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Upper handle shapes: Pan Chunyu studies the upper handle shapes of the purple clay pots of Yixing, China.

THE YIXING PURPLE CLAY POT is a kind of unglazed fine ceramic pottery produced in Yixing of Jiangsu province in China. It is made of purple clay as a single raw material, after hand flappingv, inlaid moulding and more than 1000[degrees]C high temperature firing, its production techniques were listed in the first batch of state-level non-material cultural heritage lists in 2006. This is a kind of purple clay pot that has an upper handle on both sides of the body or shoulders of the pot, it is a purple clay pot variety of profound connotation and has always been one of the key characteristics of the purple clay pot. Through archaeological discoveries, the earliest purple clay pot (early in 1533) that has been known is the purple clay pot with upper handle in the begonia shape collected in the Nanjing Museum, as shown in Figure 1. It is shown that during the Song and Ming dynasties, the way of tea drinking had been developed from tea cooking to tea steeping, the purple clay pot with upper handle had an important position.

The 148 samples of this study are collected from the purple clay pots in China (Yixing) Purple Clay Museum, Nanjing Museum, Yixing Purple Clay Craft Factory Museum, Wuxi Museum and the literatures in Wuxi Library, their time span are from 1630s to the early 21st century, and they are representative of and, on the whole, cover the development processes of the purple clay pots with upper handle.

The study on the upper handle shapes of the purple clay pot mainly focuses on the basic shapes of the upper handles and their detail structures. First of all, the study of the basic shapes of the upper handles are mainly including the comparison of the structure, the number and the features of the upper handle.

The upper handle is divided into the hard handle and soft handle. The hard handle is a fixing structure that is moulded by purple clay and sintered on the pot body. The soft handle refers to the knobs on the pot body moulded by purple clay. It is a kind of movable structure by fixing metal or nonmetal upper handle after sintered. In the Ming Dynasty, It was common that the purple clay pots with upper handles used fixed structures. During the Qing Dynasty and the Republic, using the movable structure was increased significantly because of the popularity of the Bucket Teapot, as shown in Figure 2. Most of the modern teapots use the hard handle and create the integrated upper handle structure with the application of modern constructivism design principles.

The conventional upper handle teapot has two handle feet that connect with the pot body. In the Qing Dynasty, however, there appeared many 'two front one behind' trifurcated handle feet on the pot body as shown in Figure 3. This feature is particularly obvious in the period of the Republic when the proportion rises to 27.8 percent. One is that the artisans of this period liked naturalistic handle shapes such as plum tree, bamboo, stem and so forth and these branches all had bifurcate characteristics. On the other hand, adding a handle foot could improve the security and the comfort during the producing and using period. Modern purple clay craftsmen also create some four handle foot shapes and single handle foot shapes.

Observed from the front of the upper handle shapes of the purple clay pots, the teapots of the Ming Dynasty all used plain and solemn symmetric shapes and formed a significant style. The artisans of the Qing Dynasty and the Republic mainly used trifurcate handles as the asymmetrical shape design, they broke the symmetric handle shape requirements and changed some simple visual experiences of conventional handle feet. Modern craftsmen have been affected by contemporary thinking and use more and more asymmetrical handle shape designs. With the exception of the symmetrical handle shapes and trifurcate handle shapes, they often adopted the geometric modernist composition methods The shapes of the purple clay pots are infinite in variety, as shown in Figure 4. Second, handle details include the connection methods of the upper handle and the pot body, handle space and so forth.

The basic shapes of the pot bodies are round and square, so the connection of the upper handle and the body will form the curved surface connection or plane connection. By 'the upper handle angle' it means the angle formed by the axis of the upper handle and the pot body. In comparison, the angle between the handle and the pot body is smaller, the contact area between them is larger, the safety is greater, so the proportion of the curved surface connection is about 70 percent from the mid-Ming dynasty, far higher than that of the plane connection, as shown in Figure 5. During the process of handle connection, especially plane connection, the artisans improve the success rate of production by expanding the contact area of the handle feet and the pot body. Modern craftsmen created new methods of vertical face connection, mainly used in the upper handle connection with the column body, it can make a larger connecting area for the shoulder and the body of the pot, as shown in Figure 6. In addition, modern craftsmen also reference the knobs design of the soft upper handle pots and create a knobs-handle connection method, so the slim handle is sintered with the knobs, it changes the contact place of the hard handle and the pot body and make the handle connection more free, as shown in Figure 7.

