As the Chinese Government has been making greater efforts to protect China's cultural heritage in recent years, an increasing number of Chinese have been placing greater value on "knickknacks" and "old-folk items" than they have in previous years. When you marvel at the beauty and artistic charm of such items, you might not fully appreciate how much effort the craftspeople put into making the items. They spend years creating crafts, with skill, determination and patience, and they constantly work to perfect and innovate the skills they use to create the crafts. We should give thumbs up to the women inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, especially to those who are breaking the gender barrier by inheriting the crafts traditionally passed down to men. In this edition, Women of China English Monthly shares the stories of women inheritors who create potteries, porcelains and lacquerware.
Wang Born to Create Boccaro Works
Dingshu, a town in Yixing, a city in East China's Jiangsu Province, has been the production center of boccaroware since the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Craftspeople use zisha, or purple clay, a rare mineral resource in Yixing, to make boccaroware. The craft flourished during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The craft integrates the characteristics of paintings, sculptures, calligraphies and the procedures used to make pottery. When you marvel at the unique beauty of boccaro items, you might not be aware of how much effort craftspeople devote to making the items. Craftspeople use more than 100 tools to create the items. The process involves several complicated procedures, including mixing the clay with water, kneading the clay into strips, coiling the strips into the shapes of the items to make the items' bases, polishing the bases, heating the bases at over 1,000 C to shape the items, and carving patterns on the items' surfaces. No glaze is applied to the handmade products. Making tea in a boccaro teapot, and then sipping it slowly, might give you some idea of the pleasure enjoyed by Chinese nobility in ancient times. Why? Tea's beautiful color, fragrant smell and delicious taste can be retained in the solid, porous teapot for a dozen of hours. Yixing's boccaroware won first prize in the crafts category during the Sesquicentennial International Exposition, which was held in Philadelphia in 1926. The boccaroware won second prize in the crafts category during the Liège (a city in Belgium) Exposition, which was held in 1930. In 2006, China added Yixing's craft of making boccaroware to the list of the country's intangible cultural heritage.
Wang Yinxian was born into a family of craftspeople in Dingshu in 1943. Both her grandmother and her mother were skilled at making pottery for daily use.
The Yixing Boccaroware Plant employed Wang as an apprentice soon after she graduated from primary school at the age of 14. Wang, who was the youngest apprentice in the plant, learned the craft-making skills under Zhu Kexin, a skilled craftsman.
To catch up with others, Wang worked harder than other apprentices. She was often so absorbed in practicing the craft-making skills that she forgot all about food and sleep. "In addition to studying the craft at the plant during the daytime, I studied in a night school near the plant. That helped me lay a solid foundation for my future career development," Wang once said. Within three years, she became one of the plant's top apprentices.
In 1959, Zhu reproduced the peach-shaped boccaro teacup, which was donated by Chu Nanqiang, a well-known collector from Yixing, in 1952. The cultural relic, which was created during the Ming Dynasty, is the earliest boccaroware ever found in China. Wang took pains to study the craft-making skills under Zhu during the four months, while her teacher worked on the artwork. Inspired by Zhu, Wang made greater efforts to pursue artistic perfection. During the 1960s, the International Department of the Central Committee of CPC (Communist Party of China) sent the replica of the boccaro teacup, created by Wang, to a cultural exhibition held in Moscow.
Wang for decades put much effort into blazing new trails while she had made various boccaro items, including study accessories, vases, drinking vessels and tea and coffee sets.
Nature was a rich source of inspiration for Wang's artistic creations. She was particularly fond of wild plants, and she often made "portraits" of them to express their natural beauty and strong vitality. While she created a series of pumpkin-shaped teapots in 1987, Wang carefully observed pumpkins in a field. She also put fresh, green pumpkin seedlings in a vase to take a closer look at the plant. As a result, her artworks were a hit with Chinese and foreign artists and collectors.
Wang in 1988 created a snail-shaped boccaro teapot, based on the design made by her and Zhang Shouzhi, a professor with Academy of Arts & Design, under Tsinghua University. Wang and Zhang in 1990 received first prize for the design, which integrated modern artistic elements, during both the National Competition of Ceramic Designs and the International Craft Designs Contest.
Wang's zest for the craft inspired her to tirelessly pursue artistic perfection during the past six decades. By drawing inspiration from nature, she created numerous exquisite artworks.
