pretty odd looking teapots. This is one of them

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I have no idea what this is. The thing is tiny – it measures 8cm from tip of spout to end of handle. It is unglazed, and construction is Yixing-like – it’s clearly slab built, and probably molded by hand/fingers instead of using many tools. The thing probably leaks a little – there are some tea stains on the exterior of the pot that looks like minor bleeding that happens when you use, say, a Hagi cup. It has that Yixing sandy smell when you wet it. I’m inclined to believe this is a Yixing pot, although I don’t know of its origins or anything.

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Small pots like this always pose a problem. I know they have fans – people always ask me where to get these tiny pots, but I personally find that anything below about 80ml to be too small to be of practical use. First of all, leaves often don’t fit. Then the small size makes control quite difficult. I prefer things in the 100ml range, which puts this just below. I doubt I’ll be using this pot much, but it’s a lot of fun to look at and play with.


There’s a lot of discussion, everywhere, of what is zhuni and what is not. It’s quite easy to tell what isn’t, especially if you’ve seen enough of them, but what is, is harder to say. I think I am reasonably confident, however, in saying that this pot I bought not too long ago is, indeed, zhuni.

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The walls of this pot is quite thin, and it is a nice build. It’s slightly large for one person use, but I think its shape and size works well for oolongs. A Taiwanese oolong should do quite well in it, and I am quite excited to try it out.

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There are little problems – like the little chip in the base that you see here. Can’t complain though, as perfect condition ones these days are astronomical in price. These days Chinese buyers are hoovering up everything, from pots to tea to supporting teaware. It’s getting harder and harder to buy things now, and until the China bubble bursts (if it ever does) I think high prices are here to stay.

What’s in Yixing clay?

So, what’s in Yixing clay anyway?

Last year I got in touch with Professor NH Cheung of the Department of Physics of Hong Kong Baptist University, because they have this technique that they have been using to do spectroscopy on various things – forensic analysis on ink toners, for example, among others. They can use it to figure out what elements are present in any given substance without causing damage to the material itself. Well, what better than this to test if Yixing clay has lead or not? After all, that’s what everyone’s worried about, it seems, and this method seems infinitely better than the rather dodgy lead test kits that you can buy. So we got in touch, and Professor Cheung’s PhD student (soon to be Dr) Bruno Cai conducted the tests. You can read the full report here: 2012.12.31 Report of PLEAF analysis on yixing tea pots-1

I asked them to take samples from both the lid and the base of the pot, so as to get a more general sense of whether there are differences. I also gave them two pots – identical ones from, presumably, the same batch, which are here listed as “sample 1 and sample 2”. I thought it might be interesting to test to see if they share similar characteristics. In case you’re wondering, they’re the same as these ones:


The quick summary is – no lead (Pb). Among the elements present are: Aluminium, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Silicon, and Titanium. We don’t know in what quantity they are there, but that’s a start.

We might try to do more tests on different pots. They have also done tests on yixing ware previously – some reddish yixing cups, to be precise. The signatures are a bit different. This could get interesting.

Traveling tea set



PhotobucketHaving obtained this recently – I’m still trying to make sense of all the parts. So far, identified objects are: chataku (2), dishes (2), metal tea scoop, dry leaves presentation vessel (I think – the red/black thing), watercolour painting booklet, signed Baishi laoren 白石老人. Can’t tell if that’s real or not. For the bottom section: 5 yixing cups in bamboo holding them together, 5 small wooden chataku (are they supposed to be used on top of the metal ones?), 5 leaf-shaped dishes, 1 shiboridashi, 1 chaire, made with pewter and missing the original lid (with a replacement wood lid instead) and what looks like an incense burner of some sort (bottom right). Not shown here is a dried lotus that’s extremely fragrant.

I’m trying to figure out how one should be using this for tea. The parts that are easily identifiable are good enough. The rest I presume are for incense burning and also for snacks. One would also have to carry some sort of kettle and a stove. Having a tea picnic is not easy.