Zitao Myth

It takes less than 3 hours from Kunming to get to Jianshui by train and I feel excited like little child in Christmas day because we are finally going to get some Zi Tao pottery for our shop.

From local train station we are taking direct lift by mini van ( mian bao che ) to the zitao village. We are finding out that there are 2 main places divided by main road running at the edge of the town.

The new and old one.

 

Walking along the street we randomly visiting pottery shops to have an idea about the prices and quality. Most of them are just retailers without self producing background and so prices are quite high.

The new place during the day is very quite and sleepy. No people at all . To make potential customers feel comfortable walking through the street in hot day and do some shopping, the cold mist is sprinkled from the top of the shops.

 

Really posh place though and the prices of teapots are reflecting that.

 

We come back to this place later in evening and its more alive. It gets filled with local people and small street food vendors ( mostly Hui Zu ) with BBQ.

Crossing the big road we are standing at the edge of old village which has been partially renewed , sort of. Basically new build of traditional Chinese architectural concept has been set up just in front of this place for accommodating pottery shops purpose.

 

The place looks really beautiful, traditional “si he yuan” square concept , big kiln where traditionally pottery was fired in the past or even going to a public toilet feels like walking trough the typical Chinese garden in forbidden city.

Since my wife’s parents origin is Jianshui , she still has some relatives here and I feel lucky because one of her cousins is actually teapot maker. We are finding out that his shop is located just right in the hot spot of this commercial place and I already have bad feeling about that.

Relatively young cousin managed with help of his father to create very fancy shop. All in wood with traditional calligraphy decoration. “feng shui” water pool made of stone with small golden fish inside and some funny rotating stone teapot in the middle filling the cups around with water makes me feel like being in some Disney Land.

 

Big table with water stream inside to move the cups around , made on special order from Guandong province , doesn’t look cheap either.

Getting know  , basically , my family member I’m learning that he started making a teapots just few years ago by attending classes of some local master and now calling a master him self. His teapots are not bad , just price starts from 150$ and when I told him for what prices we sell to our foreign customers , he lost his loosing  interest.  No wonder, his shop is made to aim rich Chinese tourists who are willing to spend fortune not for the high quality teapot , but for long story they hear about the it’s origin.

I’m getting bit frustrated by this fact and my hope to get some decent teapots for good price is gone. Having a walk around the place , visiting the other shops where cheapest item is a simple cup with lid – 120$ which I’m getting offered as an option after saying : “Sorry I cant afford your expensive teapots” . Of course I couldn’t avoid to local grannie saying : ” You foreigners are rich ” .

We didn’t come here to waste the time, money and hear some stories about the teapots, but to buy some, so we decided go further into the village.

It all happens on one street and some shops are already upgraded from simple shelf and cheap furniture to a fancy store with old looking wood and bamboo decoration. And of course,  with upgraded prices.  WechatIMG320Some shops are proud having a pottery made by old style , traditionally fired on the wood, so they put it into the glass box with spot lights like some jewelry. Well , the price is like that alright. ( approx. 1$=6.5CNY ) .

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The fact is that many local people were originally farmers and they switched to teapot business because its relatively easier and more profitable. When we had a chat with our hotel lady we found out that prices of the teapots now are almost the same price as 10y ago. The reason being for that is , that 10y ago not many people here could make a decent teapot so some experienced teapot masters coming from different provinces were selling for high price.   Now ,although there are many people doing it , the prices are high up because of economy and boosting tea tourism from rich cities like Shanghai, Shenzen , Beijing etc.

Locals will tell you long story about long history of zitao pottery but looking at the output products its not that obvious. No wonder, they have long history indeed , but mostly with “Qi guo ji” which is special pot for cooking / steaming the chicken and other big pots. To make a small teapot requires much more skill and that’s the part where most of those “masters” fail here.

 

Not only body shaping but also details like a sprout ( nozzle ) which we found very funny made in many teapots. The water comes out smoothly no problem, just overall look of the teapot is kinda funny with the trumpet shaped nozzle. As we find later , some people even buy good ones from other makers.

 

We haven’t found any master who makes GOOD teapot from the beginning to end and as we learned later, those people doing it at home and already have shops owners knocking on their door with offer to resell their products. Some of them don’t even make teapots anymore, just became teachers ( pottery masters )  or supervisors in bigger manufactures.

 

Of course you will see people making the teapots right at the back of their shop, some of them are real, some of them are fake ( they just have the pottery wheel there for show ) , but looking at the products you can get an idea about their skill level.

