Craftsman dedicated to revitalization of long-lost art of distinctive porcelain making

Yang Yong; Sun Yang China Plus Published: 2019-06-19 17:39:54
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A twisted clay porcelain artwork created by Chai Zhanzhu, the representative inheritor of Jiaotai porcelain firing. [Photo: China Plus/Yang Yong]

There's a wide variety of porcelain styles in the world. Jiaotai Ci in China is a rare type of twisted clay porcelain. It stands out from its peers with its distinctive marbled patterns.

Flourishing in the Northern Song Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago, Jiaotai Ci has been revived in recent decades after centuries of a blank as to how to manufacture it.

Chai Zhanzhu is one of the first craftsmen to retrieve the long-lost making technique. For more than three decades he has been devoting his career to revitalizing the craft.

According to archaeological research, Jiaotai Ci, or twisted clay porcelain, first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) more than 1,400 years ago. It flourished in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). During the two dynasties, China experienced an era of prosperity and technological innovation. As a result, the ceramic industry went through a phase of rapid development.

The Tang tri-colored glazed pottery, with yellow, brown, and green for its basic glaze colors, was very popular during that era. They were often used as the burial ware for emperors and nobles.

In the Northern Song Dynasty, thousands of kilns were spread across the whole country, with different local styles. The renowned 'five famous wares' at that time were the Ding, Ru, Jun, Guan and Ge styles.

Another innovation in porcelain making was the Jiaotai technique.

The Jiaotai ware was made from slabs of black and white clay, which were stacked, folded, pressed into logs, sliced, and finally arranged to form a vessel. The technique is recognized as "weaving patterns into the clay".

Chai Zhanzhu has been studying and practicing the ancient technique for 30 years. He says the distinctive veined or mottled patterns made the Jiaotai porcelain different from others of the same period.

"Usually, the patterns on a vessel are directly painted on the surface. While those on the Jiaotai porcelain don't just sit on the surface of the ware but provide the substance from which it is made, it is therefore uniquely viewed from both the interior and exterior surfaces, revealing a slightly shifted patterning from inside to the outside. Each piece has its own look, which is as unique as a fingerprint."

Chai Zhanzhu's hometown Jiaozuo, a city in central China's Henan Province, used to be a major production region of porcelain during the Northern Song Dynasty. According to local chronicles, more than four hundred kilns were erected in the Dangyangyu village in Jiaozuo. Thousands of local families made their living from ceramic making.

The twisted clay porcelain produced in Dangyangyu kilns, says Chai Zhanzhu, was famous for its delicate appearance and high quality.

"Dangyangyu is the birthplace of Jiaotai Ci. Yuntai Mountain has abundant reserves of porcelain clay, or Kaolin, which is rich in quartz and sericite. One is white and another is black. After firing under a temperature of 1,200 degrees, it turns into porcelain. The purity of the ceramic material and water in Dangyangyu, the techniques and even the climate are important factors to the quality of Jiaotai porcelain."

The firing methods are also key to the end product. Chai Zhanzhu says the high technical requirement for firing Jiaotai porcelain has severely limited its output.

"Jiaotai ware consists of clays of different colors. Each of them has a single thermal expansion rate. So the temperature range for the firing of Jiaotai porcelain is different from those using only one material. Also, it leads to an extremely low rate of finished products with around 90 percent scrapped."

The twisting and firing techniques of Jiaotai porcelain petered out in the centuries following the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty. Only a few old craftsmen acquired the skills, and there were no more new productions.

Since the 1930s, a large number of Jiaotai porcelain shards have been discovered at the site of the Dangyangyu kilns. Fewer than 70 pieces were unearthed whole. They've been kept in different museums around the world, including the British Museum in London, the Osaka Museum of History in Japan, and Beijing's Palace Museum.

Chai Zhanzhu (right) and his wife Li Hongxia pose for a picture with one of Chai's artworks. [Photo: China Plus/Yang Yong]

As a porcelain enthusiast, Chai Zhaizhu is obsessed with the great creation of his ancestors. He wanted to try making it by himself.

In 1996, Chai went to Jingdezhen in east China's Jiangxi Province, a modern center of porcelain making and one of China's most famous porcelain towns. He spent five years learning porcelain making skills, which include painting, designing, carving, and clay mixing.

He also visited museums and old craftsmen around China, trying to find the secrets behind the Jiaotai porcelain. The old shards he collected from local farmers in Dangyangyu helped him get a better understanding of the twisting technique.

Chai Zhanzhu says among dozens of decorations, the chrysanthemum pattern is the most difficult and time consuming. He happened to find out the magic solution to it by chance.

