Unearthing Blanc de Chine - a living artistic town since Ming dynasty
It was a cold and cloudy winter afternoon when we first arrived in the small county of Dehua.
The town looks deceptively mundane - just like any other towns of this size. "Is the tradition of making porcelain still alive today?" we asked.
Locals were quick to point us to the "Dragon kiln", located on the outskirts of town.
Perched on the hillside at a steep angle stands Yueji kiln - some 400 years old - and still being fired today. The kiln is made of several cocoon-shaped units, connected by a series of openings above ground for air circulation.
Ancient architects realised that the declivity of hillside led to improved quality of fired porcelain - a consequence of better air circulation from stack effect. Viewed from the above, the stepped kiln resembles shape of a dragon, hence its local name.
Porcelain pieces are packed inside “seggars” made of rough, baked clay. Reusable seggars serve to protect each piece from touching each other, and to stack up inside kiln where space is a premium.
Firing takes up to a week for the kiln to reach the requisite 1,400 to 1,435 degrees Celsius. During this time, piles of wood are replenished non-stop by kiln operators night and day.
Operators judged temperatures from the colour of the flames, viewed from small openings along the sidewall.
While the firing process is impressive, we were equally touched by the local artists.
“What keeps you going ?” we asked the 90 years old Dehua artist, who beautifully hand paints Shanshui on individual Dehua bowl with mao bi (Chinese calligraph brush).
“This is something I have been doing for my entire life. It keeps my focus, and I am not too bad at it,” he replied with a broad smile.
“We are all local here. I’ve seen my parents, grandparents doing it and we want to continue that tradition” said another 28 years old pottery artist, who has a small studio next to the kiln.
We didn’t find the masterpiece of Blanc de Chine that we were searching for, but instead we found a living artistic community that’s just as priceless.