We ended up in one shop run by boss from Jingdezhen who , as he said, came to Jianshui because the clay price is very cheap. And he is right on that one! His teapots look good and his much longer experience with teapot making makes me even more confident to do the business with him. Only a slight problem. The prices are too high , even “buy more – get cheaper” doesn’t make big difference. We are leaving it to the next day when we find the answer for the price tag questions after seeing a courier delivers new teapots to his shop. He was just a re-seller  😦

 

My wife is getting annoyed with this and suggesting that we take this teapot matter too seriously and we should just buy something and try it . I’m persistently going from one shop to another and trying to find out good teapots for good price.  Find the real teapot maker by giving detailed cross questions. The fact that my wife can speak local dialect so  helps as well as her experience with marketing and dealing with people. Many times she could determine if the seller is honest or just making another story.

Why we need all that? Well , if you re-sell somebody’s stuff , u are bounded with minimum price and can’t go lower, but if you make it your self and see somebody buying more than one pot, you will be willing to go bellow your expectations in faith that person will come back next month for more.

And since at the beginning  its very difficult to find out what is the reasonable price for zitao  teapot , we need to see how much it comes from the source.

Some people are honest and tell you: ” this is mine, this I help to sell it to my friend” and of course their stuff is cheaper. But many sellers would just claim all products as their own.

As we are walking further down to the village we can see all the clay processing from beginning. Zitao has 5 basic colors : red, yellow, gray, blue-ish and white and by mixing them they get various color tones. In our trip we just saw 3 types.

 

The stones get crushed and mixed with water , then crushed in smaller pieces till it changes to thick liquid which is processed and then pressed hard to squeeze water out.

It comes out in big cakes which are either used directly for making big pottery or compressed into the smaller tubes make it easier to transfer and sell.

 

The 20kg of this clay tube costs approx. 5$. So grab your teapot and weight it to get an rough idea of material costs 🙂 ( of course there is some wastage and pot is also heavier before being fired ).

So what makes the prices so high? Well , many factors. As  mentioned above, the final product on the shelf is mostly going through the many different hands and each gets its own profit. Other thing is the  “cultural value” as locals are trying to increase buy paying some local master who is good at calligraphy. As we were told ( asking about 2 identical teapots , but one with calligraphy ) that master is known among the locals so the price is higher. Well, we never heard of him and she said locals know, so they would appreciate his art.

 

Ehmm,… The teapot price is equivalent to one month wages of local worker , so I’m not buying this.

In fact , we saw the master at work. He is an old man alright , but using the book to copy characters doesn’t make me convinced much. Our calligraphy master Fan De Hui can stroke out 30 lines poem from Qing dynasty in Xin Kai typeface with his eyes closed after drinking half bottle of local “bai jiu” 🙂

With another rising price factor mentioning above , along with tourism, there is also need to escape from increasing rent  by building the house with shop , in which case many locals have already succeeded. Other factor is learning expenses . Our young cousin paid around 600$ per months ( average income of local farmer ) to his master in period of 2 years, and naturally wants his investment back.

If you think about it , takes 1-2y to make simple style teapot and 5y to make some decent shapes , if you are not completely useless and pushed by need to make some money for your survival.  Not many people doing it longer, even if they claim 10y+. If you sell 1 of those fancy teapots a week, you are making more money than doctor in local hospital or engineer.

 

Buy more = Get cheaper – We got that offer almost everywhere but problem is that each teapot maker from 20-30 pots he/she had, only 2-5 were decent ones or other would be as reselling for friend without negotiable price. So we actually couldn’t buy a big bulk from one maker and ending up with buying from four different people.

 

I know , this article doesn’t look really encouraging to buy some zitao pots, but need to say, there is a beauty in that. There are many hours of work behind each teapot we selected for our shop and we managed to get them  ( as we were told by local friend ) for  prices as local people.  It takes us only one day trip to get Jianshui pottery taking the train from Kunming and spend 20$ for return ticket ( 2 people ) , so our costs are very low. However we feel happy to manage get some decent pots for reasonable price.

Jianshui Purple Pottery at yunnancraft.com

YunnanCraft.com

One thought on “Zitao Myth

  1. Fired pottery has a lot of kiln loss, a good percentage of pots blow up in the kiln, sometimes ruining an entire batch. i potter will spend hours making a dozen pots only to lose them all during firing. The ones that survive need the perfect pour, lid must be tight, and no liquid leaking from the lid or spout. These qualities justify a high price.

    I live next to a famous tourist town in the US, many many things are sold there at a ridiculous price. On top of that this one town charges its own city tax in addition to the state tax. They justify that extra charge, in my opinion rightly so, because of all the extra services needed for all the tourists, like garbage pick up, sewer and water, well above and beyond the usage by the small number of actual residents of the town who live there year round. If I ask why prices are so high the locals will say, “well all the rich tourists from Chicago.” I guess it’s the same everywhere 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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