From the Jaded Economy to the Jade Empire

I’m safely returned from my most recent sojourn in China. I was there to experience the amazing porcelain stone that they have there. This is an amazing rock! When milled up into a fine paste and wetted down. It releases its clay and mica content into solution in a water suspended state. This ‘slip’ can then be processed into clay body as we know it. These days, this slip is stiffened up to plastic form in a filter press and then pugged and bagged. But it was only 12 years ago when I was here that I saw it being pounded and crushed by water driven wooden hammers, then blunged by hand and stiffened on drying beds. Things have changed a lot in a decade. Everything is mechanised now.

The finest grade of white translucent porcelain is now the best that it has ever been. I was able to spend a few weeks throwing and turning this remarkable ultra fine, extra white, clay body called Gao Bai Neantu. This clay is now so good, it’s a real eye opener. Twelve years ago, this mica-based, clay-like, material was good, but difficult to work with. Now the plasticity is so much better, while the degree of fine cracks is much lower. I’ve been lucky enough to see and experience it go through all of these amazing changes and improvements on my various visits over that time.
However, the same can’t be said for the air quality. The pollution is still just as bad as it has ever been, with some days when the visibility was down it just a couple of kilometres, the sun came up all orange and we are not in a big city, but out in the country side. I found it difficult to breath on a couple of days and was constantly coughing.
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We get to watch a bloke who throws 700 pots a day. And he does it without getting any clay on himself. He wears plastic shopping bags tired around his shoes, ad the design of the potters wheel means that his feet are in the slops tray. Otherwise he is immaculate. We time him at 45 seconds per pot. It’s not really believable unless you see it happen in front of you. We saw him at 5.00 pm. at the end of his day, when he was tired and at this slowest and wearing whatever splashes of clay had landed on him throughout his busy day! Which was none!
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I stamp my work made here with the ‘Made in Jingdezhen’ workshop stamp. I’m renting studio space in the ‘Fragrant Garden Studio’. Everyone is so very helpful and accomodating. Its an amazing experience. I’m a lucky man.
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Among other things that I accomplish while I’m here, collecting samples of porcelain stone and visiting clay makers and processing sites. I get to make 45 or so porcelain bowls. 12 of which make it to a first class finish from the stoneware kiln. I stash them into my back pack, wrapped in bubble wrap and carry them as carry-on luggage.
I’m here representing the old ‘running dogs’ of capitalism. but I find that the young puppies of Communist inspired capitalism are no longer penned in and are now set free. Everyone is busy and hoping to get rich. There is so much energy here and so much enthusiasm. I can’t see anything stopping them. The puppies are out. They are inquisitive and they are starting to wander. Meet the new running dogs.
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Amazingly, on the return trip. I get allocated a seat on the plane in the middle row of 4. where I am the only passenger. I get to sleep laying down across all 4 seats all night!
I said that I was lucky!
It helps that I was the very last person to book onto the flight, really late, just before they closed the gate. I get there with just 9 minutes to spare. I’m left with 3 spare seats beside me.
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Best wishes from the tired old bitch of capitalism, fat, bloated and complacent, snuggled up by the fire and giving the occasional half-hearted bark at the passing new running dogs.

