(This is Part 2 of our interview with Mr. Lee Shanming and the tour of his Ruyao Ceramics Studio on Jingdezhen, China. The first part can be read here.)
After finishing our interview, Mr. Lee offered to give me a tour of his studio, offering a glimpse into the production process. Here are some photos of his studio:
Because of the enormous amount of air pollution from coal and wood kilns in Jingdezhen, a law was passed prohibiting the use of kilns to electric ones. Aside from this change, much of the work in these small studios follows traditional processes.
This is what the inside of the kiln looks like. As you can see, ceramic cups are on the top and sides of the shelves. These are called the “guards”. These guards are placed here to block the fire from coming into direct contact with the ruyao. This leaves only shelves 2 to 5 which can hold ruyao for firing.
The largest of Mr. Lee’s kilns can only hold 30 cups at most. Many other studios use larger kilns to increase productivity (not to mention the huge industrial kilns used in porcelain factories). Mr. Lee explained to me that because of the delicate nature of ruyao, the temperature must be strictly controlled, and the larger the kiln, the less control there is over the temperature. Using a smaller kiln means a smaller batch per firing, but it also means a lower scrap rate of ruyao destroyed during firing.
To better control the conditions when firing the red ruyao, Mr.Lee uses an even smaller kiln (2/3 of the one we see in the picture). Due to the difficulty of firing red ruyao only around 25% of the pieces survive the kiln and are able to make it to the end of the process and onto a shelf. Ruyao has a high scrap rate in general for ceramics and red ruyao has the highest scrap rate of any of the ruyao produced in the studio. The reason for this is the added difficulty of working with the iron oxide glaze. Ruyao is already very sensitive to temperature during firing, iron oxide is another material that is extremely sensitive to temperature and firing conditions. Because of the extremely sensitive nature of the iron oxide, each batch of red ruyao that survives the kiln will vary in intensity and quality of color. Because of this, we personally inspect each piece of the surviving 25%, choosing the best of the batches for the quality of the red glaze.
Products are air drying after wheeling and before being polished and covered with the glaze for firing again. This photo gives an idea of the size of Mr. Lee’s Studio. Since all the products are handmade and are under strict quality control by Mr.Lee himself, the amount and production rate are limited.
After spraying on the glaze there may be some overspray outside of the desired area. Each pot must be inspected and cleaned carefully by hand.
Mr. Lee in the process of forming one of his pieces.
Spraying the glaze on each piece.
Each piece has to be sanded after shaping.
Each piece is inspected and polished after firing.
I was lucky to be at the studio for the “birthday” of a new piece, a new model of ruyao teapot by Mr. Lee.
This April, while the people around us were busy with the spring tea harvest, we made a visit to Mr. Lee Shanming’s (李善明) studio in Jingdezhen to see his new spring products, and to take some photos back with us for our blog. Lee Shanming is our featured Ruyao artist. All of the Ruyao Teaware in our shop is handcrafted in his studio in Jingdezhen.
Ruyao 汝窑 (also known as Ru Yao or Ru Kiln), as we mentioned in our previous post, is an art form with deep roots in China that was on the verge of being lost forever before it was revived by a number of Jingdezhen artists. Ruyao is the ultimate representation of the Song Dynasty's Aesthetic and Philosophy: Simple, reserved and pure.
After patiently studying historical artifacts, and with the help of modern technology to decipher the recipe of minerals used to create Song dynasty ruyao, these artists have been able to revive the art, patiently revising their ruyao recipes through trial and error to get the desired color, texture, thickness and inner quality of the material. There are many modern imitations that try to mimic the appearance of true ruyao, but the delicate and difficult nature of devising the recipe and firing correctly has meant that the supply of high quality ruyao remains limited to only a few studios directed by Ruyao Masters such as Lee Shanming. High quality ruyao is often sold exclusively to Chinese collectors or at auction houses. Rather than go on, we thought we thought we’d let the artist himself describe his work.
Interview with Master Lee Shanming
When I stepped into Mr. Lee’s studio (善窑）, the first thing I noticed was a calligraphy scroll with “Shan善” on it，meaning “kindness,” the fundamental spirit of Mr. Lee’s philosophy as well as his name. After visiting his showroom and before touring his workshop, we sat in his tea room for a short interview.
Me: Hello Mr.Lee, While everyone loves patterns on white porcelain (Blue-and-White, color glaze and paintings on white porcelain…), what made you decide to work in Ruyao, one of the less well-known and most difficult schools of Chinese pottery to study?
