This story is probably my very favorite story from my year in China – the teapot adventure.  First, some background:

My sister-in-law and I have a thing about “finds.”  A find can be a bargain or something unique.  It would be difficult to explain exactly what we consider a find – we both just know when we’ve found one.

I had been in China several months when she sent me some pictures of unusual teapots and asked if I had seen any.  I showed the pictures to some of my students and they told me that China was very famous for those and that they could only be purchased in the county of Yixing (pronounced ee-shing, phonetically).  I learned that Yixing was the pottery capital of China.  In that county, there is a small town named Dingshu that has been making these teapots for over 1,000 years because of the special clay in that small region.

Unique doesn’t even begin to adequately describe these teapots.   After doing a lot of research, I became an expert on their history.   Tea supposedly tastes better sipped from these teapots than from any other.  If you keep using the same tea, you will only need to add water after some period of time since the flavor of the tea is stored in the porosity of the teapot.  (Of course, I guess using different flavors of tea would also be stored, but you’d never know what flavor to expect!)

The most popular size is for a single cup of tea, which is quite small, but they also come in various, larger sizes.  You can also find any shape imaginable, from round or square to animals or fruits and vegetables.  There are only four colors of clay – tan, blue, terra cotta and purplish black.  Teapots can be made in any combinations of these colors.

I first saw these teapots in Hong Kong on the first, short trip, but they were very expensive, so I ignored them.  I asked people if I could buy one in Nanchang and they found one for me for $10.  That isn’t very much money to us, but it was more than I made in one day and some Chinese people didn’t make that in a week.  Groceries or a teapot?  Not a tough choice…

We were given a week off from teaching in April, so I decided to try and visit Dingshu, if I could find someone who knew Chinese to go with me.  I talked one of the other teachers, Dawn, into making the trip; she had lived in China for awhile and her Chinese was quite good.

We first went to Hangzhou, which is known in China as one of their beautiful cities with a lake (but not so beautiful when we were there).  Rainy, foggy, cold and gray.  We took the train, traveling for about 15 hours in what is called a soft sleeper car.  We had our own compartment with actual mattresses (thus “soft”).

We then got on a bus for a 4-hour ride to Dingshu.  That ride was memorable, not only because of the dilapidated bus and the chattering people, but also broken seats, pigs and chickens.  The driver seemed to know everyone along the side of the road and picked each one up.  The 4 hours turned into 6 hours with all this “friendly” stopping, causing us to arrive in Dingshu at about 2 p.m.  The last bus back to Hangzhou was at 4, so we quickly figured out that we were spending the night.

 

 

 

 

 

We hired a pedicab to take us to the teapot factory – a bicycle with a cart on the back for passengers – a modern rickshaw.  He said he would charge us $1.50 to take us to the Purple Sands Teapot Factory, which was several miles away.  When we finally arrived there, it was closed, so he took us to a hotel.  Dawn inquired and found out that the price for a room was $2.

Paying our driver turned into an ordeal.  He said he wanted $20 because he had pedaled us around for 2 hours.  I refused to pay and offered $10.  Neither of us would budge on our price, and Dawn simply did not like handling conflict, so wanted to run away and leave me there to fend for myself.   A large crowd of locals were gathering to see what was going on – this was ultimate entertainment for them!

A well-dressed Chinese gentleman rode up on his bicycle and said, “I think you are trouble.”  Dawn explained the problem to him and he told the driver to take the $10, which was basically a week’s wages, and leave.   But the driver would not give in.  I finally paid him $13, out of sheer frustration.

The businessman’s name was Mr. Hua, and he invited us to take a tour of the teapot factory, where he worked, the next day.  He gave us his phone number so that we could make arrangements to meet him in the morning.

Our $2 hotel wouldn’t let us check in, because they didn’t have a license for foreigners.   There was only one hotel in town with that license and we had to pay $30, but we were safe and we crashed, exhausted.

The next morning we called Mr. Hua, who picked us up at our hotel in a truck, and took us to the Purple Sands Teapot Factory, the most famous one in China.  Unbeknownst to us, we couldn’t have visited without him or without a letter of permission from the government.  We were treated like royalty and given an in-depth tour of the factory.  The most interesting part was watching the teapots being made by hand.  There was not a piece of machinery in sight anywhere.

One teapot, in the shape of a watermelon, had a price tag of $20,000 U.S.  Mr. Hua advised us to buy teapots on the street because the ones in the factory gift shop were too expensive, but I insisted on purchasing one, reasonably-priced one from the actual factory.  Then we proceeded to buy as many as we could carry from the street vendors.  They ranged in price from $.50 to $2.  We wrapped them in our clothes to help prevent breakage.   The quality of my factory purchase was far superior to any of the others.

Mr. Hua told us that most of their tourists came from Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan – approximately 200 per year and very few from anywhere else.  No wonder we had been treated so extraordinarily!

We made it back to our school with no incidents and only one broken teapot (out of about 30).  I still have a dozen of these and gave the rest away as gifts.  Occasionally, I see one in the U.S., but not very often.

Dingshu was a very cute, quaint town with so much character.  To this day, it’s my favorite Chinese place.

 

 

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