To Get Rich Is Glorious

To get rich might be glorious – but, to be content has its merits too.
We are packed and ready to leave this special place with so much history and future potential. The old and the new worlds are co-mingled here. We breakfast in the street on food cooked on the back of a bicycle and then go looking for a driver. He’ll be here some where along this little bit of road. As we walk along, we are reminded again of how we are seen as being quite exotic here in this remote part of China. There can’t be too many foreigners like us around these parts. This is made obvious to us by a giggle of teenage girls who point and talk about us as we pass. Suddenly, a couple of them run along after us and then past us for a few metres. Once out in front, they quickly turn and take our photo on their phones. Then look nonchalantly straight past us, into the distance, back down the street, as if they are just looking back along the street as if there is nothing unusual going on, just as you do every day! Then, as we get level with them, they turn sideways and snap our image again, but this time in profile, from side on. They run back giggling to their friends to look at the images and chatter and laugh. I turn and wave at them and they wave back, then burst into chatter and laughter once again. We have made their morning more interesting!
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We are looking for our amazingly honest driver from the other day. The one who returned Leo’s wallet full of money. We want him to drive us on this last leg of our journey. He was so honest. We find him in a cafe on the corner. A few days ago we paid him Y80 for 4 hours. Today he wants Y200 for 2 hours. I don’t hesitate in agreeing. He was honest enough to return the wallet, which he could easily have ‘forgotten’ to do. After-all, “to get rich is glorious” in China! Or so he has been told. And that windfall wallet, would have been an easy start for him towards glory. But he didn’t and in so doing restored my faith in the goodness of people. So I thank him and think that the Y200 is like a reward for goodness. He’s a nice guy, and I like him. Even though I can’t tell him.
I smile. He knows.
So now I’m finally back home again.
It’s good to see The Lovely again and be back in my own familiar life. My own home, my family, my bed.  I’ve only been away a few weeks, but there is so much that needs to be done. I was busy before I left. Now that I’m back, the work load seems to have multiplied. First, I need to help The Lovely catch up with house work, then, the weeding of the garden and we have several weekend workshops booked over the next few weeks of winter. She has done one while I was away, with the help of our good friend Val, and the next one starts today. So it’s up early to get the portable wood-fired kilns out onto the site. I have built 3 new portable wood fired kilns since we last did these workshops, this time, a year ago. They are a great improvement in speed, ease, size and effort.
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The day goes well and the new larger kilns perform really well, being the most productive and popular kilns on the day, turning over the work, faster than the older kilns.
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Fortunately, I am home just in time to see the last few tomatoes ripen in the window sill. I cook them with a few of the last capsicums and some garlic, broccoli, pumpkin and lentils cooked in marrow bone stock.
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This evening, I set about making a new batch of stock to replenish the skerrick that is left in the fridge. There is something very positive about messing about in the kitchen in the evening, fussing over the wood-fired stove, roasting, simmering, reducing a vegetable and marrow bone stock. There is something so essential and wholesome about it. It warms me! In every possible meaning of the word. In some ways, It defines my existence here, living this, positive, practical, hands-on life. Making something out of (almost) nothing. Creating capital, forestalling waste, making do and in so doing, avoiding buying some inferior mass produced product that is probably bad for you, as all the packaged stocks that I’ve seen are made up with artificial everything and loaded with a lifetimes allowance of salt to boot. What I make is a concentration of leggy vegetables that are on their way to seed, a few marrow bones and some garden herbs, reduced down with a bottle of good, local, red wine, into a firm jelly-like essence of flavour. Using a spoonful of this home-made delight beats using a stock cube of unknown origin and content.
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There is a massive frost in the morning. Everything is pure white and crunchy under-foot. This is bad. It will kill off a lot of sensitive plants that were struggling on in the near absolute cold, but it is also very good! It will help kill off all the over-wintering fruit flies and while it is at it, it will ensure that we will get a better crop of apples and pears. Old stone-fruit species, especially apples, need to have a few frosts over the winter to ‘chill’ and stimulate the flower buds and make them fertile, come the spring.
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It’s winter and the citrus harvest is now reaching maturity on the trees. There are lemons, Myer and Eureka, plus ’lemonade’ lemons. Then there are ruby-red grape fruit and oranges. Plus tangelos and bitter Italian chinottos. Lastly, there are Tahitian and kaffir limes. They all go in together in a radical seasonal mix of flavour and colour.
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I try some new ideas about making marmalade. I make marmalade every year and I always like to try a new variation on the theme. You never know what you might learn. The recipe that I have evolved over the past 4 decades has changed so much that I don’t know what it was when I first started out. I use about 1kg of mixed fruit and use only the juice squeezed from that fruit as any liquid in the mix. I like to peel out all the fibrous pith from the fruit after juicing, so that I mostly use the coloured peel with just a bit of white on the inside. This  is mixed with 300g of sugar and boiled and stirred for an hour. It’s pretty easy and quick, so i can get 4 or 5 batches done during a session. This makes about a dozen small jars. Up until today, I didn’t really know what the recipe was, so this time I separated out all the parts of the fruit and weighed them before cooking. So now I know.
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1 kg of mixed citrus breaks down into;
200g  of peel
460g of juice
275g of white fibrous pith into the compost
65g of pips and other discards
Put the peel, juice and 300g of sugar into the pan and boil while stirring for an hour.
That’s it, pour into hot sterilised jars straight from the oven, 10 mins at 120oC. cap with lids that have been simmered for 10 mins at a low rolling simmer. They will ‘pop’ after 15 mins to let you know that they are now vacuum sealed and good for storage for the coming year.
Confession!
I don’t boil and stir for an hour. I just don’t have the time for it. For the past decade I’ve been using the ‘jam’ setting in the bread maker machine. We have a bread maker machine and have had one for the past 20 odd years. It’s one of the few kitchen gadgets that we own. We have even worn the first one out! But we never make bread in it! We use it for making dough, which we then roll out into bread rolls or a plaited loaf, which we bake in the wood stove, or in this case to make marmalade. It works a treat. The best part is that it leaves you free to get other things done, while it ‘minds’ the jam and it never forgets to stir, or lets it burn or stick. It even rings a bell to let you know that it’s time to bottle.
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Winter is the time for marmalade on toast for breakfast with a warm bowl of milky coffee. So french! We talk and plan the days jobs ahead. Wood splitting for the up coming stoneware wood firing is high on the list.
Working hard to make money, takes so much time, that there isn’t anytime left to enjoy the life that I want to live. So I decided a long time ago that it was best to try to live with an absolute minimum of money and have a lot more time for having fun and being more in control of my everyday life. When you get used to doing most things for yourself and making do, you find that you need less money. I guess that one reason is that I’m so tired by night time that I just don’t feel like going out.
This mentally focussed but physically demanding existence has it’s contentments, but non of them are money.
Best wishes
Steve

Back from the Lip

We prepare to leave the realm of our Colonel Kurtz of Tenmoku. We kurtzy, as a kurtesy and take our leave. But before we leave the valley completely, we want to spend a day visiting the contemporary potteries that still practice the forgotten art here in this little remote valley. They are reviving the old style here and dragging the lost art back from the brink. Re-inventing it as they need to as they go.

There a still a few potteries here and there around the area, a few either side of the valley and another over the river, plus several in the nearest town. They are all making contemporary interpretations, if not replicas of the old wares. None of them have really worked out how to do the most difficult and rarest styles. Even though they have the exact same raw materials and clays right here on site. We keep on finding the same purple, shale-like material, piled up in great heaps.

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The best pots were so very rare, that we couldn’t even identify any broken pieces of shards in among the millions that litter the various sites. Even though our very own Kurtz took us to the actual site that he says was the place identified in the old records. However, we have no way of cross referencing this piece of information and there is no real difference in the nature of the shards here that differentiates this site from some of the others.

We also visit the site of the ‘Royal Patronage Kiln’, The tenmokus made here were incised under the foot, with the mark of the emperor. Something to do with death or taxes! However, this site is also pretty much the same as some of the others. All traces of inscribed foot ring shards have been thoroughly worked over and removed for sale elsewhere long ago. However Kurtz finds and shows us a piece of wadding, that is impressed with the royal mark in the negative, from the foot ring that it supported. He immediately pockets it. Kurtz seems to be laying claim to this site too. Perhaps his family own it? Or have some connection with it. I really can’t determine any detailed information from our ‘charades’.

What there is here is an amazing little piece of information that is quite unexpected. Leo will have to present a paper on this and publish it to get some cred for it in the academic world. ‘Kurtz’ seems to be indicating that we can keep the shard from here, as he seems to own it??? Not too sure about this. Still, we take loads of photographs and record what we can of what we have found. This is a blog and not a peer-reviewed paper. So I’ll leave it there. Conrad would have had more to say on the matter I’m sure. But I’m not Conrad. Our Colonel Kurtz seems to rule in this remote valley, all the way ‘up-river’. And how appropriate it is that he should dress in a US Army camouflage uniform? But instead of finding Conrad’s ivory trader, we find that he’s a blackware trader. It’s not quite the same. In fact the difference is black and white!

