Vol. 2. The Long Quan Celadons
We take the bullet train out of Shanghai for the three and a half hours trip heading South West. We arrive at Lishui station and wait for a cab. There isn’t much at the station and the crowd that we arrived with soon disperse, but are soon replaced with another hoard of people from the next train. They all swirl past us, coming through in waves every 10 mins. There are just so many bullet trains passing through here with astounding regularly. It’s hard to believe. This is a very popular service. It must be on the way to somewhere more important, because this place isn’t anywhere in particular, that I’m aware of. But with 1.4 billion people needing to get around, even if only a small fraction of them live and work around here, it is keeping this service very well patronised. 10 years ago there were very few of these super-fast trains in China. 20 years ago there were none.
These days you can get to near almost anywhere quickly using this service, but mostly on the eastern side of the country. The government has produced a miracle in building this high speed rail system so extensively and quickly. Half of it is bored through the mountains in tunnels and the other half is suspended on concrete pillars above the valleys. It’s a masterpiece of engineering and it appears to run like clockwork. We comment on how Australia takes 5 years to make a 3 km road tunnel across Sydney. While the Chinese are building 3km of high speed rail infrastructure per day here.
Here in Lishui, we are about an hours car journey from our destination, as we wait for our car to pick us up. We try the local station food. This is just OK, not what I would usually want to eat, but I’m in a foreign country, so it goes down a treat.Anyway, there is only one choice. It’s a bowl of monosodium glutamate clear soup, with some fried tofu skin, 2 very small dumplings, a couple of dreadfully, scarily, luminously, bright pink ‘sausage’. I use that descriptor very loosely, and this is brought to life with some really great, bright red, slices of HOT, I mean very hot, chilli. A few drops of oil, some pepper and a lot of salt. It’s fantastic! I love it, but I try not to think about what was in the bright pink, extruded, sausage-like objects. I’ll never know. But when in Lishui, eat like a Lishuan! It was delishuious.
Our car arrives and drives at a little bit scary high speed to get us to our hotel for the night. We settle in and have a dinner of stirred vegetables. Soya beans and onion, mushrooms, fried tofu, steamed and then stir fried green beans, something brown that I don’t recognise, either in shape or in taste, which is quite bland and finally some little, green, mild chilis. something more akin to a small capsicum. It’s all delicious. but there is a lot of it, so I pass on the steamed rice and the soup.
The next day we are off to see the local Longquan Museum of celadon history. Longquan was a centre for the production of Celadon wares for several hundred years, from about the mid 900’s, through to almost 1600 – and it still is an important producer of high quality ceramic Art wares based around celadon.
Apart from Celadon, they also have some Guan ware and something that looks suspiciously like Ru ware, but can’t be, because Ru ware was only made in the Northern Song Dynasty. We’ve been tipped off, we have some local information, about an important new archaeological site. We spend our time dutifully taking in as much as we can in the Museum. But more importantly for me, there is the recently excavated archaeological site. I want to get some understanding of the early celadon manufacturing in these surrounding valleys. I have my pet theories, the possibility of seeing this site takes preference for me over other possible things to see and do while we are here.
The site is a half hour drive out into the country side. We wind our way out into the hills away from the fertile valleys. This is all very familiar to me. Even though I have never been here before. It is the same story. I can see it all unfolding. It has the ‘look’ that I recognise. These fertile valleys were colonised for food production first and pottery came later. The potters had to make do with the hilly surrounds where food production wasn’t a premium.
This is the same story or scene in so many other places where I have been researching in China, Japan and Korea. It also just happens that there are useful minerals to be found exposed in the wash-away edges of the streams up in the hills. This liminal country is very rich in feldspathic material I can see that from the car window. I’ve seen it all before. I call out to stop the car at one point. I say “We must be getting close now”! I can see out of my window, that we are passing a deposit of kaolinised porcelain stone. This is the local geology writ large in the road cutting. I recognise it from all the other deposits that I have studied over my lifetime of fossicking for porcelain stone and glaze rocks.
If this is the local geology, of course someone would have been inquisitive enough at some point in time over the very long history of human occupation of these vallieys, to just pop a bit of that paler stuff into the existing pottery kiln where they were making earthenware and then later, stoneware, until finally they made porcelain. But it was only because the ‘stuff’ was here and available on site. No sericite and kaolin, no discovery of porcelain. It’s that simple.
The story is much the same where ever it happened in several different sites in a few different countries. If the suitable material was there, exposed near the surface, then it happened. If you are a potter, or several generations of potters. You can’t not make it!
