The heritage of pottery

According to Wikipedia, the Chen Clan Academy was saved from destruction during the Cultural Revolution by local officials who converted it into a printing press for publication of the works of Mao Zedong. Today, it is saved from obscurity by making it into a museum of folk crafts. The first thing we noticed is pottery. Glazed pottery is, of course, one of the ancient Chinese arts, so we were very happy to find several cabinets full of wonderful pieces here.

The gold-painted glazes called Kwon-glazed pottery are perhaps what an untutored eye like mine recognizes most swiftly as Chinese pottery. Private collections all over India and Europe are full of these. Interestingly, these were only produced for export during the last years of imperial China, during the Qing dynasty, in Guangzhou. Plain pottery was sourced from Jingde town, and coloured and glazed to order. The Chinese government in 2008 recognized it as an intangible cultural heritage, like the other three styles that we saw here.

It is possible that Kwon-glazing was trying to rip-off the 1200 years old tradition of Fengxi porcelain. Pieces from this town in Guangdong province have bright colours on a high-gloss white background. The decorative pieces we saw here were well chosen examples of the traditional figures, largely drawn from opera and historical stories. I loved the dramatic poses, and wished again that I’d got to see the opera. This kind of pottery is also very visible in private collections in India and Europe.

The more earthy Shiwan pottery is actually my favourite. I like the thick and dark, but glossy, finish of these figures. The Family had collected a few small pieces during her student days, and my mother admired them hugely when she first saw them. The human figures are not elegantly operatic, but are in the style of peasants: sitting or working. I liked this pair of partridges clinging to a steep rock. This style comes from Foshan town in Guangdong province, and apparently developed during the Tang dynasty, perhaps 1400 years ago.

Nixing pottery from Qinzhou town in Guangxi province, near the Vietnam border, can be seen in every tea trader’s stall in China. These are the beautiful unglazed red earth teapots that I kept thinking I should buy. One of the cabinets here held several pieces which were not connected to tea. I learnt that over ten thousand people are involved in this craft today. The variation in colour comes not only from the clay but also by small variations in the temperature at which pieces are fired. The pieces are similar to others which are found across south Asia. My grandmother swore by the unique flavour imparted to food and water kept in unglazed fired-earth pottery, and I found that the Chinese also have variants of these feelings about the use of Nixing pottery.

Globalization 2.0

Dish found in Purana Qila, Delhi (Porcelain, circa 1350, Jingdezhen, China)

A special exhibition at the Mumbai Museum had been talked about for months. Everyone who had gone to see it was raving about it. The Family and I finally found the time to visit it on the last day of the show called India and the world. The exhibits unfolded a story of parallel developments and trade throughout the known world over the last four thousand years. We spent two hours walking through the galleries with our audio guides. At the end The Family said “We should have come earlier.” Indeed, now looking back at the few photos I took, I wish I had the time to go back and examine the works again at leisure.

By many modern accounts, today’s world sprang from the great churn brought about by the Mongol breakout of the 13th century CE. The resulting violent mixing of the Islamic and Chinese civilizations with Europe and India created the dynamics which is still playing out. This is what I think of as the second wave of globalization.

The gallery which you can see above contains a few pieces which resulted from this churn. The traditional Yoruba style carving of the queen Victoria is a wonderful example of this. The Chinese porcelains found in Delhi are proof of old, and underappreciated, trade links. The throne and discobolus are part of an ongoing conversation about global influences.

High culture: the Shanghai museum

A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon
A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon

When we came out of the Shanghai Museum, we were happy that we didn’t skip it. The Shanghai that we had seen before was the modern China, the city of engineering marvels. This gave us a glimpse of the other China: the old civilization that developed across the Himalayas from us.

The museum is located in People’s Square, and entry is free. It is worthwhile to take an audio guide for RMB 40. The museum classifies its collection by form: furniture, bronze, jade, calligraphy, painting, and so on. Calligraphy is an art form that is hard to appreciate if you cannot read the script. There are also other sections of the museum that we were not culturally prepared for. What we could appreciate was really well selected. I spent a lot of time in the porcelain, jade and painting galleries. The galleries contain a lot; it would be easy to spend half a day in each. We simply did not have the time.

Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
There are exquisite pieces of jade. The photo at the top shows a lovely piece whose cultural significance I do not appreciate. The only connection I know between the moon and a cow is through a nursery rhyme, or the song in Lord of the Rings. The porcelain is astonishing. I had not realized how much technology is required to execute porcelain; the development of celadon work required precise high-temperature kilns. I understood later when talking to a modern pottery artist that the state of the art is not very much further advanced. Celadon kilns work at a little over 1200 Celcius. Modern kilns can achieve around 1350 Celcius, but the success rate of firing pottery in these can be as low as 20%.

The art form from China that is perhaps most familiar to all of us is painting. We saw wonderful examples in the Shanghai museum. In addition to the individual pieces, walking through these galleries gave me a first understanding of how the aesthetics of China developed in a direction so different from either the Western or the Indian.

We arrived in the museum early in the morning, when there was absolutely no queue to enter. When we left at 1 PM we saw enormous queues, and realized how lucky we had been with the timing of our visit.