From clay to pottery, and then back to clay, this is the routine for Li Zixuan almost every day.
Handcrafts of Pottery
Huaning County, Yunnan Province, P. R. China, an ancient land closely combined with pottery, is experiencing a new heat of ceramics. The heat attracted traditional craftsmen, young people, even some foreign masters. With their co-effort, traditionally or innovationally, Huaning pottery made its way to become a new force of cultural industry in Yunnan Province and rewrite the history of being forgotten. Through years of development, an ceramics industry cluster took its shape in Huaning, including garden ceramics, arts and crafts ceramics and useful ceramics, and indicating gradual completing of ceramic industrial transformation and upgrading.
Summer in Huaning was hot, especially in July. Yet it was even hotter in the workshop of Baitashan Building Ceramics Co. Ltd., because the furnace was on. Li Zixuan, at the age of 69, was taking a close look at all the newly-made pottery wares in that workshop under such a high temperature which she was used to apparently. Staring at the wares in the furnace, she wrinkled her eyebrow and told the workers quietly,“The temperature is not high enough and all of these need to be redone.”
Few workers were still in the factory after 5 pm, except for those on duty. After another tour in the factory, Li Zixuan returned to her own studio and began to carve a three-legged sheep carefully, wearing her reading glasses.
From clay to pottery, and then back to clay, this is the routine for Li Zixuan almost every day. As the representative figure of Huaning Pottery, Li Zixuan spendds her lifetime in clay and fire, through every magical change from mud to art, she connects her own destiny with pottery closely.
Currently, many pottery craftsmen, both local and foreign, were attracted to ceramics industry on this ancient land, such as Li Zixuan, Shu Wenzhao, Liu Yuhan and Deng Hongjin, even some fresh graduates. They all have their own way to turn mud into art, traditionally or innovationally.
Memory of Wanyao Village
Ma Wendou, an ancient ceramic expert in Yunnan Province and curator of Yunnan Museum, discovered porcelain kiln site in Huaning in the 1980s, and the mystery of an ancient kiln village was unveiled.
To follow the footsteps of Huaning pottery, reporters took a trip to visit this kiln village. There are 380 families in this village and nearly all of them are making their living by producing pottery wares. There is a temple in the village for villagers to worship Kiln God, where a carved stele tells the history of Huaning pottery. As the story goes, a pottery craftsman named Chepeng moved here from Jingde Town in Ming Dynasty, and he built up kilns on Huagai Mountain to produce pottery wares and the business was booming from then on.
According to Yang Jie, chief of Yuxi Cultural Relics Management Center, the story is true because those kiln sites they found are from Early Ming Dynasty.
Back in Ming Dynasty, Huaning is an important pottery center in southwest, producing pottery wares like bowls, cooking pots, steaming kettles, teapots, glasses, vases, pen holders, etc. As large amount of those pottery wares were sold to every part of Yunnan, more and more kilns were built around the village, and the kilns in a row look like dozens of huge dragons. That’s why people also call it dragon kilns. Different wares are made under different temperature, so the temperature of each kiln may vary accordingly. Each family focused on one kind of wares only and gathered their products together when they were done and sold them at the entrance to the village. Wang Zijian, a ceramics artist in this village said that there were good times when all these kilns were burning, and the whole sky was reddish as if it were on fire.
In 1910, Dianyue Railway, the first railway in China’s history was put into use, which goes from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, to Henei, the capital of Vietnam. An important station, Panxi Station of Huaning, was in the middle. Since then, Huaning pottery was transported to Kaiyuan, Mengzi, Hekou, and even exported to Laojie and Henei of Vietnam.
However, as time flew to the 1990s, market for handmade Huaning pottery was becoming narrow due to the impact of industrialization. As ceramics artists aged and died one after another and too few of their heirs inherited the crafts, the glory of Huaning pottery was fading away.
There is a family Wang who makes fine pottery from generation to generation. But during the depression period of Huaning pottery, many young people of Wang had to leave this business to make a living. Li Zixuan, on the other hand, insisted on being an pottery craftsman since her marriage in 1964 with Wang Peizu from the 27th generation of Wang.
Renaissance of Huaning Pottery
A new era began as time flew to 21st century. Huaning pottery became popular among collectors for its practical use and peaceful look with eye-touching green glaze and white glaze, and also for its grace and purity. Wu Baiyu, vice-professor and a modern ceramics artist, commented like this, “the warm and peaceful color of Huaning pottery reflected real personality of Huaning people. Only under local conditions and customs could such warm objects be made”.
Enriched by historical culture, favored by collectors, and with a lot of talented artists, Huaning pottery survived the depression and thrived amazingly.
Many ceramics artists played important roles in the Renaissance of Huaning Pottery. Shu Wenzhao designed and produced black pottery successfully under the temperature of 1180 degree centigrade, which soon gained popularity. Li Zixuan, made a lot of successful works and established her own company. Wang Haitao, daughter of Li Zixuan, created “Rainbow Pottery”, which gained national attention in Milan at the 19th International Handcrafts Festival. Wang Xiaohong, insisted on making pottery in traditional kilns and ways and his works are cherished by collectors.
According to Li Jun, Head of the Propaganda Department and Member of Huaning Party Committee, more and more surprising changes are taking place here. To start with, many young people are dedicating into this industry nowadays and workers in this industry are getting high salary now, a lot higher than before. Another thing is that more and more people are studying and collecting Huaning pottery and they even carry out cultural communication through ways like QQ and V-chat. What’s more, some art and calligraphy elements have been put into pottery works, which greatly improved the value of Huaning pottery.
Bearing the memory of former generations and the identification of traditional culture, Huaning pottery made its way to regain popularity in market and recognition among collectors.