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.
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