Topic: Ceramic Kilns

Clay Culture: Inside the Dragon

The newly reopened dragon kiln in Qinzhou, China, that was originally built over 1000 years ago.

Can you imagine how much work it takes to fill (and fire) a series of kilns as large as a football field? A great dragon kiln in Qinzhou, China has been reopened for use so potters today can see for themselves.

If it is true that all creative arts begin with the flame of a great passion—then the Chinese potters of Qinzhou, Guangxi, China, take a back seat to no one. They understand the passion and culture of creation that has been in their families for generations.

Consistent with this passion, the city of Qinzhou recently celebrated the re-opening of one of their ancient kilns with a flair of color and music fitting for the rebirth of this famous kiln system, originally built over 1000 years ago. Stretching for nearly the length of a full football field, this is a series of many separate kilns once used by the great potters of ancient China. Shaped like a reclining dragon, the mounds of the brick kilns sprawl slowly up the side of a large hill near the Qinjiang river. During the firing, the sides of the dragon heave the flames of creation, while the head of the dragon spews forth the smoke and flames of their passionate creation through a towering brick chimney. Scattered around the base of the chimney, shards and parts of pots shimmer in the sunlight and provide a bright decoration to the kiln complex.

View of the length of the dragon kiln from above the spine.

Nixing Pottery

The Nixing pottery of Qinzhou, one of the four famous types of Chinese pottery, is still hailed as a unique art. It is a specialty of the city and uses a local red clay to produce amazingly intricate yet functional items. Nixing pottery has a history of over 1300 years with some of the oldest pieces produced around 618 CE.

Known as the art of earth and fire, the colors come from chemical reactions within the kiln, without the need for added pigmentation. After polishing, the pieces shine with gorgeous colors such as sky blue, bronze, black green, and purplish red. As the artists’ skilled hands search for “the treasure in the mud” they focus on finding the soul of the earth. Through the unique quality of the clay and the craftsmanship applied, each piece is brought to life and carefully worked through the many steps of creation. For pieces not left unglazed, this typically includes a flambé glaze that turns azure after being fired at high temperatures. Thanks to the quality of the clay, Qinzhou pieces become especially smooth after polishing. After countless experiments, ancient potters found the ideal way to make the pottery both hard and compact in texture with a smooth look and feel. Even the engraving process requires great skill and practice as a single mistake can ruin an entire project.

Qinzhou produces a wide variety of Nixing pottery items with the majority being tea sets, tableware, vases, flower pots, coffee utensils, incense tripods and numerous other items that possess artful but functional qualities. Nixing pottery can withstand strong acids and bases, keeps things fresh against dampness, and is non-toxic. The pieces also maintain the taste and color of tea for days, and even in hot weather, tea stored in the pottery does not spoil. This also applies to food.

It is common for a tea scent to linger in the pot after it has been used for a long time, and the fragrant herbal scent continues to impart flavor when hot water is poured into the pot. In practical usage, owners will also pour hot water over the outside of the pots to bring out the deeply ingrained colors and aroma.

The clay itself comes from two sources. The clay sourced from the west bank of the Qinjiang river gives the pottery its hardness—while the softer and stickier clay from the east bank gives Nixing pottery its compact smoothness.

Nixing pottery is sold in more than 30 regions and countries including Japan, the US, Great Britain, Germany, and throughout Southeast Asia and has won many honors including more than 40 gold and silver awards in shows such as the ceramics fair during the 100th anniversary of Belgium.

View of the kiln interior, looking toward tow of the side openings used to load the kiln. Stoking holes can be seen along the length.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

As in the US, the leadership in China works hard to balance the intangibles that make life worth living (e.g. love, art, laughter, song, and dance) with the need to meet the practical necessities of the people (modern housing, technology, transportation, and public safety). At the beginning of this century, only a few small Nixing workshops were left as they struggled to keep the industry alive. At that time the government stepped in to help the art return to its former glory. The pottery has been on China’s intangible cultural heritage list since 2008, and a number of new schools have been established, along with regular seminars, exhibitions, and other promotions.

The government started work on a Nixing pottery garden in Qinzhou in 2012. Still under construction, the garden mixes tourism and industry in an area of some 180 hectares with plans to create more training courses for these time-honored skills to ensure that their culture and history are not lost.

Processing raw Qinzhou clay used to make Nixing pottery.

A row of Nixing pots on display during the re-opening celebration for the dragon kiln.

Last year, Guangxi gave 24 million yuan ($3.7 million USD) to 17 colleges specializing in traditional crafts. Now, at least 160 companies and workshops specialize in local ceramics and their products reach fans in the US, Europe, and Japan. More than 10,000 people now work in an industry worth more than 500 million yuan each year.

As the production of a true flambé piece was extremely rare (1 in 1000) the local government conducted research into the secrets of producing quality flambé pieces and with the help of local technicians they were able to raise the percentage of truly quality pieces to over 60% while maintaining the acid- and alkali-resistant qualities that allow air to permeate but keep water and steam in, making it ideal for food preservation and preparing tea.

Many students now work as interns at the pottery workshops in Qinzhou, learning from technicians and veteran potters. In addition, pottery and art shops welcome students to practice the craft while visiting this beautiful city by the river. For the local artist this craft means much more than just making beautiful pottery, it allows them preserve the culture of creation that been in their families for generations.

the authors Jim Smith and Yan Zeng are a husband and wife artist/writing team operating out of Ramona, California, and Qinzhou, China.


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