We drive on, eventually reaching the dig site. All digging has now been completed and written up. There is a sign that tells all – but it is mostly in Chinese script and I can only decipher a bit of it using my phones translation app. But this is of little or no consequence, as the signage has a small section of English translation. How very thoughtful! Anyway, I’ve been in this situation before, and I know what I’m looking for and what I’m looking at in the most general sense. I can see what I need to see. As we wander the site for an hour, even making our way down to the small runnel of a stream at the bottom of the hill. There are even a few bits of broken shards in the water, all ground and polished into rounded edges of pale green celadon and off-white/grey-olive, guan-like glazes.
The story board tells us that along this stream was once a well-worn track along the banks that is mentioned in old documents. The finished ceramic work was carried out of this valley along here. We make our way back up to the kiln site. It’s a long tunnel kiln – or was. Only the base is left now. This site dates from 1000 to 1300. There are several layers of occupation/development on the site. The kiln has been partially excavated to reveal at least 3 layers of different kilns on the site over time. This site is called “Fengdongyan” and is 4.5 kms up stream from the small village of Daoyao. Daoyao village is where there would have been other potteries at that time. This higher and more remote pottery site was an ‘official’ government sponsored site. So it must have been important. Or so the info board tells me.
To extend my earlier proposition of the thesis that potters migrated up into suitable nearby valleys, Actually, I believe that they were pushed out by the farmers. I propose that the potters were originally farmers, who grew crops and made pots part time. Pots made from mineral rich clays from the valley floor. Something akin to red earthenware, fired in bonfires, or simple up-draught kilns made from mud, straw and shards. Over eons of time the space on the fertile valley floor became too precious for pottery making and firing. The potters who had by now become specialists, were relocated off the fertile valley floor and the now well developed paddy fields and their sophisticated watering systems.
The potters now finding themselves on higher sloping ground, built their up-draught kilns into the sides of the slopes, becoming more like cross-draught kilns. This resulted in them achieving higher temperatures much quicker and with ease. The clays that they were close to on the slopes and valleys were better drained with certain fluxing minerals leached out. The clays became less fuseable, lower in iron and more refractory, needing the higher temperatures that were now possible, so paler stoneware bodies were evolved. etc, etc. Eventually semi cross-draught, down-draught tunnel kilns were developed because of their greater fuel efficiency and ease of achieving the higher temperatures. The rest is history!
When sites with porcelain stone were located nearby, in these valleys, it is impossible for me not too believe that someone like me, an inquisitive potter, could have resisted trying out this new white material. It needed a bit more work to get the kiln to mature it, it needed to go in the hottest spot, but it was possible, and therefore, at some point in time, it happened. The same porcelain stone body used for making the pots, could be mixed with limestone or wood ash and this now became a proto-celadon glaze that could be raw glazed, it’s that easy! It could be done, so it was done, it’s still being done! You only need 2 materials. Later, saggers were developed/employed to maximise packing and firing efficiency, but also to keep a lot of the wood ash off the beautifully refined glazes. Of course it didn’t happen over night, it took centuries. So much experimentation by generations of potters, each adding just a little refinement to the overall knowledge. That’s my thesis. I believe it. What is missing here is a clay supply. Why, this place so far up the valley?
When we were finished looking at this early Long Quan celadon site, we made our way back up the hill to the road, and on the other side of the road was a short track, that I hadn’t noticed previously, this led to an ancient mine site of very friable, crumbly weathered porcelain stone material. So this is why these potters migrated up here, 4.5 kilometres up this valley, away from the village, into this more remote spot, between 600 to 900 years ago. Now it’s obvious to me. They came here, all this way, simply because this is where the best material was to be found in its easiest, most workable form. No crushing required, just washing/blungeing, settling and stiffening. It all makes perfect sense to me. I’m dying to step off the walkway and go in and steal a little sample for analysis, but I resist the temptation. I’d put money on this stuff being a mix of sericite and silica, perhaps with a small amount of kaolinite or something similar. But I’ll never know!
In a way, I don’t need to. I already know. It’s just like every other site in a general sense. This place would fit very well into my book of ‘5 Stones’, except that I’ve already finished writing it. Every one of the 11 sites I studied in the 5 different countries, all fitted the pattern in some way, and every sample that I collected and and had analysed, with only one exception, contained sericite mica! That exception is Mittagong, where I live, where the mineralogy is similar but the mica is in the form of illite not sericite.
The mine site is quite extensive, it goes in two directions. I might imagine that they simply followed the softest, most plastic, easily dug material. I can see 300 years of potters endeavour, scratching out this hole here. It all makes so much sense to me.
I’m feeling really chuffed. This has been a really rewarding day. Even if nothing else happens on this trip. It has already been completely worthwhile for me.