A vist to Fujian Province in 2019 and 31 notable kilns.

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.

This is the foundations of the Longest Dragon Kiln found so far in China, dating from the Song Dynasty, it is 136.4 metres long and sits amongst several acres of shard heaps that have been scavenged over the years since J M Plummer’s visit in 1937.



At 50 meters, the Hsu Kiln is still large for the area, although a friend of Master Hsu we met has built a 100 metre kiln, some distance away, that is only fired once a year, something for next year I hope.




This single chamber wood kiln with internal firebox is at the Shuiji High School, where the staff have seen a need to train local students in pottery skills for local jobs. Currently most of the skilled workers are coming from outside the province.





This is Master Xiong Zheng Gui’s kiln, the oldest in Fujian and on the site of a kiln dating from the Ming Dynasty. This is the first Kiln I visited in 2014 and the first time I have seen it firing. It is some 30 metres long and quite narrow. This is the only pottery that still raw glazes the thrown pots. This meant the early parts of the firing progressed very slowly.




This is also Master Xiong Zheng Gui’s kiln, a new one recently completed but not fired yet.






This kiln belonhgs to one of Master Hsu’s apprentices. It as waitnig to be unpacked.



Another of Master Hsu’s apprentices, built this very interesting 2 chamber kiln creating his own 15o slope in the foundations.



Another interesting kiln, looking very much influenced my Master Hsu. This area of china is south and toward the coast, so we see blue skies most of the time.







Another of Master Hsu’s apprentices kilns
This is the remains of a 400 year old kiln on the site as the Bau Bing You kiln
Bau Bing You Kiln, another of Master Lu’s apprentices
A New kiln, based on the Hsu design, on the road between Shuiji and Jian’ou.
This is a kiln I caught sight of last year whilst out fishing for dinner, I didn’t get back here until this year when the local Police approached us and asked if we would like to see it. We sure would!
This Horse Shoe kiln only had one stoke hole, whilst the next one had the front one and one on either side. On the same site was a small15 meter or so dragon kiln and a 50 meter one being fired at the same time. A lot going on.


The second Horse Shoe single chamber kiln just across the river from Shuiji and owned by an ex-student of Miss Li.
This was one of the kilns I helped fire last year and they waited for our arrival this time to unpack it, it is half way between Shuiji and JianYang way out in the country where the reduction smoke isn’t as big a problem as it is for some of the kilns closer to the towns. I wrongly called it a chicken cage kiln, my research has a reference from Rose Kerr and Nigel Wood suggesting it is correctly call a step kiln due to each chamber having a stepped floor. (Science and Civilisation in China Value 5 part 12 page 723)
This was a kiln we saw a few time in our travel between Shuiji and Jianyang and we finally stoped on our last trip. It is brand new and unfired. One to look out for next trip
We called this the Motel kiln as it seemed to have a motel style residence beside it. We were there for the packing, then the lighting and came back to see the firing progress. It is being fired at this stage only one stoker as the other was on meal break and he was working one side at a time. He is up behind the chimney at this point .
This is the large 50 meter Chambered kiln, on the site just out of Shuiji behind the brickworks. I saw this under construction last year and they were firing it in the rain when we visited
The smaller Dragon Kiln on the same site.
This is a small, 15 metre , chamber kiln just past the Shuiji turnoff. it was packed and ready for firing.
This 50 metre kiln was one of those I was present for the firing last year, this kiln is in the Houjing gallery about 500 meters from the historic kiln, hidden in the trees from the road. A true dragon kiln.
Sun Ban Bings studio in 2018, there are 4 kilns there now!
Sun Ban Bing studio.
Dai Jun Ling’s studio electric kiln


A single chamber kiln with dual fireboxes on the sides. Fired with wood pellets using blowers into the fireboxes.
Another Dragon Kiln I was present at the firing off in 2018.
The dragon Kiln at the Art School at Hangzhou University
The newest of the Huang Family kilns fired for the first time and opened by us a VIP guests. A domed chamber kiln. After the dragon ceremony we helped to unpack the kiln, some wonderful pots came out out.
This is one of the three Huang Family kilns, probably the larges at about 50 metres long 3.6 meters wide, sited near the town of Jian’ou.


The mid sized of the Huang Family kilns, all of which appear to be still in use.

Modern Jian Ware

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 place of Tenmoku Tea bowls in the White Phoenix Tea Ceremony in the Song Dynasty

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.


Taming the Dragon

img_7810After 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.

Clicker a short video of Taming the Dragon

Continue reading “Taming the Dragon”

A Jian Ware Teabowl

IMG_0726On 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”

Why Tenmoku?

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.

Continue reading “Why Tenmoku?”

Big pot making in Jingdezhen

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


Jian Ware – A short video.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QN1oey6J9PA&feature=youtu.be Continue reading “Jian Ware – A short video.”

Rust never sleeps!

Rust Never Sleeps

by Leonard Smith

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!”

The 80th Anniversary of J M Plumer’s Journey to Shuiji Zhen

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 FullSizeRenderheld 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.

Continue reading “The 80th Anniversary of J M Plumer’s Journey to Shuiji Zhen”