Wearing Han Chinese clothing, playing Guqin (a Chinese instrument in some ways similar to the zither), savoring tea, and appreciating Yixing clay (also known as Purple Sand) teapots, all seem like the retiring life happening in Chinese martial arts novels. However, this is the daily life of Duan Yingrui, a teenage woman in her early thirties.
Located in Suzhou, China, Shantang Street is a famous historical and cultural spot in China. At the end of this busy street lies Qin Ye Tearoom. Through its unpretentious exterior, you will find a tranquil and peaceful space full of antique teaware, during which Yixing clay teapots stand for the taste of the shopkeeper. White is designed deliberately to prevail in the interior to preferably showcase the feature of teaware. Tourists attracted by the furnishings just can’t help stepping into the tearoom, and then get to meet the shopkeeper Duan Yingrui.
“I am fond of interacting with clay.”
Duan studied sculpture at college, after which she used to be occupied in city sculpture for several years. She is obsessed with the nature of clay and the sculpt of production. As she puts it, this is a process of the craftsman and clay being acquainted with each other. Working on city sculpture was hard and she often needed to go to the construction site. After getting married, she turned to Yixing clay, a craft that is similar to her major, also combining clay and sculpt.
In order to be proficient in the craft, Duan started as an apprentice to the Chinese Yixing clay master craftsman Qiang Dejun. Unlike common studying, apprenticeship is a two-way choice between the master and the apprentice. That means before the formal acknowledgment of this relationship, Duan should stay with Qiang for three years to observe whether his craft skill and teaching ability are in line with expectations; at the same time, Qiang also needs to examine the apprentice’s sincerity and attitude toward the craft. Only when they are both satisfied with each other, can apprenticeship be considered to officially start. From then on, a kind of spirit of contract is formed between the master and apprentice, and the term of the contract will be a lifetime.
As one of the traditional teapots in China, the Yixing Clay teapot, named after the place of origin, Yixing, a city in eastern China, has enjoyed an important position in the Chinese tea ceremony (also known as Chinese tea arts) for a long time. It is benefited from its special material and shape, which make the teapot absorb a tiny amount of tea during brewing. After prolonged use, the pot will develop a coating that retains the flavor and color of the tea. Yixing clay is a huge family, including purple clay, green clay, red clay and so on. Duan pointed out that the only way that a craftsman could be familiar with these materials was to touch them every day.
“In order to clear up the sources and get to the bottom of problems, I opened Qin Ye Tearoom.”
In 2017, Duan came to Suzhou, a city with a strong tea culture since ancient times, to set up Qin Ye Tearoom, collecting outstanding Yixing clay teapots around China, conveying and promoting the correct concept of tea ceremony.
Duan said that about 40,000 people are doing Yixing clay teapots business in China. To expand production and increase profits, most of them would pay more attention to the sculpt of Yixing clay teapots and even falsely advertise the basic functions of the teapot as advantages, while few vendors and manufacturers focus on the practicality of the teapot. Faced with such good and bad intermingled situation, Duan decided to stand out to use her own strength to clarify matters and get to the bottom of things.
“A good teapot should be strong at pouring water with non-drip spout, which are difficult to be distinguished with the naked eye, only when the teapot is used to pour water,” Duan said.
So whenever there are manufacturers opening kilns, she insists on testing pots with water one by one. Most of the other vendors who only check the body for defects could pick a hundred pots an hour. Instead, she might only pick two or three a day. Even pots from master Qiang are subject to the same inspection standards.
“I want to bring people really good Yixing clay teapots, let more and more people know how to appreciate them instead of blindly listen to market rumors and receive misinformation.” Said Duan, “Even if people come here just to look around not to buy, I will introduce the products and processes to them in as much detail as possible.”
This is especially true when Duan meets young customers. She tries her best to improve their feelings of the shop, by taking no pains to show them how to make and taste tea and explain the craft behind the teapot. Duan admitted that young customers are the focus of her current work. In her view, the young generation is not only the main consumer in the future market but also can affect parents upward and children downward, so that they have infinitely potential power that cannot be ignored. Duan hopes to drive more young people to re-understand Chinese tea culture and take a fancy to drink tea through her explanation.
To her delight, a local primary school in Suzhou has invited her to conduct a tea ceremony class to popularize the etiquette of tea culture. When it comes to teaching children to make tea, Duan’s tone can’t hide her excitement. She believes that in this murmuring process, children will learn how to treat others from the tea ceremony and understand that respect for others is also respect for themselves.
I hope what I do can let people love me when they meet me.
It was the hardest period for her when Qin Ye Tearoom just opened. Her total income was less than 8,000 RMB a month, and she could not make ends meet. In retrospect, she just understated with a relaxed tone. Till now the shop has enjoyed a small reputation in the local. Her business is thriving and she is no longer distressed for profit. Duan told us that every customer who comes into the shop is now willing to buy one or two favorite products. Referring to management, she summed it up in one simple word — sincerity, that is, the sincerity in doing business and the sincerity in teaware.
“I think more about how to keep down to earth and to be steadfast in my work, than about the brand publicity. I’m not in a hurry to make it bigger, but each step has to be steady. I hope what I do can let people love me when they meet me.” She described her ambition in this way.
To get people interested in the tea ceremony, Duan wrestles not only with herself but also with her guests. Some repeat customers gradually confide in her about upset trifles during sipping tea. Whenever this time, Duan will listen patiently, and guide them with truth enlightened by the tea ceremony.
The guests’ problems differ. Gradually Duan encountered some challenges that even she could not solve. Therefore, she began to study psychology in her spare time, strengthening her judgment with the help of professional knowledge, so as to give her guests more persuasive advice. She said frankly that she did so with a touch of self-interest that is to leave people a good impression of Qin Ye Tearoom, and this little step is the first step for people to like the tea ceremony.
When it comes to the future, Duan has a well-thought-out plan. She expressed that she wanted to build Qin Ye Tearoom into a platform for professional research on Yixing clay teapots, and then sublimate it into a window of cultural output, to carry forward Chinese tea culture to the world.