All the contemporary potteries that we visit are making tea wares, mostly small tea cup bowls. We are given one, at each of the potteries that we visit. These are small, low value, items around here. But we are very appreciative of the gift and also for the ability to be able to walk around the pottery and ‘take it all in’!
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Most of the workshops are quite small and very modest. Everyone of them except one, is using either an automated jigger/jolly machine or a rotor head. We only got to see one place with wheels and throwers. Perhaps this is because the product is sold quite cheaply?
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Only two workshops had wood fired kilns and both were the long, inclined single chamber dragon kiln style with multiple doors along the tunnel for ease of stacking. In the valley, there is one site that has been protected from vandals and looters by enclosing it in a fence with an impressive gate.. This kiln appears to have been a tunnel kiln of a similar kind. There are half a dozen sites around the valleys edge, so there must have been a number of kilns here, but they appear to have all been erased by the looters over the centuries.
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They were packing the kiln at one pottery. Still using saggars for everything and they were getting very nice results too. There is an enormous quantity of thinly split wood stacked along the kiln. It is very impressive. I wish that I owned it! Not that I wish that I had cut, split and stacked it all. I don’t. I’m finding it hard to keep up the wood supply to our own, kitchen slow combustion cooker, lounge room fire, pottery pot belly stove and wood fired kiln. It’s enough.
The real problem here is me. I attempt to do everything myself. Nobody else is so silly. They are all specialists. There is diversification of labour and skill sets. You don’t attempt to learn how to do it, you just play your own small part in the system and buy the rest! Just  give in and buy everything, whatever you need. This is the age of consumerism and conspicuous consumption. It’s not what I aspire to, so I have to deal with my own problems that I create for myself in choosing this engaged life.
I have managed to cope with this issue of wearing myself out over the last couple of decades, as I’ve aged, by finding and restoring old bits of machinery that would make the hard work a little bit easier. Machines like rock crushers and hydraulic wood splitters, but now, even using them to do the really tough work. I’m still finding it a bit tiring.
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We rejoice in our good fortune and the good will of all those around us who have helped us along on this journey ‘up-river’ into the Heart of Tenmoku Darkness, to stalk the wild tenmoku in its native state and natural surroundings. We have drunk our last cup of green tea from the lip of the tenmoku bowl in its rightful place. Separating lip from lip, I return the bowl to the table. This journey is almost over.
We decide to celebrate with a smack-up meal in one of the little food-sellers shops along the road.
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You guessed it, more jowls and bowels – with chilli, Yum!
Best wishes from Marlow and Willard returning from the lip of the Heart of Darkness 

A Beautiful Moment

The next day, we are out and up into the valley, wandering over the site. We have only just arrived when a man turns up. News travels fast somehow. Every body seems to know exactly what we are doing and where we are all the time. We sit down at a street stall to grab a meal of noodles and bowels and the guy doing the cooking turns around and pulls out his phone and brings up a photo of a beautiful tenmoku bowl! He knows who we are and why we are here. He nods and smiles and flips through several images. We say thank you, and give him the thumbs up. Smiles all round.
So I’m not too surprised that this guy knows about us. We are the only people on the site in the rain again today. He waves and shouts at us. He is obviously telling us some thing important. We wander down the slope to meet him. He holds out his arms, held high in front of him in a very obvious and determined way. He seems to be telling us to stop whatever we are doing and come down off the site. We meet up with him and he makes a sign that he will hand-cuff us! This is getting serious.
Leo says that he thinks that he might be a policeman. I respond that Chinese policemen don’t wear fake US army ‘cams’ jump suits with USA paratrooper air-corps logos and thongs on their feet!
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He motions us to follow him and we go back to his house in the village at the edge of the site. We are now sat down at a very finely crafted wooden table set with tea wares and loads of tenmoku bowls and their fragments and shards. We are now all friendly and tea is made and served. He proceeds to show us his collection of shards and almost complete shards. We ooh! and arrh! appropriately and ask if we can take photos. After our umpteenth cup of tea, I begin learn that if you drink the tea, he is obliged to refill the cup. So the only way to end the ritual is the not drink the tea and leave the cup full. My bladder will burst if I have one more cupful! This strategy seems to work and I’m spared any more tea for the time being.
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It slowly becomes apparent that this Dude doesn’t want us taking anything off the site, because it’s ‘his’ territory. He seems to think that he has scavenging rights and he doesn’t want any foreigners side-stepping him. Maybe he wants us to buy our shards from him!
I could be wrong, but this is the strong impression that I get. I can’t be sure, because we have no way of communicating with each other, except by charades. My colleague thinks that it will help matters along if he gets out his lap top and shows this guy that he has been in the US, going to all the great collections of tenmoku bowls. Working with the curators and examining all the tenmokus in their collections, and photographing them all for his research. Building up a data base of all the great pots and recording the various surfaces that have been made here over the 4 centuries that this valley was productive. He has an amazing knowledge of the subject now and is fast becoming the world expert on Southern tenmoku. His slide collection of all the great bowls is extensive and exquisite in detail.
He begins his presentation by writing ‘USA’ on some scrap paper, then shows a general image of a collection, then some of the amazing bowls that he has seen there in close up. Our host is greatly impressed by the images and the information. He calls his wife and then her father, and then the neighbours and their children, all over to look and see. I look on with a wry smile, because what I see happening as I observe the scene from the outside, is a mis-understanding taking shape. What I think they are getting from all this is an understanding that Leo is American, he is the professor at a prestigious institution and that he has a personal private collection of amazing tenmokus! They are all very impressed. Exceedingly impressed! When he finally closes the laptop, the ‘Policeman’ suddenly turns and faces straight up to Leo, face to face, and then suddenly gives him a big bear-hug embrace! There is almost a tear in his eye as he tries to communicate that he is so impressed that he has finally met someone with a bigger collection of stolen antiques than himself. It’s a beautiful moment. Is this a mistaken case of honour amongst thieves?
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Suddenly, all the really good bowls that he has ‘found’ are brought out from the special cupboards and we are treated to a display of gorgeous bowls in almost intact shape. Wow! so many really nice objects and fragments of rare surfaces. Next, we are escorted out of the front ’sales’ room and out through the kitchen, outback, to the work area. here are numerous angle grinders and diamond cutting discs on the floor, tubs of water, with bowls and saggars sitting soaking in them. There are several works in progress going on, slowly, carefully, relieving the bowls from their glazed-in provenance in their saggars.
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In a couple of ‘bunkers’ in the back room behind him, there are possibly another thousand bowls all stacked up haphazardly waiting their turn to be cleaned and polished ready for sale somewhere. I’m guessing that he probably would like us to buy one, but I already have several original tenmokus before I came on this trip, hence my interest. We are invited to stay lunch and we do. We are even offered home-made wine of some sort that stretches my definition of wine somewhat. I drink a small glassful. That’s more than enough for me, but he insists that I have a refill. I do, just to be polite, but it takes some effort to swallow. After that I have no hesitation in saying NO. I’ve had enough and honor is satisfied. There are sauteed snails, scrambled egg, the usual entrails, bits of pork in black bean sauce and cucumber salad with salt and vinegar.
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There are just so many nice pots here and even more in a state of partial restoration, plus lots of interesting shards and special pieces. On the way back to the village we pass a gaggle of geese on the road. They are on their way home too!
Best wishes
from Steve soon to be on his way home as well.

