Jianshui Purple Pottery: greatness is within

A professional artisan shapes wet clay on a potter's wheel on July 25, 2014. [China Daily]

[InKunming--Yunnan]  Located in the central part of Yunnan province, Jianshui county is rich in history and cultural heritage. It used to be the educational center of the province, as one of the regions strongly influenced by Confucian culture in Yunnan. Excavation results show that the history of pottery-making in Jianshui dates back 3,500 years, during the Song (AD 420-479) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, Jianshui was the center of pottery-making in Yunnan. Originated during the mid-late stages of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the purple pottery in Jianshui began to take an honorable position and became one the four most famous potteries in China. Interestingly, the first purple pottery that has been found is a pipe for untreated opium, which was imported into China after 1840. In 2008, Jianshui Purple Pottery was listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage and Protected Geographical Indication.

Exquisite craftsmanship

It is noteworthy that artisans only make purple pottery by hand. The process of making a successful product includes six steps. Each step requires much effort and attention.

Step 1: Preparing clay

The clay used for pottery-making in Jianshui is a blend of five kinds of local soil. Compared with Yixin pottery, which is much more well-known, the clay contains less sand and quartz thanks to repetitive, time-consuming precipitation.

Each lump of clay must be kneaded many times in order to get the air out. After all, no one wants to see a bubble on the surface of a teapot.

Step 2: Shaping

Like other kinds of pottery, artisans will put the lump on a wheel to create a teapot, bowl or vase. The potter shapes the clay while the wheel turns. The shaping is a tango between skill and speed.

An artisan carves a decoration onto the surface of a ceramic pot on July 23, 2014. [China Daily]

Step 3: Decorating

Decorations are irreplaceable to Jianshui Pottery as the painting or calligraphy from a famous artist can significantly increase the market value of a product. The machinery widely used in Yixin and Jingdezhen cannot be seen here because the base is still too soft.

A female artisan fills a notch with the soil on July 24, 2014. [Photo/Chinadaily]

Step 4: Carving and filling

The decoration seen on the surface of a pot is actually created through carving, instead of painted like other kinds of pottery. The artisans will carve the decorated area on the surface and fill the notch again with clay of another color. This skill is unique in Jianshui and extremely difficult. The difference of humidity will produce bubbles, destroying the whole product. The task "carving and filling" is mostly done by women, but their names are often forgotten when a product gets famous.

Step 5: Firing

The major difference between pottery and porcelain is firing temperature. For the former, the firing temperature is around 900 C, the latter from 1,200 to 1,300 C. The firing temperature of Jianshui Pottery is over 1,100 C. The ingredients of Jianshui Pottery are very similar to porcelain, and the high temperature makes it as hard as iron.

An artisan polishes the fired jug with a tool on July 23, 2014. [China Daily]

Step 6: Polishing

Except "carving and filling", another advantage that makes Jianshui Pottery stand out is the polishing. Most pottery is polished with enamel, a substance like glass containing quartz, feldspars and kaolin. Jianshui Pottery is polished only with tools such as pebbles. The delicate texture, splendid curves and bright surface of Jianshui Pottery comes from its special polishing skills.

Competitiveness of Jianshui Pottery

From a moribund industry 10 years ago to the new wealth that is reshaping the pottery market today in China, Jianshui Pottery has created an overall output of 250 million yuan ($40 million) in 2013, a hundredfold that of 10 years ago. As one of the booming sectors, Jianshui Pottery has been attracting thousands of professionals from all over the country. Xie Heng, director of the Purple Pottery Association in Jianshui, said, "Our pottery artists hail from different regions such as Beijing, Shanghai, Jingdezhen, Hubei and Sichuan." However, official statistics show that 80 percent of the sales come from Yunnan province, principally from Kunming, Honghe and Pu'er. "Jianshui Pottery is still far from being competitive, especially compared with Yixin Pottery and Jingdezhen ceramics. The market will change completely if we can broaden its recognition in other places," said Xie.

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