Given Wang's efforts to promote the traditional craft, she received accolades and special titles, including a National Model Worker, a National March 8 Red-banner Holder and an Outstanding Party Member in Jiangsu Province. Yet, despite all of her achievements, she kept a low profile.
After she retired from the plant in 1998, Wang established a studio to create boccaro works in her house. "I'll make greater efforts to make better boccaro items, to display the beauty of nature," she reportedly said.
Wang during the past 15 years had written more than 20 articles, which record the boccaroware-making skills of experienced craftspeople.
Wang during the past decade put much effort into cultivating inheritors of the traditional craft. She taught the skills needed to make boccaro works to her son, her daughter, her son-in-law and her daughter-in-law. Influenced by both her mother and grandmother, Yao Jiahui, Wang's granddaughter, has developed an interest in making boccaro works.
Lis' Exquisite Potteries 'Living Fossils' of Historical Development of China's Ceramics
Based on archeological evidence, the Li people, most of whom live in South China's Hainan Province, began making potteries in the New Stone Age more than 6,000 years ago. The Lis use various materials, including clamshells, wooden pestles and mortars, and bamboo knives and sticks, to create various pottery containers, such as kettles, jars and bowls. Making pottery involves 12 complicated procedures, including drying clay in the sun, crushing the clay into powder and mixing it with water, making the potteries' bases, heating the bases over 1,000 C to shape the potteries, and then examining the products. The residents of Baotu, a village in Changjiang Li Autonomous County, in Hainan Province, have been using the primitive method of making pottery for millennia. The village's craft is of great reference value for the study of the origin of China's pottery-making craft. Therefore, experts of Chinese folklore refer to the Lis' pottery-making craft as a "living fossil of the historical development of China's ceramics." The art form was added to the list of China's intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
According to Baotu's custom, the pottery-making craft was supposed to be passed on to women, so they could earn a living. While the elderly and middle-aged women villagers make potteries, men help the women do odd jobs, such as cutting firewood, fetching water from a river and picking baked pottery from the fire.
Yang Bailiang began learning, from her mother, how to make pottery when she was 11 years old. After she married A Du, a resident of Baotu, eight years later, she honed her skills under the guidance of her mother-in-law.
When she was young, Yang led a busy life. She did farm work during the daytime and made potteries in the evening by the fire. First, she collected clay from the mountain. Then, she added water to the clay and kneaded it into strips. After that, she coiled the strips into the shapes of the pottery items, used clamshells to polish the items and dried them in the sun for several days. Finally, she baked the items in the open air.
"At first, I often failed ... Out of the 30 jars I made in an evening, 20 cracked in the fire. Every time I saw a jar crack, tears welled up in my eyes," Yang recalls.
However, the strong-willed woman persevered, and she worked diligently to improve her craft-making skills. Eventually, she became a master of the craft.
Like many other women villagers, Yang used some pottery items she made, and carried the rest to the neighboring villages in the mountainous county, to barter the items for rice and other daily necessities. Her items, which were large and durable, were popular among the residents.
Baotu's pottery-making craft has been in decline during the past 10-plus years. Why? Given the rapid scientific and technological development, the village's potteries are inferior to machine-made potteries, in terms of both quantity and quality. The Li women, who have to do farm work and take care of their families, have little time to make potteries, and there is small market demand for their crafts. As a result, few young women villagers are still willing to learn the craft, so there are few successors to the craft.
Yang, who has devoted her life to studying the craft, has felt obliged to do something to save the craft. "Now that the Chinese Government has attached great attention to promoting the traditional craft, I will try my best to pass it on to later generations," says Yang.
During the past several decades, Yang has put a lot of effort into teaching her younger female relatives the skills needed to make potteries. Under Yang's guidance, Huang Yuying, Yang's daughter, became the second-generation inheritor of the craft, and A Fen, Yang's granddaughter-in-law, became the third-generation inheritor of the craft.
In 2013, the county established both a cooperative to produce pottery and a center for teaching the Lis the craft-making skills in Baotu Village. On October 1, 2016, Yang took on three male university students as apprentices.
"At present, more than 50 people, who have received training for the craft at the center, produce dozens of potteries a day. Their products exceed supply. The items are sold to visitors, from different parts of the world, to the county. As the Lis earn more money by selling their potteries, they believe the village has bright prospects for developing the craft," says Huang.