The Goodness of People

Our time is running out here and it will soon be time to move on. We have planned a tight schedule to fit in with our other ‘ordinary’ lives back home. Being able to steal this time away from the usual routine is a huge luxury. I am a very privileged person. Although we must be getting along, there is always time to visit the local markets. There is a street market every weekend along the main road starting just outside the pottery precinct gates. It goes up and over the hill, I don’t know just how far over the hill it might go. There were just so many stalls and so much ‘stuff’ out there that I got overload before I came to the end. Such a lot of it was really interesting, hence not getting to the end. In fact, it is just so interesting and crowded and with so many vendors every couple of metres or so. it takes an hour to walk up a few hundred metres and back down the other side. The market spans both sides of the street. I venture out for a quick reconnoitre before breakfast. A brisk walk, as brisk as you can go stepping between the pots on the ground and the stream of humanity wandering in amongst the wares.

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I have spied a few things that I rather fancy, but when I ask the price, it is way too high. Obviously I haven’t miraculously learnt Mandarin in the week that I’ve been here so far. I know only two words. ‘G-Day’ or ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’. Everything else is a mystery to me. So I ask the price by pointing at the item and looking quizzical, while rubbing my fingers together and pointing at my wallet pocket. This may seem a bit obscure, but in the situation it works very well. They tell me the price in Mandarin at high speed, that I have no hope of understanding, so the next step is to hold out my phone, open to the page with the calculator. They just type in the number of Yuan that they want and I say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. It’s pretty simple and it works. Usually the price is way too high for what I have to spend. I don’t haggle. I know that I’m supposed to. I know that the price is inflated to allow for it, but I just can’t. It’s not that I’m incapable. It’s more a matter of politics and equity. I’m a millionaire compared to these people. I can hop on a plane and fly here to their town and buy things from them. The opposite can’t be said. It is so uneven. There is no way that they could get on a plane and come to my workshop and try to beat me down on price. The situation is far to out-of-balance.  I ask the price, if I think that I want it that much, I pay it. If I don’t, I just move on along the row.

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I see a nice piece of blue celadon, probably a modern fake, possibly only 30 to 50 years old, possibly made during Mao’s time as fake export antique wares. Yes! It was a government sponsored institution. A way to gain much needed foreign currency during the years of isolation. What ever it is. It is very subtle and beautiful and I want it. It has that matt, micro worn, scratched surface and glorious deep blue with a hint of opalescence that I love so much in my own work when it all comes together unexpectedly well.

He takes a long time to type the numbers, that’s sad. I know it’s going to be a big number, and it is . He has typed out Y15,000.00. That is about Au$3,750. That is heaps more than I will spend on the whole trip including spending money, air fares and insurance. I decline gracefully. The next person along the row where I stop has obviously heard what has transpired and the next pot that I look at is offered at the equivalent of Au$500. I move on politely with a smile and a thank you, but no thank you. A little farther along I look and ask again, now its $80 and I’m starting to feel a little more comfortable with that, but It means that I can only buy one, possibly two, things if I do.

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I retreat back to our room and we go to breakfast. After brekky we are busy all day, but the next morning, I venture out again. I see that the two pieces that I had my eye on are still there. I’d rather like to buy a collapsed sagger with its pot firmly melted into it. There are loads of them to choose from. It’s a quirky, unusual thing and I rather like the idea, but it is way too bulky and heavy to carry home, and I still have a long way to go on this trip. When I have travelled in Europe, I buy things here and there along the way, and when I have enough to fill a post pack box. I bundle them all up in there with loads of bubble wrap and the odd bit of spare clothing that I feel that I no longer need and I post it all home. We seem to average about one box per week when The Lovely and I are travelling.  On this occasion I decide to pass on the sagger, lovely and interesting as it is. I return to the original pot that I looked at. It is a small, delicate and extremely thinly potted dish in limpid pale celadon. A little over fired and slightly warped, but ever so delicate. I ask the price again and hold out the calculator. It is no longer first thing on the first morning of the market, time has passed and the pot is still sitting there. It is now Yuan Y50, the equivalent of Au$10. Quite a discount! I nod and we have a deal. The pot is duly wrapped in a single sheet of yesterdays news print and money changes hands. I don’t even look at the paper at all. Not until a few days later. Everyone is happy!  News travels fast, no one is offering me prices like yesterdays. In the thousands or even hundreds. I have just agreed to Y50 and a sale has transpired. It seems that I have set the ‘Muggins’ price.  Now, everything that I touch is Y50. I’m happy with that I can afford it, so I buy the other little beauty that I had my eye on as well. It is very ordinary, subtle and quite sweet. slightly triangular in its warping and with a discoloured rim. It has a certain, soft, irregular charm about it. I’m a happy man.

