Xu Chaoxing’s heart
Zhang Shaobin’s circular
Chen Tangen’s vase with synthesis of Ge and Di
Mao Zhengcong’s crystal
Chen Aiming’s carved peony plate, 15 in. (37 cm) in
Bamboo drying in Longquan.
The history of Longquan ceramics corresponds to its landscape: rivers zigzag between accordion-folds of mountains that rise and fall and rise again. These iron-rich mountains keep alive the area’s most precious gift, celadon glazed vessels. Successor to the Yue kilns near Hangzhou and Yuyao in northern Zhejiang Province, Longquan ceramics reached its apogee during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279 C.E.), and was known as the center of celadons, which are made in imitation of bronze vessels and of the blue and green colors of jade.
It is China’s most revered natural resource, believed to capture the essence of the sun and the moon, as well as to mediate between the natural and the spiritual worlds. Unctuous and viscous are the adjectives most frequently used to describe celadon’s familiar glaze spectrum. Its effects were achieved by dipping, spraying and reduction firing four to five times—even as many as eight to ten times—to yield an impression of great depth to the glossy skin, which was often thicker than the body beneath.
To satisfy demand at home and abroad, more than 200 Longquan kilns operated throughout the Southern Song until the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 C.E.). Thereafter, tastes changed as Jingdezhen’s blue-and-white porcelain and polychromes were awarded imperial status; furthermore, celadon production dispersed to neighboring countries that each adapted glazes and shapes to suit their own cultural standards. By the early Qing Dynasty (1662–1722 C.E.), the quality of Longquan wares had declined, and output was negligible.
Kilns are born, thrive and disappear in China, whose hillsides might be described as one vast midden heap. Longquan, too, has shards everywhere, but despite ebbs and flows in popularity, it has the distinction of uninterrupted production over the centuries. Jingdezhen likewise never ceased manufacture, but its artists took up the brush and divided the steps of porcelain-making amongst scores of specialists. In contrast, Longquan vessels are made by a single craftsman skilled at wheel-throwing, slab-building, mold-making, carving, sprig-molding and chattering. The Longquan master uses only a carving tool to create relief patterns and images: in the spaces of varying depth where clay has been removed, the glaze pools after firing to reveal the carved motif. Essentially monochromatic, celadons only briefly found favor at the imperial court, so they never lost their folk roots. All materials can be found locally, and synthetics are not used.
During the 1930s, the archaeologist Chen Wanli initiated a study of kiln sites throughout China, particularly in the Longquan area. Beginning in 1945, at the end of the Japanese occupation, which destroyed many kilns, and continuing after the onset of the People’s Republic of China four years later, attention turned to kiln restoration. In the first years of the new nation, 400 kiln sites were excavated within 100 miles of Longquan, yielding shards and vessels that would be the foundation upon which celadon production could be rebuilt. Although some kiln sites have never been found and some skills are lost forever, Longquan never completely ceased production. Despite a dearth of written records on glaze formulas, clay-to-water ratios or firing methods, Longquan artisans successfully passed on techniques and skills through the apprentice system.
In July 1957 in Nanjing, Zhou Enlai issued a directive to locate and rebuild several major kilns. That same year, Mei Jianying, a renowned Beijing artist and educator, was dispatched with a team of other scholars to Longquan and to Jingdezhen, where he oversaw the start-up of the research and teaching university that became the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute.
In the late 1950s, Longquan was a hard-scrabble town whose elders knew many traditional skills but kept them secret: artisans did not share their craft and would hide drying work under a basket to prevent copying. One such craftsman, Li Huaide, taught six young apprentices, two of whom died during the years of greatest deprivation. Among the survivors, Xu Chaoxing, age thirteen when he began his apprenticeship, recently celebrated five decades of working in celadon—50 years of dedication to learning every step on the long road to mastery which culminated in a major retrospective exhibition in October 2006 in Hangzhou.
Ten years into the People’s Republic, Longquan saw much-improved production, an influx of scientists and participation in the ceremonies of official gift-giving and prize-awarding competitions that are China’s way of encouraging the arts. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), which wreaked such havoc in Jingdezhen, did much less damage to Longquan, in large part because it neither lost its folk-art roots nor experienced the fine arts versus crafts divide.
In 1976, the year of the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, Mao Songlin, a master who passed away in 2007, established the Longquan Celadon Research Institute. Today the organization numbers nearly 2500 members, most from small, privately-owned companies first started with government seed money. With perseverance, trial and error, and detailed calculations about glaze mixtures, water ratios and reduction firing methods, celadon’s secrets were unlocked, but the major factor responsible for Longquan’s current renaissance relies on the way artists freely share their knowledge, establish teaching programs, market cooperatively and pass their skills to the next generation. Another explanation for Longquan’s revival can be found in the nature of celadon itself, its subtle decorative accents, warm blue and green hues, along with the forms and shapes such as deep bowls, platters and mugs comfortable for coffee drinkers, have greatly expanded its appeal.
One chapter in Longquan’s history divides celadon production into two branches: the Ge (older brother) and the Di (younger brother)—the former distinguished by a darker clay body and thick, crackled glazes and the latter by a whiter body and pale glazes. In 1992, the Ge and Di glazing techniques were successfully synthesized in a single vessel to reveal a new aesthetic, yielding random, but evocative, patterns. That same year, a five-pipe vessel, unearthed intact twenty years earlier, was reproduced. In 2000, the formula for the ash-yellow glaze from the ancient Shang Dynasty (1600–1100 B.C.E.) was recovered; this glaze is applied to vessels turned on the wheel to the rhythms of the “dancing knife,” a form of chattering used to achieve swirling textured patterns that complement the vessel shape. Refinements to the traditional “purple mouth and iron foot” designs, wherein the glaze thins at the rim and ribs, and to the “golden thread and iron wire” patterns, which result from variations in crazing rates followed by rubbings with contrasting dyes, have also been achieved in recent decades.
With patience, skill and collaboration, Longquan scientists and ceramists have moved back in time to reclaim their treasure and forward to expand the celadon repertoire. Today, over 100 companies participate in Longquan’s revival. Fresh ideas, new shapes and new glazes continue to be developed to satisfy contemporary tastes by a whole new generation of dedicated young masters. Longquan can be said to represent yet another instance of the phoenix flying out of the fire, in this case rising up from what one reverential visitor, kneeling as he crumbled a piece of Longquan clay between his fingers, called the “grandfather earth.”
the author Carla Coch does independent research about post-1911 ceramics in China, is an Honorary Citizen of Jingdezhen, China, and lives on a farm in Alfred Station, New York.