In September 2019, Dr Steven Harrison and Robert Linigen accompanied me on a journey to Fujian Provinc, China to explore the range of kilns I had been fortunate enough to visit on my yearly trips to the area since 2014. On that first visit there were two operating dragon kilns in the area, near the towns of Shuiji, Chizhong and the valley near Houjing. Last year I was told there were 50, and given in the short two weeks we were in the are we visited some 27 I can believe that. There are three variations on the climbing kiln form, the true dragon kiln consists of one long tunnel, the next derivation has dividing walls along the tunnel and acts more like a cross draught kiln and finally a form developed in the Song of separate domed chambers. On top of this were two kilns of a new form, a single chamber Horse Shoe kiln. The latter appears to be being used to produce Oil Spot rather that Hare’s Fur glazes as a more authentic process compared to the electric kilns.
As for the Electric kilns I have included 2 in this survey who, in my opinion. are doing superior work. There are many others, but given there are over 500 small studios producing electric kiln oil spots, a lot of the work is pretty ordinary, as they stick to the franchised formulae and firing schedules. I’ll write a bit more about this later.
My focus in Shuiji has been those potters and potteries that are recreating the original Jian ware Tea bowls, using the traditional materials and techniques including Dragon Kilns. This is now a very vibrant community with some 50 Dragon kilns being built over the last 4 years. I will have a lot more to say about them in a future blog.
Whilst this traditional revival has been going on there has been a resurgence in interest in the black glazed Oil Spot tea bowls and to satisfy this there has been a minor revolution going on in the village. I’m not entirely sure, but I am told a couple of local potters worked out how to fire the local rock glaze in an electric kiln and, by reduce cooling, get the highly desirable oil spot effect. These then became teachers, showing how it can be done and making a business out of teaching the technique, selling the equipment and suppling the moulds, clay and glaze. From there it was relatively easy for someone with little skill to produce oils spot tea bowls. Like all things, most of the production is very similar but there are a few practitioners whose work is excellent and who are experimenting with both materials and firing techniques to produce work of a very high standard.
I have produced a little video which explains the technique and it features one of the more innovative potters Sun Han Bing, the son of one of the recognised Regional Master Potters of the traditional technique.
The history of Jian ware, Oil Spot and Hares Fur Tenmoku, is closely bound to the rise of Tea as a beverage in China in the Song Dynasty and the rising connoisseurship around the Chinese Tea Ceremony or Competition, as this became to be known. White Powdered Tea, White Phoenix, rose to prominence and was instrumental in the rise of the black bowls produced in the small valley out side Shuiji in Fujian Province, as the white tea was shown to great advantage against the black background of these Jian tea bowls. For some 250 years nearly all the black tea bowls in China were made here.
I was fortunate in my trip to Fujian in 2018 to be taken to a Tea House and have a Tea Master, Yi Ping,demonstrate the preparation of White Phoenix Tea in the City of Jianyang.
After my last trip to Shuiji and the source of Jian Ware, or as it is known locally Jianshan. The primary focus of this trip was to attend one of the firings of one of the two operational Dragon Kilns in the area. There was a secondary focus and that was on the 600-700 other potters in this small rural town who were producing Jianshan in electric kilns with reduction cooling.
On my first rip to China in 2014 I made a trip down to the source of Tenmoku in a small valley outside of Shuiji in Fujain Province. In a future blog I will write about both that trip and the follow up trip in 2015. One of the things I was able to do on that trip was to purchase a small Jian Ware tea bowl.
This bowl is typical of the Millions made in the multitude of kilns in this valley over some 200 years during the Song Dynasty. It is small, the clay is rough and it is surprisingly thickly thrown and turned. I can visualise its maker, sitting at his Chinese style kick wheel, throwing a large lump of clay onto the wheel, roughly centring it before separating enough clay to make this bowl. Like he had done perhaps 10.000 times before, at least 100 times that day, caressing the clay lump with his two hand, coercing it with gentle but persuasive pressure to the centre of the wheel head. He would then use his thumb to open it out, forming an indentation that had just a hint of the bowl of the come. Now he would shift his hands almost imperceptibly, using the fingers of his inside hand to again gently push the clay across the base and, very subtly, to lift up. At this very point his outside fingers would collect the clay and by using the sensitivity developed over years, pull the clay up and out to form the basis of his bowls shape. Continue reading “A Jian Ware Teabowl”
I came to clay later than most. I was a shift supervisor in a large flour mill and, along with my wife, I went to a local evening college to play with clay. My response to the medium was immediate, and I had no doubt that it was the means for my future creative expression. Four years later I became a full-time Art student at East Sydney Technical College (ESTC now the National Art School, but back then just “The Tech”.)
As a ceramics student in the 70’s we immersed ourselves in the Leach tradition, carting our copy of Leach’s “A Potters Book” with us everywhere. Pouring over every works and every image, debating meanings late into the night. We all came to believe that the standard to which we should aspire were the pots of the Song Dynasty.
Though this is not related to my research into Tenmoku and Jian ware, the visit to this workshop occurred on the way to Shuiji on my May 2015 trip to China. It is part of my more general blog at leonardsmith.com.au
To start the personal record of my journeys over the last 12 months I have put together some of the footage I have of the Kiln sites and Shard heaps around the Jian Ware site and further footage of the modern day production at one of the operating potteries using traditional techniques including raw glazing and firing in sagger in a wood fired dragon kiln.
In the early 80’s I was in Manila, the Philippines, accompanying an exhibition of Australian Ceramics that was being shown at the Metropolitain Museum of Manila. Heading to a lecture I was to give at the Philippines National University, I hopped into a Jeepney, the main form of public transport at the time, known for their crowded seating and kitsch decorations, these wonderfully adorned vehicles invariably had ornate signs above the drivers head and in this case it stated “Rust Never Sleeps”. I have never forgotten that metaphor and it seems even more appropriate as the starting point for my journey into that “Heart of Darkness” of the ceramics world, the black glazes of Jian Ware which the Japanese Zen Tea Masters came to call Tenmoku (Temmoku). Continue reading “Rust never sleeps!”
This Blog was first published on the 27th June 2015 on the 30th Anniversary of Plumer’s Journey to Shuiji.
After my initial literature search for information on Tenmoku glazes it was the James Marshal Plumer’s book”Temmoku” that intrigued me most. Online searches indicated there were only two copies of Plumer’s book in libraries in Australia and one of those was at the University of Sydney. Discovering that fact, I immediately called the University organising for the copy they held to be brought out of storage. With nervous anticipation, as I had no idea of it’s contents, only its title, I rode my bicycle to the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library.
When I opened “Tenmoku” I felt an immediate rush of excitement, there in front of me was the tale of a journey of discovery by an American adventurer, later professor of Asian Art, James Marshal Plumer, into the wilds of China to discover the source of the Jian Ware. Plumer had been collecting the Black Jian (Chien) teabowls in the 1920s whilst working for Chinese Customs. I spent an hour in rapturous reading, getting more and more excited and I decided that I would trace his steps and discover for myself what it was that gave Jian Ware its uniqueness? I scanned the book and I left elated; my El Dorado on a USB stick in my pocket.