Later, I see a little wine cup in egg shell thin porcelain, but it has two cracks in it and is rather dirty from spending some time buried under ground. I like the absolute whiteness and transparency of it. It’s tiny and ever-so delicate. He holds up his hand, 5 fingers. Of course its Y50! Everything else has been. I pay up. Suddenly all hell breaks loose, Everyone standing there crowds in and gathers around, pushing and shoving at me all offering something, anything! All calling out loudly. I’m shocked and taken aback somewhat. It takes me some few seconds to realise that I have just been done, and that he was literally only asking for Y5 or Au$1 and even then there was probably room to haggle him down a bit! I have given him Y50 with a smile and he has called out. Hey! look here! here’s an idiot with too much money. Don’t let him get away! I decline all other offers. I don’t really know what happened, but I can only think back and this is my best guess. These people are grindingly poor and I’m the billionaire tourist in their midst. I’m happy with my little cup for Au$10.

No matter where I go from now on in the market, I’m offered small wine cups – for Y50! The trouble is that they are all polychrome and garish and probably only made last week. None of them has the soft, gentle subtle charm of the one I have in my pack. I got the one that I appreciate for it’s subtleties and quiet simplicity. To me it’s worth Au$10. I’m very lucky and privileged.

I pack my miniature horde into my small suitcase and pack my own dozen Jingdezhen translucent one-stone porcelain bowls into my back pack and we set off on the second part of our quest, into the Heart of Darkness, we are venturing up-river into ‘tenmoku’ territory. To the village where all of the Southern Song Dynasty, Oil Spot and Hares Fur tea bowls were once made. We have been studying. We are ‘The Readers of the Lost Art‘  – of Tenmoku, We have quite a way to go, and without Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola to get us there quickly with a few ‘jump-cuts’. We decide that we had better take the plane and fly the internal airline route to the next big city and then take the long train trip that follows the river up stream, as far as it will go. We don’t want any apocalypse now, or later. We have booked a sleeper, so that we can travel in comfort. My name is Harrison and I can afFord it. We arrive in the city at dusk and try to find our hotel. We can’t. We are in the right street but the hotel name escapes us. We wonder on, until we exhaust all our options. We must be looking pretty forlorn, because suddenly a lovely lady walks up to us and asks in perfect English, “Can I help you?”. We yes, she can, and does. We have already walked our suitcases past it. Our savour walks back with us and stops outside one of the hotels that we have thought to be the wrong one. We think this because it has a different name from the Hotel that we have booked into online just a couple of days before. Apparently it has changed its name without mentioning this to us in our booking. Our helper points out that both names are up in lights on the front of the hotel in Chinese characters.

‘The New Fashion Hotel’, formerly know as ‘Marco Polo’s Lodge’ !  Clearly, it was very remiss of me not to learn to read, write and speak Mandarin in the two weeks I had before leaving on this trip. This young lady has saved us. Such a lovely gesture. we want to pay her! Give her something as a gift, but No! She will take nothing. The goodness of human nature shines through!

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The next day, we set off ‘up-river’, it’s exciting. So I spend most of the time sitting up at the very narrow and uncomfortable window seat, so as to get the most out of the scenery that we are passing. When we arrive in this provincial town, we are faced with any number of small and large busses outside the station. We need to find the one that will take us further up-river. But which one? So many busses to choose from and so little time! Some of them are now fully loaded with passengers as the stream of humanity pours out of the station and onto them. Some are starting to pull out. All the names are in Chinese characters and the best I can do is make lame jokes about Hollywood characters in bold type face. I need to save face quickly and boldly!

Use ‘The Force’ Luke! No, that’s the wrong movie, it won’t work on this set. Perhaps I could have another look at the strange piece of paper that the old lady in the street market gave me to wrap the old porcelain pot in?

Yes! The secret map printed on old newsprint routine. That old chestnut!

Unfortunately this isn’t a movie script. It was just a piece of chip-wrapping-grade newsprint. However. I did take the precaution of asking my friend in Jingdezhen, to write out the words,  ‘plane’, ‘train’, ‘bus’ and ‘station’, and the names of the locations that we needed to go, all in Chinese characters, before we left Jingdezhen. I run to the closest bus, that is starting to reverse out and show the driver the name of the town that we need to go to next, to get us on our way, further inland. He looks, reads, nods, and stops the bus and motions to get in. We are on-board and off on our way again! It’s all too easy!

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The fare is only Y1, that is only Au$ 0.20 cents, so we are a little suspicious. Travelling in China is cheap, but that is ridiculous. We have no idea where we are. We don’t speak the language and all we have is a few words, hand-written on the back page of my travel diary. We motor our way through the town, recognising nothing. We start to exchange nervous glances. Where are we? Suddenly, the bus stops and the driver motions us to get off. We were expecting a journey of some hours into the hinterland, not to be dumped-off on the side of the road in the middle of no-where. We are reluctant to get off. I feel that it might be wise to return to the station and find someone who can point us in the correct direction. We must be looking very perplexed and nervous, because all the passengers are starting to call out together and motion to us with friendly smiling faces, to get off here. We don’t quite realise what is going on, but everyone is acting in unison, so we go with it. They are all pointing across the road at a nondescript building. The bus roars off and we cross the street. We venture into the building a little warily. It’s a bus depot! Once inside, we can see the busses all lined up on the other side of the building. We use the the back page of my travel diary to indicate our intensions and amazingly what we get are a couple of tickets and a long wait, for the next bus in that direction.