The handle space of the purple clay pot in the Ming Dynasty mainly used geometrical shapes of the rounded square and round, especially the rounded square is more popular. The round shape was in great fashion in the Ming Dynasty and the rounded square shape was more common in the Qing Dynasty. The handle of the rounded square shape has the larger connecting area with the pot body, steady and dignified, comfortable and convenient for use, it is a perfect combination of aesthetics and functionality. The handle of the square shape is rare, it is often more used to match the flat square shape pot body than the column shape body and ball shape body. The abnormally shaped handle spaces were all the rage in the Republic as they had some relation to the realistic qualities of plant branch shapes.

So, the traditional purple clay teapots adopted hard upper handles, symmetrical handles, conventional handle feet, curved surface connections, rounded square handle shapes as the mainstream forms, all looking simple yet elegant. And since Modern times, craftsmen continue to innovate and change, mainly in the designs of the upper handle, the handle space and the handle textures. They turn the processing performance of purple clay to their advantage, boldly introducing advanced international art ideas and Chinese traditional cultural materials, creating a large number of innovative wares.

In general, the rounded square shape has the axis of the handle vertical through the pot body, perpendicular and pointing to the horizontal plane; and a round shape has the axis of the handle perpendicular to the generatrix of the pot body, pointing to the barycentre on the body. With the application of creative methods of Modern art and the design of bionics, extending the axis of the handle along the generatrix of the pot body or stretching along the spiral, they can improve the organic bonding conditions of the handle and the body and form an innovative style. The Curly Lines Teapot made by modern masters Wang Yixian and Zhang Shouzhi is an outstanding representative of following these rules.

The design of the handle spaces is not only about their thickness, curvature and surface textures, but also about the negative spaces composed by the handle, the handle feet, the shoulder and the body of the pot, the pot lid and the knob. It is necessary to consider the sizes, shapes and the other features such as symmetry, balance, rhythm and cadence and so forth. The more advanced creative methods are making these negative spaces a background to contrast the design features of the pot lid and the knobs. On this basis, the designs of the handle spaces develop in two directions; one is to break the integrity of the handle space by using the traditional Chinese concepts of the combining of nihility and reality and developing the design of the single handle foot; another is to reference the traditional forms of trigeminal handle feet by developing the handle space from twodimensional space into 3D space, designing the handle foot location, upper handle numbers and the angle of the handle feet.

The sculpture pots were all the rage from the early Qing Dynasty. The potters paid attention to the imitation of natural objects such as the shape, the quality and the colour; typical examples including lotus flowers, pine trees, dragons and so forth. While the purpose of the texture of purple clay material has not been fully explored, the partial or integral mix and match of the shapes, the grains and the clay colour in a single piece of art work with different visual and tactile character fall under the preconditions of preservation of the shapes of Chinese traditional utensils or their connotations. Attempts with the purpose of forging the key point therein may greatly expand creative dimensionality of the handles of purple clay teapot. We are expecting more varieties of art works to come into being.

In conclusion, since the Mid-Ming Dynasty, the purple clay pots made in Jiangsu Yixing have a unique suitability for the tea as well as a profound cultural connotation. The special purple clay material, special beat (paddling) forming processes and special mud bonding methods give substantial technical content to the purple clay pots. The particularity of the process and the originality of the manual work prove that the upper handle shapes of the purple clay pots have significant features and quite high aesthetic values. Following the principles of copying traditional designs and combining with innovative ideas, developing creative dimensions of the purple clay pots, could maintain these traditional handmade craftsmanship qualities and the strong vitality of the products.


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Zhejiang Provincial Museum. The Impression of the Purple Clay Pots - Famous Purple Clay Pots in the Folk of Zhejiang, Hangzhou: Xiling Society of Seal Arts. 2010.

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Pan Chunfang. The Forms Atlas of Yixing Purple Clay Pots, Beijing: Rongbaozhai Publishing. 2008.

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Chunyu Pan, PhD, Associate Professor of Jiangnan University, is a decoration artist and researcher of Jiangsu intangible cultural heritage laboratory in China. Supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (JUSRP21150) and Research Funds of Jiangsu Province Bureau of Cultural Relics (2014SK18).
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Author:Chunyu, Pan
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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