As the Middle Kingdom protects and heals itself during the COVID-19 outbreak, we want to share stories with you of the people of China, the people that make this country so beautiful. Before we can welcome you back here in person, we want to bring the people to you. These stories illustrate the deep complexity, humanity, and beauty that resides across this vast nation, and we hope that by sharing these real people with you, you’ll get to know a different side of China. This is #OurChina.
Collected by Cameron Hack, each story is a window into China and her people. For this installment, our story takes us to Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province, home to a centuries-old pottery tradition that is as rich and illustrious as the emperors who once owned the covetable porcelain masterpieces. Jingdezhen isn’t your run-of-the-mill artisan community. In fact, it’s the origin place of the term ‘fine china.’ For dynasties, craftsmen would churn out exquisitely sculpted and painted ceramics bound for the imperial court. Of the hundreds of pieces, a mere one or two would be chosen by the emperor. As for the remaining iterations, they would be unceremoniously destroyed, for no one but royalty deserved to have something as precious as something from the kilns of Jingdezhen. Today, the tradition carries on in the artisans that live there (minus the wasteful destruction of impeccably produced porcelain).
“This is the only job I have ever had. Back when I started, I was earning 18 yuan [2.5 USD] a month, which was paid by the government as the factory was still government-owned. Back then, 18 yuan was a lot of money – it could feed my family and more.”
Whilst I am busy making the bowls, my wife is busy painting them. I would say that we are the very last generation that can still make pottery this way. This is probably the only place in China where you can find such traditional ways of crafting pottery. Most young people haven’t studied these techniques. It’s a shame, but nowadays, using machines in factories is much quicker and cheaper. I also think young people, like my children, are not really interested.
I started to study at around the age of 12, in 1976, when my dad took me to work at a factory run by the government. My parents had three sons, and at the time, the government said that only one son could study pottery. One of my brothers was too old and the other was too young, so he chose me. My dad started to learn in 1948 when he was 15. Sometimes my mom would help him, although she wasn’t a professional. My family is not originally from Jingdezhen. When my parents were younger, they took two days to walk here from another city in Jiangxi, coming to look for work.
This is the only job I have ever had. Back when I started, I was earning 18 yuan a month, which was paid by the government as the factory was still government-owned. Back then, 18 yuan was a lot of money – it could feed my family and more. I was very popular with the girls as they knew that I had a high salary, and many of them wanted to marry me.
I started learning the basics with my dad. He showed me that I needed to be very patient and that if mistakes were made, just to try again. At first, I did make a lot of mistakes, but after some time I became better and better. Although we never got a day off, I really liked my job. I would have to wake up early and walk to work. After a few hours, we’d have a lunch break where we could go home to eat, take a nap, and then get back to work for the rest of the afternoon.
I still really like my job after all these years and I still work in a government-run institution. Its aim is to preserve tradition and give tourists a chance to see how porcelain was previously made. Timing is key. You can’t leave anything in the kiln or in water for too long, so I still have to concentrate hard. Everything we make is different and unique. Many people visit me, take photos, and chat while I sit here and work. The things I make can be sold and we sell a bowl like this for 95 yuan each. The money doesn’t go directly to me though. These bowls were made yesterday. The process is long, but I think the outcome when you see a beautiful handmade and hand-painted bowl, vase, or plate is amazing – even after all this time.
“Each plate takes about 10 days and they can sell for 6,800 yuan [962 USD].”
I’ve been painting for about 50 years – I started at the age of 16. When I was younger, in the 60s and 70s, I had no chance to study. Like a lot of people at the time and like many of our parents, we went to work in the ceramic industry either making or painting pottery. I started working in a factory that was owned and run by the government. There were some amazing painters who worked there. They taught me how to paint and, out of respect, I would call them master. In my own family, my mom made pottery and then my dad would paint what she made. He also helped and taught me when I was younger.
I can paint on teapots, plates, vases and just about any other type of ceramic. I can also paint on paper which is a little easier. I have always really liked this job. It’s very peaceful. I guess I can call it my hobby, as well as my job. I now work in a park where tourists can visit and watch us in action. This is the last place in China you can find this type of handicraft. Sometimes people also buy the things I’ve painted, or if they want something painted specifically, they can ask me and I’ll paint it. I often paint animals on plates, usually the 12 animals from the Chinese zodiac calendar. Each plate takes about 10 days and they can sell for 6,800 yuan. I can only read and write very basic characters, so someone else will write the letters after I’ve finished painting.
I am a very patient lady. For this job you need patience.
About Humans of China
Cameron Hack, an English teacher from England, has made it his mission to collect the stories of China’s people since arriving in Beijing in 2014. By leveraging the online community, he’s been able to connect with members from some of the Middle Kingdom’s most fascinating – and in many cases, disappearing – communities. Almost 200 stories later (and counting), Cameron has recorded such diverse narratives as the women with bound feet and what life is like in Guizhou.