My colleague dropped his new iPhone 6 in a bucket of slip on the first day and it is totally dead. My old early model iPhone doesn’t work in China. it is just too old it seems. It won’t even take any of the new Chinese sim cards. It’s just dead here too. So much for technology. I have my series One iPad with me and it accepted the new Chinese sim card with grace and so we can get some email every now and then. However, due to the Great Wisdom of the Illustrious Chairman, Following on along the straight and true path, set and laid out by the even Greater, Great Helmsman, and with the total agreement of ‘The Party’. There is, set here in the ether, a Great Fire Wall of China that prevents almost all information of an unregulated capitalist nature, such as that practiced by ‘The Running Dogs’, to penetrate the iCloud of Heaven. Such is the life of  intellectual freedom that is endured here. Because of this stricture on my electronic connections, I can sometime get email and at other time not, but always with the images removed. There is no chance to connect to any Western based server, such as Google, Yahoo, Face Book, and WordPress. These are all totally forbidden. Any search returns the result; ‘unable to connect with the server’. So we sit in total ignorance of what is happening in the outside world. Not that I care really, it’s just about all meaningless rubbish, but at times like this. I’d appreciate being able to read something in English to pass the time.

Instead I pass the time writing a few sentences about my time spent at the Old East Sydney Tech, for an up-coming exhibition that I will have a few pots in.

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Our mini-bus arrives and we set off on the penultimate leg of our sojourn with 6 or 8 other passengers. A few hours spent looking out the window as the bus winds its way up the ever decreasing valley, along yet another river. Just as before the bus suddenly lurches to a standstill in the middle of nowhere. There is an open paddock of vegetables on one side of the road and then a laneway through more vegetables leading to a village. This must be it! We walk into the village and wander around until we find a small hotel. We meet some of the locals and make the sign of two hands placed against the side of my inclined head. A place to sleep! It works and they point us around the corner to the hotel.

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We dump our stuff and waste no time going out into the street to look for a car and driver that we can hire for a few hours. There are several cars parked around the central monument in the village. Some have drivers inside others not, some are asleep on the seat. All just waiting for someone to hire them for an hour, or a specific trip. Soon there is a huddle of potential drivers crowding around us. No one speaks English. We choose the man with the open smile. He seems nice. We negotiate a price using drawings of clock faces, some numerals and a lot of charades.

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Our driver takes us out of town and into the back blocks to the remote valley and it’s little village where every Southern Song Dynasty tenmoku bowl was ever made. There must have been millions of them made over the 400 years when this place was the centre of the tenmoku universe, from 950 to 1350, more or less. The particularly special thing that defines this little valley and village, is that this is the place where the famous blue oil spot tenmoku bowls are said to have been made. There are only half a dozen of them in the world. If fact any really authentic old oil spot glazed pot of any nature is very rare. Extremely rare! What there is plenty of is hare’s fur. Hares fur tenmoku seems to have been about 99.9% of the production from here.

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After a quick look around, our driver returns us back to the nearest town where we are staying. We have plenty of time, so will return again tomorrow. We pay him and he is gone. We eat dinner in the street in a small cafe. Intestines, lotus root, green stalks of a vegetable that I don’t recognise but is delicious and plenty of chilli! Later that night in our room, we are writing up our journals and there is a knock at the door. It’s The Driver. He has come looking for us. We mustn’t have been too hard to find! The only two foreigners in the village. Everyone knows that we are here in this room tonight. We open the door to find our Driver holding out my colleagues’s wallet. Apparently he left it in the car this afternoon. The Driver has found it and has come back to return it. We thank him as best we can without any words that he can understand. But he gets it.

When he’s gone, we check the wallet and all Y600 is still in there. Such honesty!

I am touched yet again by the Goodness of People.

Best wishes

from Steve, somewhere up-river in the back-blocks

Why Not Both?

Jingdezhen in China has a very long history of making porcelain. Over one thousand years in fact. They had already celebrated their millennium of porcelain making when I was working there ten years ago. The special thing about this place is the clay. It isn’t clay!

What they use here is a ground-up stone. When they crush and finely grind the local stone down into a very fine paste, it becomes plastic. This is like magic. Stone doesn’t usually become sticky and plastic like clay unless it’s very special. This stone is largely composed ofsericite mica, and it is special. It is reasonably rare stuff to find en-mass, in its pure white form. It has a flat plate-like crystal structure, not unlike clay, only much coarser. When these microscopic plates are wetted, they slide about against each other in a similar way to the way that clay does. Of course it’s so much more complicated than that, but this is a blog and not a treatise. Sufficient to say that there are very few places in the world where this kind of thing can happen. Here in China is one of them and the initial place where it was first discovered. Once the knowledge was well-developed in china, the information spread to Korea, where they discovered and developed similar materials, then eventually to Japan. When the War Lord Hideyoshi invaded Korea and brought back potters as war trophies!. My, how the level of respect for potters has fallen! I don’t recall any solder capturing and bringing back any potters as trophies from any recent wars that we have been engaged in!