Given her advanced age, Yang has stopped creating potteries. Every time the village holds a ceremony for baking potteries, she prays to the gods to ward off evil spirits and give the craftswomen good luck and help them create potteries successfully.
Every evening, Yang drinks a little rice wine made in her families' pottery jars. "When you drink the delicious wine, you will understand how wonderful our traditional craft is," says Yang.
Chengdu-style Lacquerware Displays Charm of Traditional Chinese Culture
Chengdu is the capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province. Chengdu lacquerware dates back more than 3,000 years. The craft originated during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC). Unearthed lacquer shards at Jinsha, an excavated site in Chengdu, still retain bright-colored patterns. Chengdu became China's lacquer production center during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). To produce paint, craftspeople have to use a knife to cut the bark of lacquer trees. Then, they collect the trees' sap with buckets. Finally, they oxidate and process the sap. Making a lacquer item involves 72 complicated procedures, including drying the wood blocks and shaping the blocks into the item, lacquering and polishing the work several times, and painting and decorating the work (with egg shells, gold or silver foil and/or some other materials). Refined Chengdu lacquerware has not only been used in the imperial court to display wealth and power during the dynasties, but it has also been used as exquisite, durable products for daily use. The art form was added to China's list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
Song Xiping, a native of Chengdu, has strived to keep the lacquer-making craft alive during the past four decades. When she was a little girl, she was fond of creating paper-cuts and embroideries. "I 'fell in love' with the exquisite lacquer furniture at first sight, when I saw the item in the lacquerware mill near my house. I was 6 then. Fascinated by the beauty of the art form, I often went to the mill to watch the artisans create crafts," Song recalls.
In 1972, Chengdu Lacquerware Plant employed Song as an apprentice. She took pains to study the craft-making skills under Chen Chunhe, a skilled craftsman. As Song was allergic to raw lacquer, her body was itchy, her hands grew blisters and her eyes were swollen. Some of Song's friends tried to persuade her to give up her job. Despite the hardships and difficulties, she carried on. Eventually, she mastered all the procedures of the craft.
Given her constant efforts to improve her lacquer-making skills during the past 40-plus years, Song has become one of the few great lacquerware masters in Sichuan.
Song during the past several decades has put a lot of effort into cultivating successors to the traditional Chinese craft, so the art form will not be lost. She has taught approximately 80 percent of the plant's workers the skills needed to make lacquer items. However, many of her apprentices have taken other jobs, which were supposed to be less arduous and/or from which they could earn more money. "Nowadays, few young people are willing to do such time-consuming hard work. Less than 50 artisans in Chengdu create lacquer works," says Song.
She eventually realized several factors have hindered the development of the craft. For example, it takes one several years to learn woodwork, lacquering and carving, all of which are necessary procedures for creating lacquer works. Living in a modern, fast-paced society, few people are willing to put so much effort into completing crafts. Also, shortages of both quality lacquer trees and workers who tap the trees have adversely affected the development of the craft.
Song established a studio (in Chengdu) to produce and sell lacquer gifts, after she retired from the plant in 2002. During the first few years, she earned little profit from the studio. Given the sound development of the craft, and given the fact that an increasing number of Chinese, whose living standards have constantly improved, during the past decade have offered handmade products, as presents, to their friends or relatives, more and more Chengdu residents have bought items from Song's studio.
At the end of 2012, Song established another studio, Zhiyi Lacquerware. Song and her employees (at Zhiyi) during the past several years have integrated the traditional Chinese cultural elements in the designs of their lacquer works. As a result, Zhiyi's crafts have become popular among Chengdu residents.
"In addition to artworks with high collectible and decorative value, we plan to create small items of high practical value, so more people can afford to buy the items," says Song.
To promote the development of the traditional craft, Song during the past decade has taken on more than 20 apprentices, most of whom have been university students from different regions of the country. "I would like to teach the lacquer-making skills to all those who are interested in the craft," says Song. "I hope my disciples will take jobs that are relevant to what they learn, and they will devote their lives to promoting the development of the traditional craft."
Zhang Dan, Song's daughter, is one of Song's favorite disciples. They often discuss how to promote the traditional craft. Zhang is a municipal-level inheritor of the craft.
