We have just watched an amazingly skillful potter make upwards of 700 pots in a day without seeming to put any effort into it, and without getting any clay splatter on himself either. Amazing!
This potter fills the workshop shelving to capacity in one day, then moves on to another workshop. He’s a professional thrower. Everyone here is a specialist. I explain to my guide and translator, Chen, that I do everything myself. He is amazed when I tell him that I do everything myself from digging the clay(stone), crushing and grinding it, to making the fire bricks for my kiln by hand. He just can’t get his head around it. Why don’t I just employ a specialist to do the boring bits? I tell him that it isn’t like that in Australia. There aren’t any specialists to call on.
Two days later we are back in the same workshop to see the ‘turner’ at work. He has arrived now that the pots are firmed up to trim the bases. He works in tandem with the ‘thrower’, following on behind him with a 2 day gap. They work together but never meet. Always separated by the drying period. The thrower has thrown 3/4 of a tonne of clay into these flower pots on this occasion. The turner guy has to trim them up into shape, removing the excess clay from the base and correcting the form if necessary around the rim and foot. He gets through 10 double-ended turning tools each day. Wearing them down to a level of bluntness where they no longer work efficiently enough and slow him down. He travels with a bag full of them.
I ask the turner guy through my friend and interpreter, Chen, how all this works out. The turner removes about a 1/4 of the weight of the pot. The bases are thick when thrown off the hump. The thrower doesn’t use a wire. It slows him down too much. He just twists the pot off the hump with a flick of his fingers, leaving a very thick base. The turner has to remove all of this. It takes the turner almost twice as long to turn the bases, as it takes the thrower to make the pot. However, the turner gets paid almost twice as much. The thrower gets 1.5 rmb. per pot. That’s 30 cents. The turner gets 2.5 rmb per pot. That’s 50 cents. The turner will be here for almost 2 days to clear the shelves.
It works out that these highly skilled guys are earning about Au$200 each day. That’s really good money in China. But their job-life expectancy is very low. They burn out fast. I ask politely through Chen, how long will he be doing this? 10 years is enough. It’s far too boring to do it for very long! What will he do next? He is saving money to start his own business. This is only a means to an end. A better future awaits him somewhere.
I ask what he does at night i.e. does he have a hobby or other interests? No! He just watches television while he sharpens all his blunt tools ready for the next day. I ask why he doesn’t use tungsten tipped tools? He replies that he doesn’t understand the question. After some probing, it transpires that he hasn’t even heard of such a thing. Everyone here uses these cheap, locally made, mild steel, black-smithed turning tools. They are cheap and readily available and easily sharpened with a hand file. They also go blunt very fast. He is used to spending a few hours each night filing them sharp.
I notice that he uses a rubber glove and the cut-off fingers of a rubber glove on the other hand to stop the abrasion of the clay from wearing out the skin on his hands, just the same as I do. However, I only use the rubber finger stall on one finger
I ask him what he thinks about all the dry clay dust floating off the turnings. Why isn’t he wearing a mask? He is generating a small mountain of dust all around himself. I can’t even see the wheel, as all the turnings are piled up and flowing down and away in a cascade of dust. He doesn’t understand this question either. I explain, through Chen, that clay dust causes lung disease if inhaled over a long period of time. He replies that he has never heard of this theory. Neither has Chen. I leave it there. I have sown the seed.
When these pots are bone dry the glazer will turn up and spray the glaze on them. That will take a couple of days. Finally they will be passed on to the decorating girl. She seems to work 7 days a week and hand paints each one. She does about 100 per day. It’s a never ending job. The thrower will be back next week, as soon as the shelves are emptied. This team seem to keep half a dozen potteries busy.
On the way home I can’t help but photograph the amazing wiring that is in use here. As the holder of a limited electrical licence, I’m quite in awe. I love the dual function of clothes line and high voltage wiring.
China is an amazing place. I’ve been thinking about these amazing potter specialists here. As I place my own few pots out in the laneway, in the sun to dry. I’m thinking, one pot every 45 seconds! I reflect that I have been here for 2 weeks and so far only managed to make forty-five 2nds! I live in hope.