10 Million Shards

We are up bright and early and out into the street. We are foraging for breakfast. There are any number of street food vendors plus a few cafe style shop fronts open for our custom. We’ve had a gut-full of intestines for now. We are thinking of steamed buns, but this morning there doesn’t seem to be too many about. We take a walk through the local market, that is down a lane and along a walk way which opens up into a covered market in behind the main street. You wouldn’t know that it is there except for the stream of people and motor scooters that are coming and going along the narrow path simultaneously. It looks like total chaos in there, but is just the normal too-ing and fro-ing of humanity. We realise that we just have to push in and shove our way through, just like everyone else. No-one seems to have the Western concept, that we were brought up with, of taking your turn. it just doesn’t happen like that here. People aren’t being rude. it’s just the way that everyone gets about when there is a crush, and there always seems to be a bit of a crush.

thumb_DSC00561_1024The market is amazing and wonderful, everyone here has been up before sparrow-fart to get all this produce dug, washed and cleaned and laid out here for our delectation. The pigs have been slaughtered and their bits are all here for us to examine, all steaming-fresh and quivering-warm.
The vegetables are almost still growing, they haven’t realised that they are out of the ground yet.
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Something that I hadn’t noticed before was that most of the fish are still alive and swimming in their paddling pool ponds. An aquarium air pump is feeding bubbles to some of them that need to be aerated. The carp don’t seem to need it.
There are bags of toads and live, dressed or cooked ducks, all there together. The ducks are so sweet. I loved my ducks. Always found it hard to wring their necks, but there is no room for sentiment when your survival is on the line. Buying your meat on a plastic bag is a cop out! If you aren’t prepared to see the life drain out of an animal that you have killed with your own hands. Then you don’t have any right to eat meat. toughen up! get over it!. If you aren’t up to it. Become a vegetarian, but don’t live in denial. This is just straight faced honesty. Not nice, difficult, but real.
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We find our breakfast out on the street as always, we have some sort of bread bun crossed with flat bread. very nice, filled with garlic tops and green onions, with sesame seed on the outside. Then some wantons in a clear broth of MSG, chilli oil and soy. After our breakfast we return to the Village Square and start our negotiations with the local drivers with cars to rent. Out driver from yesterday isn’t available today. All the cars for rent are parked around the village monument at the village centre crossroads, even though there are only 3 roads. It’s a village ‘Y’ road, or 3 ways! the monument celebrates the 12 brave tractor drivers who saved the harvest, or the never ending struggle of the the great helmsman! What ever, We try with all our skills to negotiate an arrangement where by we will be driven around all day and returned here afterwards for a set price. Its not the exact amount that is of concern to me. I can agree or decline any offer. It’s more about knowing what the cost will be and having an agreement that we can all respect and live up to with no surprises or unexpected increases.
We are soon off to the little secluded valley where all the oil spot and hares fur bowls that were ever made in the Southern tradition were potted. There must have been many millions of them. If you think that a potter might drop  or otherwise ‘loose’ a pot every now and then. Dropping a pot or chipping the rim. Perhaps the setting melted in the kiln because of over-firing? If the losses were 1% of the turn-over, even if they were 5%. It’s hard to conceive of the mass of broken pots and saggars that litter this site of many hectares. Even to the depth of several metres. They must have made many millions of pots here, because they left behind many millions of shards!
This little valley has been cultivated over 40 centuries to make a flat level centre, contoured to get a steady flow of water across the terraces for irrigation in the growing period and flood mitigation in the wettest part of the year. This area of China, although a long way inland, is still influenced by the monsoon. We are here in this wettest part of the year. We have to get kitted out in our wet weather gear. The valley is surrounded with low wooded hills. We can make out at least 5 sites around the valley edge that have been extensively worked over by looters over many years. As far back as 1930, an American academic was here to do research and the sites were already well and truly dug over by the locals, who are mining the site, extracting what-ever they can to sell to subsidise their meagre living as peasant farmers. When my colleague was last here in November doing research. It was a clear fine day and the sites were covered with locals mining deep into the spoil heaps of shards, some digging down to 3 or 4 metres, all looking for some little gem to sell off at the markets.
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I walk along the road boundary of the lower edge of the the largest site and start to make a plot of the layout in a very general sense. Just so that I can mentally frame my boundaries, then I start to make a visual survey up one edge of the site. Its not possible to walk straight up the slope. One, it is too wet and slippery, and two, the site is so heavily excavated that I’m forced to zig zag along the high spots in the shard piles avoiding the craters. the ‘workers’ aren’t here today, as it is too wet, but all their paraphernalia is left jotted about the slope. Their woven baskets and plastic bags, including their empty plastic drink bottles and cigarette packets. No one seems to have a lot of respect for the site.
The ‘natural’ base here is sticky red clay, it ‘clags’ to my boots and is very slippery. with an incline of about 1 in 4. I have to be really careful not to slip and fall again. I have already taken one slippery fall and damaged my arm trying to protect myself.
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There is no part of the site left undisturbed, so there is no stratification to identify. It’s all in turmoil, and there are some really deep pits that have been excavated to get down to the bottom (early?) layers. I can’t tell. it’s all been dug over so thoroughly that I think that they are now digging through previous rejects, that were not thought to be saleable years ago when the market only wanted intact pots that were slightly damaged, then it was almost whole pots. Now that these gems are all gone, the site is being worked over again to extract large pieces of bowls that are more or less complete on one side. It appears that finding bowls that are melted into their saggar during firing is the prime objective these days. Since the introduction of cheap Chinese manufactured diamond-faced ceramic cutting discs, it is now possible to grind away the saggar to reveal most of the bowl intact. This is something that was not previously possible with just a hammer and chisel.
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As I traverse the site I get a ‘feel’ for what was made here over the period. There are no significant bowls left here, but there are surely 10 million small pieces of broken shards. The terrain underfoot is solid with broken saggars, tenmoku and red clay. Presumably the clay that these bowls were made from? These people were peasant potters, part farmers, part potters. They were very isolated. It was a long walk carrying two woven baskets slung on a pole over your shoulder to move anything from A to B, along the walking path that led along the stream and up into the valley. They wouldn’t have moved cheap raw materials like clay very far. The kilns would have been built up on the non-arable slopes, land unusable for cropping and closer to the firewood source. We collect a small sample of the clay for analysis and photograph any ‘interesting’ shards that come to light and I plod along, bent face-down, staring intently at the small fragments, filtering all the visual information looking for ‘pattern’ and building up an idea of the product that was created here over the millennia.
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What I’m seeing is a preponderance of brown to black hares fur glaze, with tinges of blue and green where it is thicker and has pooled towards the base. It was applied very thinly and is particularly runny. Hence the only partial application of the glaze on the outside, well up from the foot to allow for running. This kind of glaze smacks of high lime content and low amphoterics. In any ‘normal’ circumstances the high iron content would be the amphoteric, but in this case the glaze and body have been well reduced, so all the iron has become a flux. From the fractured pieces of shards that I examine, I’m getting a picture of an early period of oxidation, lasting well into the firing, thus causing the typical boiling of the glaze, followed by intense reduction, causing the running. The body is dark and sandy textured to rough, through to very rough and examination of the fresh fracture surface is very revealing and quite interesting.
We discover something that has not been previously described in the literature, at least not in English. It will sweeten Leo’s PhD and possibly secure his degree?
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There is a lot to take in and so much to learn. This will take a while to decipher. For the time being I’m fully occupied in photographing everything that I think might be interesting to reflect back on later.
Best wishes

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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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