One of these ‘renditioned’ Korean potters discovered a similar weathered stone on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, and so porcelain making started up there as well. I have visited these sites and made pots there and I intend to go back again and make a more substantial body of work there, just as I have done here in Jingdezhen, that I can bring back and exhibit all together back in Sydney. Hopefully at Watters Gallery.
My interest in these porcelain stones is all based on the surprise discovery 15 years ago, when I stumbled upon a very small deposit of pale rock in the side of a track, out in the bush. I collected a very small sample and crushed it down to dust so that I could test it for use as a glaze ingredient. It made a lovely pale blue glaze of the family of glazes that could be described as being like ‘celadon’ or ‘guan’. These are ancient Chinese archetypes of fundamental combinations of simple ingredients. They are the simplest of glazes, but just about the most difficult to re-create with the depth and subtlety that the Chinese potters achieved at the apogee of their ceramic development, during the Song Dynasty.
I recognised that my initial glaze tests, although crude, had potential to be developed into something special, but more than that I noticed that most of the tests were ‘crawled’. This would normally mean that there was too much clay in the recipe, but this recipe had no clay in it at all. It was just hard rock. Very hard rock. I had to use my jaw crusher, disc disintegrator and then 16 hours in the ball mill to grind it down to a fine powder. I asked myself. “How could such a hard rock have any plasticity. Does it have any plasticity?” I quickly ran to the pottery and mixed a little of the precious powdered rock dust with some water and worked it up in to a paste, then proceeded to try to throw it on the potter’s wheel into a small bowl form. It could just about be done. It was rough and misshapen, but it was a bowl. I fired it and to my astonishment, it fired into translucent porcelain. I coudn’t have been more surprised!. 100% rock dust and water became white, translucent porcelain!
I know the date that I did this experiment, because I scratched the date into the bottom of that first pot.
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After 25 years of fossicking around this shire. I had finally found something really exciting and with a lot of potential to carry my work forward for a long time to come. So here I am in the clay making facility in Jingdezhen. The home and origin of single stone porcelain. They don’t do all the production here anymore. Some of the large machines sit idle now. It seems that they only do the final stage of blunging (washing) the clay into a slip and sieving it through a very fine mesh to remove any unexpected rubbish that may have crept in during transport and storage. This ensures that there will be very few ‘iron’ spots in the finished product. The liquid clay ‘slip’, is then pumped into a filtering machine to de-water it back to a plastic, workable state. This de-watering procedure is called filter-pressing. This filter pressing (stiffening) is done in very large  filtration dryers until it is ‘plastic’. ie. stiff enough to fashion into shapes, by moulding  or throwing on the potters wheel.
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Once the clay has been stiffened in this way, it is dropped out of the filter press and is taken to the extruder, to be pugged into well mixed sausages for storage and ageing.
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The ‘clay’ (milled stone) material is trucked-in as a partially processed material these days. It used to be all processed here, but now it undergoes its primary crushing, milling and stiffening out-of-town, closer to the mine. When I was here last, all of the crushing was done by water powered, wooden hammers. these were typical of the water hammers that are to be found all over Asia, where-ever there is a suitable stream and work that needs doing. The powdered rock dust was then slaked in water and left to sit and dissociate, allowing the water to penetrate into the flakey, plate-like structure of the mineral. Breaking it down into a slurry with enormous surface area and also allowing the local bacterial to colonise the surfaces and work their magic to help enhance the workability and plasticity of the finished ‘clay’. This thick slurry was then stiffened slowly in the air and eventually formed into little white blocks or bricks called ‘bai-tunze’, or ‘white brick’. This is the form that it was delivered to the pottery clay processors.
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But that was then and this is now!
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Apparently the water hammers were working here up until last year some time. Due to pressure to increase production and through-put, these ancient water hammers were ripped out and the leats that brought the water were filled-in and concreted over. 3 phase power has arrived now and all the work should be being done by jaw crusher, huge ball mills and filter presses. but when we arrive, we find the place devoid of activity. The power is down and has been all day, possibly yesterday also. and who knows when it will be restored? A lone woman sits by idly and bored and waits. Perhaps the old water hammers had some advantages? They may be a bit slow, but they ran for free and all day and night as well. So why no both?
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Jingdezhen native sericite stone.
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This stuff is beautiful to work with, fine and smooth and so much more plastic and supportive on the wheel. I like it a lot. Of course my stone isn’t semi-plastic sericite, it’s just plain old hard, weathered, aplite. A quick cooled acid rock. It doesn’t become very workable without a lot of effort and time applied. However, I have found that after 6 years of storage in a cool dark place, it comes out not too different to the fresh stuff from Jingdezhen. I just need to buy some time! Time is the most expensive ingredient in my work.
Best wishes
from the patient and timely Old Rocker

Be Careful What You Wish For!

Only a few weeks ago, just after Easter. The Lovely and I were driving back from Canberra, our Nations Capital. It’s a little over a two-hour drive up the freeway. It’s pretty boring but fortunately not too long. I was thinking out loud and said to Janine. “You know, I should try and go back to China and do a little more research into the original bai-tunze porcelain stone that they have worked on and developed for over a thousand years now. I should go back to the Fragrant Garden Studio where I worked a decade ago and make some bowls out of their native stone. That would be a good project. I could exhibit them along-side my own native porcelain stone pots.” The Lovely just nodded and said something like. “Yeah. Go ahead, that sounds good.”

