Tea, Wine and Poetry

All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection
  • Three versions of the character “hu,” a pottery vessel used for holding water or wine.

Qing Dynasty Literati and Their Drinking Vessels-詩酒茶情 清代製壺名家遺珍

Tea, Wine and Poetry—Qing Literati and Their Drinking Vessels documents the production of Yixing tea ware during the late Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911). The pieces on display reveal the close connections between potters and the men of letters who participated in the making and decoration of these treasured ceramics.

Yixing, on the western shore of Lake Tai in southern Jiangsu province, became famous for a type of ceramic known as zi sha紫沙 or “purple sand,” the purple color resulting from the high iron content of the clay (Bartholomew 1977: 13). The teapots featured in this exhibition are renowned for their ability to retain the taste, color and aroma of the tea leaves. Even in hot weather, tea left overnight in an Yixing teapot will stay fresh. These teapots were never washed; the old tea leaves were simply removed and the interior of the pots rinsed in cold water. As a result, the pots that have been in long use often have a rich patina that has been produced by the years of handling (Bartholomew 1977: 13).

The names of hundreds of Yixing potters are known beginning with the Wanli period (1573-1619) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This is unusual in the history of Chinese ceramics, since most potters have remained anonymous. “The signing of the wares is an indication that the potters must have been proud of their work and considered themselves as more than mere craftsmen making utilitarian objects.” It also reflects patronage received from the literati class. Men of letters would sometimes select the clay, design the pots, and supply verse written in elegant calligraphy for engraving on the pots themselves (Bartholomew 1977: 16, 17).

Broadly speaking, these artistic activities contributed to the image of the man of letters as a civilized person, a cultivated connoisseur of poetry, painting, calligraphy, antique bronzes, jades, inkstones, finely printed books, and well-prepared tea (Clunas 1993: 104-105).

The idea of what it means to be civilized in terms of Chinese culture and society evolved and changed over the centuries along with Chinese culture and society itself. Tea, Wine and Poetry looks at the notion of the civilized human being in late Ming and Qing through the lens of material culture, that is to say, through the elegant luxury products produced by Yixing potters. In turn, this web-companion expands the exhibition’s content in a decidedly multidisciplinary way in keeping with the fourth of the National History Standards’ “Historical Thinking Standards for Grades 5-12.” These stress

the importance of providing students documents or other records beyond materials included in the textbook that will allow students to challenge textbook interpretations, to raise new questions about the event, to investigate the perspectives of those whose voices do not appear in the textbook accounts, or to plumb an issue that the textbook largely or in part bypassed (Standard 4: Historical Research Capabilities).

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.