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Restoring China's Ceramic Glory
For most Chinese, the town of Jingdezhen is synonymous with fine porcelain. To foreigners, however, China's ceramic is still far from the quality of a Royal Albert or a Wedgwood. Li Youyu is a man who'd like to change that situation, and his Hanguang Ceramics Institute is slowly making its mark, as Wang Jie reports.

When it comes to fine ceramics, famous European names such as Rosenthal, Royal Doulton, Royal Albert, Wedgwood and Waterford are likely among the brands that come to mind. The name Jingdezhen, capital of China's pottery industry in Jiangxi Province, may not even ring a bell to foreigners despite boasting a history of more than 1,000 years.

Such a dilemma may soon change, with the emergence of Hanguang ceramics, which could go a long way to saving face for the country, the birthplace of fine china. "Hanguang ceramics, so far, ranks at the top of Chinese contemporary ceramic production," says Wang Qingzheng, deputy curator of the Shanghai Museum.

Such accolades are a long-time coming for Li Youyu. With several million yuan in investment, the 40-something Hunan native founded the Hanguang Ceramics Institute eight years ago in Shanghai.

While some people thought he was fool to attempt such a venture, the robust Li just shrugs them off and said that his mission was clear -- to upgrade China's status among ceramic producers in the world.

When he started his undertaking, Li gambled everything he had. He had previously worked in a well-paid position as a ceramic teacher at a local university. It was there that he first got the idea for a better life in selling his creative work to galleries.

"At the time, everything coming out of Jingdezhen -- the bowls, the cups -- only cost a few bucks because it was mass produced. China lacked a serious luxurious ceramic brand and that was something I wanted to change," says Li, a Central Academy of Arts and Crafts ceramics graduate.

In 1995, Li founded his institute and quickly found out that realizing his dream would not be easy. His first challenge was in how to develop a high-quality ingredient, a key factor which usually decides the visual effect of the porcelain, such as the whiteness, brightness and sheerness of the production.

To find the ideal mineral ingredient for his ceramics, Li scoured almost all the mines in the country. "Sometimes I had to disguise myself as a farmer when entering a mine in some remote regions because of the strict safety system," he says. "But looking back, I feel so proud of myself because I've done something that many thought was mission impossible."

The fruits of Li's labor are evident. He is now driven to work in a limousine and his office is a four-story villa. However, the success has come at a personal expense.

He split with his wife and many of his friends who had invested in the company withdrew their shares. "During my toughest times I was not even able to pay my rental fee," he laments. "However, thanks to my perseverance and strong will, I passed through all the trouble. I am not the kind of person who can give up easily."

After numerous sessions of testing, Li and his staff finally developed an ideal mineral ingredient for the ceramics. One Japanese expert described the finished product as "radiating a special glaze reminiscent of a baby's tender skin."

Chinese experts, including Zhang Shouzhi, a veteran ceramic critic at the Tsinghua University, pointed out that the craftsmanship of Hanguang exceeded the renowned 7501 brand ceramics, which was solely produced for late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong in 1975.

Since the birth of Hanguang, the brand has garnered several awards at nationwide art fairs. Some of the pieces are even collected by the State Council.

"In addition to quality, shape and pattern, design is also crucial," Li says. "Some of China's ceramic centers are still faithfully copying tradition, but that is not progressive. Those obsolete concepts and craftsmanship are a bit behind world trends, let alone catering to the tastes of modern urbanites."

Traditional patterns, such as "God of Fortune," plaited kid or characters of "longevity," have all disappeared from Hanguang's vases and tea sets. Instead, light-hued leaves with detailed veins, blossoming pink peony or beautiful lady-in-waiting patterns provide a novel interpretation of Chinese ancient culture.

"These subjects are the most suitable in our under color glazing which now ranks among the top in Asia," Li says. "I am the art director of Hanguang. In other words, my personal aesthetic interests directly have an influence on our productions. I believe in my taste. I used to be a painter and I have traveled a lot to find out what the latest trends are."

Li says his brand still has a long way to go as marketing and image building are two obstacles facing the company at the moment.

"In order to upgrade China's pottery, we are eager to receive financial support from big enterprises. It is crucial we get investment if we are to develop and grow as a world brand," he adds.

He also admits that his company currently doesn't make money, though a Hanguang vase usually selling for about 50,000 yuan.

"You only see the price label. What you don't see is how many vases we have thrown away in our kiln -- it's nearly 40 to 50 percent," says Li.

In a showroom in Li's office, several tea sets from different brands, such as Wedgwood and Royal Albert, are scattered. "I don't have a complete set of any one brand. For me, they are too expensive," he explains. "These pieces stand here just as a challenge to help me see the gap."

Li says his art dream has been realized with the creation of Hanguang, but another dream has yet to come true.

"One day, when a person is strolling among the boutiques on 5th Avenue in New York, he might unexpectedly encounter Hanguang's own boutique. All of the pieces will be labeled 'Made in China.' That is a dream I would really like to see come true," says the ambitious artist.

(Eastday.com March 31, 2003)

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