The Kim Chi Chronicles

I have been away for a month doing some ceramic archaeology in Korea. It’s my first trip to Korea and it was amazing, such lovely, friendly and helpful people.

15 years ago I discovered my local deposit of Single Stone Porcelain. It got me thinking about the history of porcelain and where it was first discovered and how it spread around the world. I knew in a general sense that it all started in China a long time ago, but my knowledge was lacking in specific details. I decided back then to find out a lot more to fill in the gaps in my education. I read as widely as I could and worked out a time line of events and places.

It all started in China about 1000 years ago. I’ve travelled to China twice in the intervening years to collect samples in-situ and to make work there from their amazing sericite based porcelain body. I also discovered that Korea inherited some of this Chinese knowledge/technology of porcelain making a few hundred years later, which is not too surprising as the two countries are closely land-linked. There are 5 places in the world where porcelain was discovered independently  following on from the Chinese. I decided that I had better go to all these places to see these sites, experience the local terroir, collect samples and if possible, to make work on-site out of the local stone. Korea is the last of these places, so I had to go there and complete my research. 

I did what research that I could on-line before going to work in Korea, but a lot of the sites are only in Korean language. I was lucky to be introduced to a lovely Korean lady here in Australia. It turned out that her brother is a potter in Korea, so all my questions were answered.

Jun Beom, is a potter working in Yeo Ju. A large town, or small city, dedicated to pottery making. He is amazingly friendly and incredibly helpful. He really looked after me so well while I was there. I was able to use his workshop to make some work. He had also organised a local translator/Guide/driver, Miss Kang, who could take me to all the single-stone porcelain sites in South Korea. It eventually turned out to be a 5 day 1500 km. long road trip, full to the brim with interesting events, places and people. I was so incredibly lucky to have stumbled into this situation. Thanks to one of my ex-students in Sydney, Claudia, who has a lot of contacts and to whom I am very grateful.

I discovered through my new Korean friends that there are multiple sites in South Korea where porcelain stone has been mined and used to make single-stone porcelain. There were many more according to the archaeological research that I came across. In one place that I visited, there were 32 places in that one valley alone, where archaeologist had found significant kiln sites in the past few years.

I arrived in Incheon and caught the bus straight to Yeo Ju, where Jun Beom met me and took me to the AirB&B that would be my temporary home for the next few weeks on and off. Jun Beom invites me to work in his studio and makes a potters wheel and a few ware boards available to me. He is fully aware of my research interests and although there are no single-stone sites in Yeo Ju. There is a clay making factory in town, just a few minutes away, where porcelain stone from the East Coast is used to make the local porcelain body. 
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Jun Beom takes me to the factory and we are shown around by the manager, who is very obliging and gives us a full tour. It turns out that he is a friend of Jun Beom’s  I am shown all the materials that they use to make all the various bodies here in the processing plant. Im particularly concerned to see the porcelain stone. They have several grades of it here. I’m quite taken by the whites one. it is delivered to the plant already crushed, washed and screened to 10mm with the 3mm to dust fraction removed by washing it out. It is very familiar looking stuff. Although it is quite small, the pieces show no crystalline structure and it could easily be a sample of my own aplite. A quickly cooled, micro crystalline, mica free acid rock. I’m greatly pleased to see this. They have no hesitation in filling a bag for me to take away as a sample.
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I ask if they make a single stone porcelain from it. But no, they don’t. It is mixed with something else. He’s not saying what. Recipes are commercially sensitive and kept in confidence. I have no problem with that at all. I like the look of this stuff and am keen to try some out. I buy 2 bags of the prepared porcelain body made from this stone. It throws exactly like I would expect from my experience with 11 other milled stone blends that I have tried from around the world and a couple of single stone bodies that I’m confident about.
The first thing that I have to do is make a few ‘chucks’ so that when my pieces are dry, I will have some tools to use to support them during trimming. This is an essential part of how I work. The chucks are made and then the work. I really like this material. It is just so familiar to me even though I’m thousands of miles away from home.
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It needs to be coaxed a little in throwing, as it is a little bit sluggish, but quite good, better then my body and better than I imagined that it might be. I am assuming that the thing or things that are added to this stone might be kaolin and bentonite? It suffers from base cracking against the wire cut. This is exacerbated by the thick wire that I have to use here. I hunt around and find a finer one that helps alleviate the problem a little. On trimming the base the next day, it has that totally predictable tearing and chipping quality if it is turned a little damp. It really needs to be just off bone dry to work freely, but for this you really need tungsten carbide turning tools. I just happen to have some with me. Lucky! I’m very confident that this locally produced Yeo Ju porcelain body is composed substantially of milled stone. It looks, feels, acts, throws and turns just like it ought to if it is composed principally of milled stone. 
I’m keen to see the fired results, but that will have to wait till next week after these pots have dried and been bisqued, then glazed and finally glaze fired. Pottery making can be a slow process. In the mean time, Jun Beom has organised a translator/guide/driver for me, so that I can travel to other places in Korea to visit sites where single-stone porcelain is made. Everything is arranged for tomorrow morning. The road trip will begin.
I originally planned for a simple 2 day, one night trip to the south and back, but this soon blows out to 5 days and 4 sites, as opportunities arise and offers are made and accepted. Travel can be a very fluid thing if all the planets fall into line and the people involved are flexible in their approach. I am so lucky that my guide is such a generous and flexible person, willing to change her own plans to fit in with mine and take up these opportunities as they arise.
Talk about lucky!
For dinner, I’m invited to a Korean BBQ. It’s great! The only thing that I’m not too certain about is the, quite heavy, slippery and thin stainless steel chop sticks. They will take a bit of getting used to. Everything else is turning out to be wonderfull.
I’m so lucky to be here with such friendly, warm and welcoming people.
Best wishes
from Steve in Korea