Then two days later, I got an email from China inviting me to take part in a Tea Bowl Exhibition in Fuzhou, China, all expenses paid!
Be careful what you wish for!
How could I say No? Not only that, but I had recently been appointed as an external supervisor to a PhD student studying at the The Australian National University in Canberra, who is researching the origins of the southern oil spot tenmoku tradition of glazes in China. He wanted me to meet him in China and to undertake a research trip to the original sites. This hadn’t worked out last year, but now was perfect timing for such an investigation.
We set about planning it all. After the exhibition was over, a week in Jingdezhen for me to do my porcelain research and then a week in Jian to do the tenmoku research. It all fell into place in a week!
Then a shock message that the exhibition had been cancelled. Such a shame! But I had made other plans and was primed to carry them all out. I decided to go anyway, pay my own ticket and my colleague was also suitably inclined. We’d done all the prep and made all the other bookings, so we decided to go anyway, We had made lots of connections and arrangements, So off we go.
We fly into Beijing and wait for our connection to Jingdezhen. Beijing is a very large airport. I suppose that I’m looking at a post-olympic, trophy, prestige building, meant to impress and it does!  While wandering around the airport looking for the domestic terminal sign, I see this sign, that tells me that I am here!. So helpful! I already know that I’m here. I just don’t know where ‘here’ actually is. This terminal is over a kilometre long. I need to know where here is, in regard to everything else and as the sign has no reference to any map, it is just about useless.
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you are here!
We arrive in Jingdezhen and make our way to the hostel that will be our home for the next week or so. The first thing that we do is to check out the surroundings and get our bearings. It’s been a decade since I was last there working and a lot has changed in that time. Ten years ago, this part of the city was all two-story, old buildings. Now there are so many astonishingly tall, high-rise apartments creeping out from the city into the suburbs. My old view from the back balcony of my flat, that I shared with quite a few factory workers at that time, has completely changed. I find it hard to recognise much. Slowly I re-familiarise myself with the old laneways and paths and get my bearings.
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My old house, where I lived ten years ago, with the upstairs, roof-top balcony, that was actually the kitchen and bathroom area,
In 2005 I could just walk out onto the main street outside the pottery precinct gate and find any number of little street-food kitchens set up and cooking an amazing range of delicious street food. I could go to a different little mobile kitchen, based on a bicycle or possibly a tricycle every morning and never repeat myself and never get more than a few hundred metres from home. I love the food in China. In this part of China the food tradition is of the hot and spicy kind. Every meal seems to be cooked with chilli, even breakfast. I love it!
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Chilli in breakfast, lunch and dinner, grits and jowls and bit of bowels, with steamed greens. Yum!
In those days, all the old homes didn’t really have kitchens and bathrooms as we understand the terms. Often, the sink was out in the laneway and shared with 2 or three other houses. The only cooking facility available to most people in those old dwellings at that time was a pressed coal dust briquette, that was lit in a small circular stove, possibly a recycled 20 litre vegetable oil tin. This contraption would take one pot on top and burn for a very long time, possibly an hour or more. No one would get up and light a full briquette in the morning to boil an egg or make a cup of tea and leave the stove burning in an unattended house. such a waste of money and heat, and possibly dangerous too!
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These briquettes are made from low-grade coal with lots of clay in it. This poor cool is powdered and then pressed into a circular block with extruded holes through it to help it burn efficiently. when its spent and all the coal is burnt out, what is left is a soft, bisque fried clay block. Out in the street there was a steady stream of working men and women stopping off on their way to work to buy a few hot dumplings or a steamed bun. They were usually riding bicycles or possibly motor scooters. There wasn’t a peak hour in those days, as there weren’t so many cars and the cars that there were, were all fairly small and compact copies of Japanese ‘bongo’ vans. The miniature brick on wheels design.
Well everything has changed. There is a peak hour now! There are loads of new cars on the street and they are big ones, just like our standard family sedans. Loads of them and they are so big. It’s hard to find many bicycles any more, even motor cycles and motor scooters have almost been phased out in favour of silent, clean electric motor scooters. A lot of people live in modern high-rise now with conventional western kitchens and bathrooms. They have electricity for micro waves and electric jugs. People can cook their own tea and dumplings, or noodles before driving off to work in their car. All this convenience, has meant the disappearance of many of the street food sellers. They are still there, but in little clusters in off-road open spaces. We were able to find a different place to eat each morning, but some were so well hidden off the beaten track, that we wouldn’t have found them without being tipped off to their location. (A little like Canberra really!)
All the old industrial high-rise is being replaced with new high-rise.
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This place is in the midst a very severe period of renewal and change. Most people seem to be looking prosperous and happy There are innumerable little private workshops springing up everywhere. Wherever there is an old empty building, someone has moved in and done it up and it’s now a shop out front and a workspace out the back. Ten years ago, these buildings were mostly empty or just used for storage.
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We set to work the next morning and I make 40 bowls on the small pot boards available to me. I make 4 different shapes. I get them out into the sun hoping to be able to start turning them as soon as possible. We are here in the rainy season, so things are slow to dry, but I get most of them over onto their rims by evening. I don’t have the luxury of a slow, even, controlled drying.  The next morning I start to turn the forms so as to rough out the forms to reduce the weight at the base and speed the drying. These one-stone porcelain bodies are quite non-plastic, but I must say that this particular one is very good compared to my own ball-milled ‘Joadja’, ground stone body back at home. The difference being that where as mine is made from a hard, glassy, dense ‘aplite’ or fast cooled granite-like material. This material here in Jingdezhen is a weathered sericite mica and develops a lot more plasticity. Even so, you can’t turn bodies like this when they are leather hard. They just chip and tear. These ‘clays’ , if it’s possible to call them that, need to be molly-coddled a bit and turning is best done at the almost bone dry stage. This allows a better smoother finish, but creates a lot of dust. In Japan, they use a vacuum fan in front of the wheel to create a negative pressure to remove the dust for the workers safety. Here there is no such concern. OH&S is a distinctly ‘western’ luxury concept at work.
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I finish all the turning and get them all out into the sun to dry on the third day. I cull them all down to 20, then another cull down to 12. That is all I will be able to carry out on the plane in my back pack. We plan to raw glaze them tomorrow and then into the stoneware kiln the next day, fired over night and unpacked the next morning. We are due to fly out at lunch time. We are cutting it fine, but it is doable. And we do it. It all runs like a Swiss watch. We are greatly aided by Liu Danyun,  The daughter of Master Liu, the owner of the Fragrant Garden International Ceramics Studio, she is most helpful in every way and does all our translating, phone calls, bookings and other organising for us. She is a wonderful friend !
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Although there has been enormous change over the ten years since I first came here, with so many technological advances, Some things haven’t changed very much. Pots are still moved from studio to studio and studio to kiln on wheel barrows, but change is catching up there too! Not very many studios have their own kiln, most places still use the public kilns, and there are quite a few to choose from in the pottery precinct. You probably don’t have to move your work more than 100 metres to find a kiln to fire them, a glaze workshop to glaze them, a box maker to fit them or a crate maker to package them securely for transport.
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Although they now have sophisticated spray booths, and the use of dust masks is more common. They don’t always were the mask or turn on the fan and water pump!
The privately owned and run kiln firing services are amazing. These kilns are packed and fired every day, with one trolley being packed while the other is in the kiln firing. They seem to crack the door open at very hight temperatures, even while there is still a decent, strong, bright glow in the kiln, so as to crash cool it.
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Where ever you go there are pots stacked out on the street to catch the breeze and some sunshine to speed up the drying. The pavement is also used as additional studio space in fine weather. Even the street and train line is used as extra workshop drying areas. Nothing is wasted!
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Where ever you go there are pots stacked out on the street to catch the breeze and some sunshine to speed up the drying. The pavement is also used as additional studio space in fine weather. Even the street and train line is used as extra workshop drying areas. Nothing is wasted!
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I’m quite in awe of these people’s ability for hard work, creativity and efficiency in some very difficult circumstances. It’s such an inspiring environment. I don’t want to come and live and work like this permanently, but I’m so very grateful that I have the chance to come and work here on these occasions and experience this life. It grounds me and makes me realise how lucky I am.
Best wishes
from Steve in Jingdezhen