"It was two o'clock in the morning. I began to get headaches and dizzy spells after I tried twisting the chrysanthemum pattern many times. Not being able to do it, I banged the mixed clay on the desk and went to sleep. The next morning, when I was cleaning the workbench, I split the clay in half. To my surprise, I saw perfect chrysanthemum petals in it. "

It's not easy to reproduce the old techniques. According to Chan Zhaizhu, there are more than 70 detailed steps. The main stages include material selection, clay twisting, shaping, glazing and firing. Among them, the firing temperature is most important.

Chai spent more than two years exploring the firing curve for Jiaotai porcelain.

"If you didn't get the right temperature, you would have a whole kiln of broken pieces. It usually happened at the very beginning. Then I smashed them, cried and then tried again. I spent a large amount of time and money testing the suitable firing temperature. Repeated failures made me feel so sad."

Chai Zhanzhu says the creation of a good Jiaotai piece takes the right combination of physical conditions, skill, and sheer luck.

He tells the story of how he unlocked the secret of the temperature curve.

"It happened one day in April, 2002, around midnight. I was watching the temperature of the kiln closely. When it reached 1,000 degrees, there's only a bit of gas left in the cylinder. If the temperature kept dropping, it would write off everything in the kiln. I asked my assistant to have the cylinder bathed in hot water, a method to make it generate more gas, through which the temperature in the kiln was kept at 1,000 degrees. Then I ran to the nearest village and borrowed a full cylinder from a farmer. Half an hour had passed when I returned to the kiln and renewed the gas supply. The temperature started to rise. To my surprise, the final products were all good quality. I was so excited. My eyes brimmed with tears."

In the early 2000s, after repeated experiments, Chai Zhanzhu finally reproduced Jiaotai porcelain. He has become one of the first craftsmen to discover the long-lost technique.

In 2014, the Dangyangyu kiln Jiaotai porcelain firing was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage. Four years later, Chai Zhanzhu was named representative inheritor of the skill.

Over the past few years, China has continued to promote regulations, classified protection, capacity building and international exchanges concerning intangible cultural heritage.

According to a report from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, last year, 1,082 individuals were newly recognized as artists with the responsibility of carrying forward the country's intangible cultural heritage.

In 2016, China doubled the annual subsidies for state-level inheritors of intangible cultural heritage items to encourage them to pass on their skills. Inheritors like Chai Zhanzhu can get 20,000 yuan, about 2,900 US dollars, a year from the government.

The patterns on the Jiaotai porcelain don't just sit on the surface of the ware but provide the substance from which it is made. It is uniquely viewed from both the interior and exterior surfaces. [Photo: China Plus/Sun Yang]

In the same year, a Jiaotai porcelain gallery opened in Qianmen Street, a famous pedestrian street and tourist site in downtown Beijing. The art works on display are made by Chai Zhanzhu and craftsmen in his studio.

Compared with the antiques from the Tang and Song Dynasties, the art pieces of Chai feature creative styles of rich patterns, vibrant colors and various shapes.

"There used to be two colors on a traditional Jiaotai ware, black and white. With the development of modern technology, we've got more mineral pigments, which make the vessels more colorful. Also, there're more options for high temperature ceramics. We have created new decorations, such as triangle and star patterns. We've also introduced painting, hollowed-out work and cameo skills in manufacturing."

To most visitors to the gallery, Jiaotai Ci is a rare kind of porcelain compared with the better-known blue and white porcelain from Jingdezhen, or the Longquan celadon, which was used as designated ware at the G20 Hangzhou Summit in 2016.

In Japan, ceramics using the same technique, the 'neriage', have been more popular around the world than their Chinese originator.

The art gallery, says Chai Zhanzhu, is expected to introduce the thousand-year-old handicraft to more people.

Over the past two decades, Chai visited dozens of cities around China, presenting different art exhibitions. He is often invited by local communities and schools to give classes. In 2006, his artwork 'Rich Fruit' was introduced in art education in China's primary schools.

As well as promotion, Chai Zhanzhu has never stopped his art creation.

In 2018, one of his art works, 'The Silk Road', won him the Golden Prize of the 2018 Baihua Cup, the highest award of arts and crafts in China.

As the representative inheritor of the firing technique of Jiaotai porcelain, Chai Zhaizhu continues to deliver the traditional art to more people because he deems it his responsibility. Usually, it takes three to five years to train a skillful craftsman. So far, Chai has 80 apprentices. Some of them have become professional Jiaotai porcelain makers.

In Chai Zhanzhu's hometown, the emerging Jiaotai porcelain industry has boosted the local economy. Now, more than 40 workshops in Jiaozuo are making twisted clay ware. The products range from artworks and tourist souvenirs, to everyday objects such as cups and saucers. The porcelain manufacture, combined with the picturesque scenery of Yuntai Mountain, attract tourists from home and abroad every year, which has helped to lift many poor families out of poverty.

Chai Zhanzhu says by cooperating with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the traditional formulas for ceramic material and glazes have been greatly improved. What's more, the optimized temperature curve helps increase productivity and reduce the operational costs.

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