Friday, May 26, 2017

The 2017 Chinese Porcelain Exhibition of the Tea Institute at Penn State. Day 1: Qinghua

Here is an account of this year's Exhibition. The subject is rather broad, Chinese porcelain, but it was further broken down into qinghua (blue on white), white Dehua, black glaze and celadon wares. Every day, Teaparker and I would present a different type ware.
Black glazed bowl, celadon vase, Dehua cup and qinghua jar
Before I go further, I should first clarify the concepts of earthenware, stoneware and porcelain.
Earthenware was invented first and was made of clay found directly in the earth and fired at low temperature (700 to 900 degrees Celsius). Its texture is rather rough and porous. The sound of the body is dull, its surface isn't translucent and it's difficult to clean.
Stoneware came next and uses finer clay that requires crushing, rinsing and kneading. It is fired at 1100 to 1300 degrees Celsius so that it becomes harder as its surface vitrifies. The color of the stoneware isn't white, but can be black or celadon.
Porcelain was invented last, but the first proto-porcelain (grey-white stoneware) already started to appear in the early Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC) and matured during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD). Let's pause a moment to consider the fact that Europe only started to produce its own porcelain in 1710 in Meissen!!
Porcelain requires kaolin clay which contains a high proportion of aluminum oxide and silicon oxide. And it requires a high firing temperature above 1200 degrees Celsius. It is usually glazed so that it gets a beautiful white gloss and won't absorb water or any dirt particles.

Gongxian kiln, Henan province, Tang dynasty
The qinghua porcelain, aka underglaze blue porcelain dates back to the Tang dynasty (618-907). The pigment used to produce this blue color is cobalt. And this cobalt didn't come from China, but from the Abbasid empire (Iran/Irak area). This is evidence of one of the first international cooperation to make a product!

The dish on the left is part of the exhibition 'Secrets of the Sea: a Tang shipwreck' taking place at the Asia Society Museum (NYC) until June 4th. There are very few qinghua wares preserved from the Tang dynasty.

The most famous kilns for qinghua ware are those of Jingdezhen. This town was renamed in 1004 after a Sung emperor who loved its porcelain so much.
When we tested different qinghua cups with tea, it is this old double happiness cup that performed best and was the most fragrant. The reason is that it was made by traditional means with natural clay. Interestingly, the color of the qinghua porcelain isn't exactly white, but 'duck egg' (bluish) white.
Qinghua porcelain reached its high mark during the Chenghua reign (1465-1487) with the making of the chicken cups.
After the theory, the students of the Tea Institute also got to experience how qinghua cups impact the aromas of the tea. Thanks to their experience and training, they were quick to realize that even though porcelain is reputed to be neutral to the taste, there are variations from one cup to another. Differences in clay, glaze and shape explain these variations.
In the evening, after a day of lecture, we would still be brewing tea. This part was more relaxed and even more practical. After performing a Chaxi, I would let the students practice theirs. 
If my memory serves me well, I think we started with this fresh Alishan Jinxuan Oolong and continued with that complex and well structured winter Alishan Zhuo Yan Oolong on the first night.
Our brewer, Patrick, is an alumni of the Tea Institute. Thanks to his experience there, he landed a job at one of the biggest tea chains in the US! So, if most Americans drink better tea in department stores in the near future, it will be thanks to him! (If not, we'll blame his management!)

1 comment:

Jason Cohen said...

Thank you Stéphane for the wonderful event!
It is always great to have you at the Institute,
and this event is perhaps the best we have ever held!

All the best,
Jason