Mr. Lee: I was a sculpture artist that came from a poor village, around 16 years ago, I opened a small OEM factory in Jingdezhen to make white porcelain for some other companies. Meanwhile, a friend of mine introduced Ruyao to me. I was fascinated by the porcelain, decided to build an extra room next to my house as my own workshop and bought some simple equipment. That was over 10 years ago, it’s literally for personal interest, because everybody in the market was interested in blue and white porcelain. So, during the day, I ran the factory, at night, I played around with the formula and techniques to try to fire my own Ruyao porcelain in my little workshop. That was my interest.
I am like most people who spend money on a passion. I learned the rough proportion of each of the elements of the glaze and body, then I started to experiment with it to get the right proportion. I tried so many kinds of elements from different origins to try to improve the result. Even now, the silicon dioxide I use in the glazes are all imported from Australia, because it has shown to be the best silicon for my formula.
Me: Experiment? So you mixed different elements and fire it and compare each formula?
Mr. Lee: Yes, that’s basically it.
Me: So how many formulas you have tried?
Mr. Lee: (Smiles) Countless. Not only the formula, sometimes the weather, even the direction of the wind can lead to different results for the glaze. All of those elements must be taken into consideration. That was my biggest obsession. After a few years, I was able to work out a few very good recipes for the glaze and body, I started to sell them. It was like most of the small studios now, making only a few a month, selling it to whichever friends were interested. One day, with my mind set on running a studio, I realized, instead of running an art-less OEM factory, why not start my own brand? So I sold all my shares in the OEM porcelain factory to my brother, I knew the factory was profitable, so I didn’t need to worry about the life of my family. That factory is still running well now (Smiles). Yup, so I left everything behind, with the money I sold my share, I built a small studio right next to the little workshop I mentioned. Hired a few skilled workers in the porcelain-field, started to produce more products and set up my own brand.
Me: So aside from Ruyao, are there any other obsessions in porcelain making?
Mr. Lee: Red. Red glaze is the hardest to fire, I recently spent so much time firing the red, trying to stabilize the color in each batch.
Me: My personal tea cup is a red Ruyao cup from you!
Me: What is archaize porcelain? In Jingdezhen, it’s very common to hear about archaize porcelain. A lot of people confuse it with fake porcelain, can you tell us something about archaize porcelain? Why is it popular?
Mr. Lee: The story can be traced back to the 1950s. Premier Zhou Enlai announced the ancouragement to revive ancient porcelain, by setting up a new government department to study each kind of porcelain, and to try to simulate the formula and techniques to continue the production of ancient porcelain. Ruyao was one of the hardest ones to revive, because there are so few surviving examples left, and back then they added agate to the glaze. If we were still to add agate it would be tremendously expensive and not possible to produce in a large enough amount. So the artists needed to analyze the formula, to work out how to make the ruyao glaze without using agate. But for personal interest, I have made a few batches using agate as limited editions, I can show you in a bit. (Sorry guys, I forgot to take pictures..)
So using the most traditional technique and traditional formula and using the traditional raw materials, following the traditional style to produce the products, that is what is meant by archaize.
Me: Why set up a personal brand? We all know that it’s not easy to establish a brand. There are so many small studios in Jingdezhen, they produce small amounts, and sell it without setting up a brand, they also craft good products. Why you have to put so much effort on branding?
Mr. Lee: As you see, not that many people have successfully revived Ruyao, I feel like I have the responsibility to enlarge the vitality of this craft. Ruyao is a kind of culture. Rather than selling products, I am also passing down a legacy from our ancestors. Building a brand is necessary, it will allow everybody who’s interested in Ruyao or who appreciates this culture to know more about it, to use it, to bond with it.
Me: Hmmm, you mentioned Legacy. Are you planning to teach your kids and let them take over your legacy when they grow up?
Mr. Lee: I doubt if they know what their father’s doing (smiles). Like most fathers, I just want them to be happy and do whatever they are interested in in their life. As long as there are more people who enjoy Ruyao and appreciate it, that’s enough for me.
Me: All your products are fully handmade. How are you able to make a large quantity of fully handmade products?
Mr. Lee: To be honest with you, that’s the problem I am facing right now. I want everybody to be able to afford my products, and meanwhile I am very persistent on keeping them all handmade and setting a very high standard on quality. The market is growing so fast, and I am facing the problem of raising the production rate.