Song often visits culture-themed exhibitions in Chengdu. She goes, twice a week, to Chengdu Polytechnic, to teach the students how to make lacquer works.
Zhejiang's Celadons 'Celestial Beauty'
Celadons, the glaze of which is luxuriant green, is the most popular with Chinese. These porcelains were first produced by craftsmen in Yue Kilns (in Shangyu, a district in Shaoxing, a city in East China's Zhejiang Province, and Yuyao, Cixi and Ningbo, all cities in Zhejiang Province) during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), many men of letter took delight in drinking tea in celadon teacups, which were as fine and smooth as jade. Also, tea in the yellowish-green cups was a delightful sight. During the dynasty, exquisite celadon works were not only offered as tributes to members of the imperial families, but the items were also exported to other countries. The olive-green celadons, which were produced in Yue Kilns during the late Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties Period (907-960), were pleasing to both the eye and the mind. In addition to its superior glaze, celadons produced in Yue Kilns were decorated with incised, carved, embossed and/or hollowed-out patterns, commonly featuring figures, birds, flowers and water plants. During the past millennium, numerous people, from different parts of the world, have been amazed by the celadons' "celestial beauty." In a bid to protect and promote the time-honored celadon-making craft, China added the craft to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage in 2011.
Ji Xigui, an inheritor of the celadon-making craft, strives to improve her skills. She has been creating porcelain for more than 50 years, during which she has won many prizes. The Chinese Government has presented many of her works to leaders and honored guests in other countries during cultural exchanges. Many of her works have been housed in the National Museum of China, China National Arts and Crafts Museum and Zhejiang Provincial Museum.
In 1961, Ji, who was then 20 years old, was admitted to the art design department of the Jingdezhen (a city in East China's Jiangxi Province, and which is known for the production of color-glazed porcelain) Ceramic Institute, after she passed the institute's entrance examination. She was employed by Jiangxi Ceramics Research Institute, under the provincial department of Light Industry, soon after she graduated from the university in 1965. She was an apprentice of Deng Bai, a State-level master of arts and crafts in China and an acclaimed arts and crafts theorist and educator. That helped her lay a solid foundation for her future career development.
In 1975, the institute made a series of top-quality porcelains. Ji was appointed as head of the team, and she painted patterns on the porcelains' earthen bases and baked porcelains. Within 10 months, the team created many exquisite porcelains.
During the following years, Ji led her colleagues in completing several challenging celadon-making projects, including creating porcelains displayed in Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall and the china tableware (of Jinjiang Hotel) designed for other countries' leaders. All the items were nothing less than superb works of art.
The celadon-making process is roughly the same as that used to make the color-glazed porcelain, which involves 72 complicated procedures, including kneading the clay, making the porcelain's base, heating the base over 1,370 C to shape the porcelain and decorating the item with various patterns. Usually, different craftspeople complete different procedures. However, Ji completes every step when she creates the crafts. She has not only inherited the traditional craft, but she has also blazed new trails, including using new techniques when she created celadons.
Ji in recent years has taken five young people as her apprentices. While she has taught the craft-making skills to her apprentices, she has encouraged them to integrate modern artistic elements in their designs of celadons.
On May 16, 2013, the Guishan Ceramics Art Museum, in Xixi National Wetland Park, in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, opened to public. The museum was named after Ji and Guo Linshan, her husband. Ji is especially good at painting patterns on porcelains, and Guo is skilled at carving patterns on the works. During the past five years, many of their artworks, which have been displayed in the museum, have amazed visitors, from both home and abroad, with the works' charm and unique artistic beauty.
During the banquets of G20 Hangzhou summit (an international forum for the governments and central bank governors from the world's 20 major economies), held in September 2016, many leaders and honored guests from other countries took notice of the gorgeous porcelain tableware. The items were created by Ji and her apprentices. Despite her advanced age, Ji led her apprentices as they worked day and night. As a result, they fulfilled the task on time.
To display celadons' artistic charm, Ji in September 2017 held a solo exhibition in Zhejiang Provincial Museum. Thirty years ago, Ji held her first solo exhibition in Hangzhou. It was the first porcelain exhibition in Zhejiang Province.
During the past three decades, Ji has made persevering efforts to improve her craft-making skills while she has created celadons characterized by different artistic styles during each of China's past dynasties.
(Source: Women of China English Monthly June 2018 issue)