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Old Clay into New Shape
Three craftsmen from Yixing, east China's Jiangsu Province, known as the hometown of zisha, brought their latest works to the China Souvenir Fair, held last week in Beijing, in the hope of sharing their artistry and love for the art. Different from the traditional zisha works, which are primarily teapots since the unique properties make it ideal for brewing tea, the three demonstrate their new understanding of this art form.

In Wu Shunhua's eyes, zisha is the cream of clay just as jade is the cream of stone and sandalwood the cream of timber.

Wu, 51, is among the few who make zisha vases instead of teapots, but he has also created stationary sets and wall-hangings.

What makes Wu's work more unique is that he engraves his traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy on the pottery.

Born into a farmer's family in Yixing, Wu has been extremely fond of traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy since childhood. He has studied under several famous Shanghai artists and also studied painting in art academies in Beijing.

Wu showed an interest in sculpture and modeling, but it was not until 1985 that he found zisha pottery was the best way to blend all his interests and skills.

"Zisha is not only a kind of clay for teapots, but a Chinese culture involving a variety of arts including painting, calligraphy, sculpture and seal cutting," Wu said.

Now he paints on the surface of the pottery, creating mountains, waters, flowers, birds and ancient figures with engravers instead of a brush.

His designs are rich in antique flavor and beauty, usually coming from folklore, historical stories and Chinese literary works. After painting for more than 30 years and poring over a large number of works, he can understand every figure or scene and engraves like an inspired man.

Besides his own paintings, Wu also copies works of well-known artists.

For instance, one of his square vases features contemporary artist Li Keran's painting of a buffalo boy sitting on the back of an ox while looking at the mountains and waterfalls from a distance.

The rubbings of stone carvings kept at the famous Dunhuang Grottoes, in northwest China's Gansu Province, is another source of inspiration.

Wu, who is skilled in Chinese calligraphy, also inscribes a poem or several words relating to the scene in various styles of calligraphy.

As for the modeling, his vases feature a variety of ancient shapes such as ding, an ancient cooking vessel with two loop handles and three or four legs, or zun, a square wine vessel and others look like a woman's shoulders.

Many of Wu's works have been collected by museums and exhibition halls across the country.

"I'm dreaming of opening a museum of my own and display all my works," said Wu, who has kept about 100 of his vases.

Family skills

Fan Xiaoming, 40, is from a big Yixing family which has made zisha teapots for generations.

Naturally, he learned skills from his mother and uncles from a very young age.

Fan's works are rich in traditional flavor and feature Confucianism and Taoism.

Most of his teapots such as "Cloud and Dream," "T'ai chi" and "Charm of the Moon" are round items, which imply the mild mood of the men of letters in ancient times.

Recently, Fan also added contemporary themes to his arts. His new work "Cry of the Mother River" is related to environmental protection.

The surface of the teapot is inscribed with spray from the running Yangtze River while the lid is a vivid white-flag dolphin which is one of the endangered species in China.

"Life is the source of my creation," the softly spoken Fan said.

"Being sensitive to life means you will make a lively teapot."

A skilled artisan, Fan said the most difficult link in the process was not designing or molding a teapot, but firing it in the kiln.

"A very small change of the temperature or the humidity of the clay would destroy a well-designed teapot," he said.

"All the artisans have to master the skills by accumulating years of experience."

Modern touch

Full-bearded Ge Jun, with a red round face, does not strike you as a clever and deft zisha artisan.

However, he is one of the masters from the young generation of zisha artists and is one of the few non-native Yixing artisans.

Ge, 37, went to the "capital of zisha" by chance after he graduated from the Jingdezhen Ceramics College in east China's Jiangxi Province. Jingdezhen is another town known for pottery and porcelain in China.

He had planned to stay in the college working as a teacher but a fascination for Yixing's zisha turned it into a career and lifestyle.

It is not easy for a non-Yixing person to master the art which has been part of the local tradition and culture of the area for thousands of years.

The non-native has to grab the pottery spirit in a short time since he was born without a family link to the tradition.

However, Ge, who came from a military family, did not give up easily and finally achieved success with his modern style zisha teapots.

Deriving from the traditional teapots, Ge has developed his works into modern shapes, which imply symbolic meanings.

His models are not as conservative and antique as the traditional teapots, but look more lively and full of imagination.

"The Leopard Sets" is one of Ge's signature works. Inspired by the thoughts of animal protection, he created the teapot in an abstract shape of the leopard.

The spout is the head while the handle is the tail. And the whole teapot is covered with golden rings like the animal's coat.

He said: "For a traditional teapot, its lid, handle and spout are all independent, you could recognize every part even though they are not on the teapot. But in my teapots, all of the parts form an entire sculpture."

Many of the works bear his thoughts and ideas about contemporary society.

"Football Field" depicts an abstract net for the games while "Civilized Time" features a variety of unknown characters and symbols on the surface of the teapots.

"My teapots fully display my passion and imagination since I am not as conservative and introvert as the traditional artisans from Yixing," Ge said.

"Today, people who love zisha teapots can recognize my works easily for they all feature very distinguished styles."

Ge has given a series of solo exhibitions in Shanghai, Nanjing, Hong Kong, Macao, the United States, New Zealand and Malaysia.

His works have won various awards in arts festivals or exhibitions.

Last year he created 2008 teapots for the State Sport General Administration to support Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games.

(China Daily August 7, 2002)

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