Me: Do you have an idea for a solution?
Mr. Lee: Sometimes I need to take a step back. What’s the reason for making them? It is passing on the Ruyao culture. This studio may not bring a huge fortune, but I am content in my life, my family is being well taken care of. If I cannot produce more, then I cannot. All I need to make sure is, that every product that is going out from my studio, is not bringing shame to my studio, is made with heart, that’s enough.
So, are you interested in taking a look at my studio area?
Me: I would love to!
Coming Soon: Part 2
To many tea and traditional pottery lovers, Ru Kiln or Ru Yao 汝窑 is a term that conjures images of a rich, jade like texture, pure and deep hues, and a smooth yet subtly cracked surface. Here is a simple introduction to one of China’s most celebrated ceramic arts, Ru Kiln Pottery.
Ru kiln, originates in the late Song dynasty (around 700 years ago), the location of the kiln was in Ru zhou 汝州, hense the style became known as “Ru Kiln.” There were 5 famous kilns in the Song Dynasty: Ru kiln, Guan Kiln, Ge kiln, Jun Kiln and Ding Kiln. Ru kiln was labeled, “top of the 5 kilns,” and was the official royal kiln, producing products only used by the Emperor and his family. What makes Ru kiln antiques especially valuable was the short period that the kiln operated during the Song Dynasty, only around 20 years. Today only a total of 67 pieces from that period have survived. Reflecting it’s imperial origins, Modern Ru Kiln represents a form of sophisticated luxury in the tea world.
Today, Jingdezhen Masters working with traditional recipes and methods have revived the art form. Since the technique is evolving, the modern Ru kiln pieces can be made in a way that closely mirrors the techniques of the Ru kiln from the Song Dynasty. According to archaeological discoveries, the Ru kiln of the Song Dynasty was located in a village called Qing Liang temple( 清凉寺). It was in this little temple, that the craftsmen created the magical recipe for this amazing pottery- Ru Kiln.
During the Song Dynasty, there was a saying, “One would rather have one piece of Ru kiln pottery than to have a fortune”, it shows how valuable Ru kiln was. Here are the 4 specialties of Ru Kiln pottery:
1) Opening crack ( 开片 kaipian): This means the opening cracks on the glaze. When firing the pottery, and as the body expands, cracks appear on the surface of the glaze.
2) The azure glaze: There is a line from a poem that describes this specific color-“The azure in the sky after the rain”. I think this is the perfect way to describe it, by giving a great picture: It’s refreshing, pure, rich, just like Jade.
3) Grey pottery body: We can see this in some broken pieces of Ru kiln pottery in museums, the body is thin and grey color, like the color of ashes. Generally, the side walls of Ru kiln pottery are thinner than the bottom.
4, Plain: Generally, Ru kiln pottery is plain, without any painting or decoration. However, some modern artists paint some blue-and-white designs to give the pottery a bit of personality.
Nowadays, we can easily find Ru kiln pottery on the market. As we have said, there are only 67 original Song Dynasty Ru Kiln pottery in the world, so all the pottery you can find in the market is the result of either artists or factories attempting to recreate this ancient style. It is not easy to follow the traditional recipe to successfully create a high quality Ru Kiln piece. It requires ancient knowledge, professional skills and years of experience. Our Ru kiln Master 李善明（Lee Shanming) is one of the most famous and accomplished Ru kiln artists in China. His work, featured in our Shop, is among the best examples of modern Ru Kiln on the market today.
This is definitely my favorite pieces by Master Lee. The color is Shiny red (霁红汝窑). In order to add the red to the glaze, the artist needs to add iron to it, and fire it. If the temperature is too high, the iron would turn into some black metal spots, and if the temperature is not high enough, the red is dull and rusty-colored. Because of the difficulty in properly firing red Ru Kiln, it has the highest scrap rate of any color and requires a great deal more time and error to produce a piece. To me, it’s really my luck to find this perfect piece, every batch is a little different, the color in your heart, you can either find it or you can’t
Here are some tips when caring for your Ru Kiln piece:
1 Warm your Ru kiln ware a bit before pouring hot tea or water into it, and avoid sudden and extreme changes in temperature as it will cause the surface to crack further.
2, After using Ru Kiln teaware for a while, the cracks will begin to pick up the color of the tea, this is called the opening cracks effect, it’s the specialty of all the cracked porcelain. Some people like it a lot and want to see it sooner, this can be accomplished by soaking the piece in tea.