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The dragon springs to life: Carla Coch explores the artistic career of celadon master Xu Chaoxing.


IN CHINA, THE YOUNG ARTIST TYPICALLY APPRENTICES With a master teacher while learning the craft before developing his or her signature style. In such a culture individual creativity follows master and on final expression comes after a long and deep immersion in the tradition. In like manner, after more than 50 years working in ceramics in Longquan, a small city in southwestern Zhejiang Province, Xu Chaoxing has today claimed his place at the centre of the stage celebrating the recovery of celadon, one of the jewels of China's ceramic history.

Born in 1943 during the tumult of the Japanese occupation and the on-going tension between the Communists and the Nationalists, Xu was just 13 years old when he was sent to work at the Longquan Ceramics Factory. Without the wherewithal to choose his vocation, he accepted his apprenticeship under the tutelage of an elder artisan named Li Huaide, a living repository of secrets passed down through the generations without the benefit of a written record.


After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, discoveries from archaeological digs yielded many shards and vessels but the task of making new pieces in imitation of ancient ones was arduous. It meant working backwards from the finished work to duplicate the process that had created it. Xu experimented over and over in order to recover the clay body and glaze formulae, the techniques of dipping and redipping, the firing conditions and temperatures and the complex cooling methods that create celadon s beautiful crazing defects that become the aesthetic. For the most part, Xu's method was trial-and-error with many failures and much collaboration with scientists but eventually, a museum's worth of celadon art would be made again for the 21st century.

In May 2006, at the Zhejiang Academy of Art in Hangzhou, the opening of Xu's retrospective exhibition was followed by a gathering of many people who had accompanied him on the celadon path--a journey felt in the hand and known deep in the bones--like celadon itself: a clay body, a spectrum of glazes from greys to blues and greens and an endangered cultural heritage. At that symposium, many people spoke of Xu's contribution to celadon and some openly wept as they remembered the hardships that he and other apprentices had endured in service to a ceramics culture that had once been an important part of China's relationship to earth, to nature and to art.

Xu is a hands-in-clay ceramist more in the western studio potter tradition of Bernard Leach and the Mingei artists of Japan wherein the artist mixes clay, throws vessels, makes moulds, carves motifs, glazes and fires each work. Today, Xu's Longquan studio employs about 10 people and he remains involved in every step of the process, including packing and shipping wares.


Xu's lifetime of practice and experimentation have yielded several important rediscoveries of celadon manufacturing techniques. Of course, the process has been part individual effort and part collaborative enterprise, research and practice in equal measure--working backwards from found artefacts to duplicate ancient models and forwards to create new ways of advancing the legacy. His primary contributions include the following:

* a way to synthesize the legendary Ge (elder brother) crackle glazes and the Di (younger brother) smooth, jade-like glazes in a single vessel;

* the formula for the Shang (1700--100 BCE) era yellow ash glaze enhanced by delicate, swirling patterns achieved through chattering or what the Chinese call the 'dancing knife' technique;

* recovery of the method for making a completely air-tight two-part vessel despite an 18% reduction during firing;

* manufacture of plates more than 50 centimeters in diameter that are dipped and fired eight to 10 times to create a glaze layer thicker than the clay body beneath;

* replication of the 'gold thread and iron wire' effect describing a two-phased crazing process;

* reproduction of the brown (or purple) mouth and iron foot method achieved by letting the glaze flow and then wiping the rim;

* development of new designs such as the award-winning cloud-and-phoenix serving set with 8 delicate petal-like shapes surrounding a single lobed plate.

When barely a teenager, Xu first worked in Longquan where he saw artisans hiding their wares under a straw basket to discourage imitation. Over the next five decades, he has participated in a sea change in the evolution of celadon. Artists today share knowledge, none more so than Xu, renowned not only for his extraordinary skills but also for his modesty and generosity. In a tribute written a year before his death in 2007, Mao Songlin, Xu's elder by five years, wrote, "On earth, rain, snow, wind, forest, clouds and smoke can obscure the sun, but a person s character and the impressions it makes in our hearts are immutable. No matter how tides ebb and flow..., the style of an authentic art master endures. My dearest friend Xu Chaoxing embodies this truth."

In China, the master trains apprentices so that one day, they might surpass their teacher. By so doing, the legacy endures. Xu Chaoxing has taught extensively in Beijing and Longquan to enable others to understand where the roots of celadon first grew and to learn how to make its branches flourish with fresh creative energy. Fortunately, his gifted son Xu Ling continues the tradition of imitation begetting innovation with new vessel shapes and new glaze combinations--in the tradition of the Longquan dragon springing forward into the future.

Carla Coch, a retired English teacher and independent researcher in China, lives in Alfred Station, New York US; is an honorary citizen of Jingdezhen, PRC and is currently working on a documentary about 10 Jingdezhen artists active from 1928 to the death of the last member of the group in 1969. In addition, she is the Associate Director of the Confucius Institute at Alfred University in partnership with China University of Geosciences in Wuhan.
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Author:Coch, Carla
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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