Postcards from HNC: Yixing, the pottery capital of China

By Trixia Apiado

HNC students browsed Mr. Xu Xiaotang’s pottery for sale. 
Photo Credit: Trixia Apiado

NANJING, China — On November 16, 2019, the Traditional Chinese Crafts course taught by Professor Yu Wenjie of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) hit the road to Yixing, a city in the Yangtze River Delta between Nanjing and Shanghai. Although unknown to many foreigners traveling in China, Yixing has plenty to offer. Yixing is known as the World of Caves, being the home to more than 80 limestone caves. It is also known as the original site of the “Zisha pot (紫砂壶), a tea pot made of the unique purple clay found only in Yixing. 

The pots are famous for their simplistic beauty and the mineral material that is said to enhance the natural flavor of tea. In a country of tea drinkers, Zisha pots are well-loved. “Zisha teapots enjoy a long history from [the] Song Dynasty to [the] Ming Dynasty,” Xu Ling Yan, a second-year HNC master’s student, said about the specialty teapots of her hometown of Yixing. 

Zisha Pot crafted by Mr. Xu Xiaotang. 

Photo Credit: Wang Ming

The first stop on Professor Wenjie’s trip was Changle Taozhang (长乐陶庄), the workshop of Mr. Xu Xiutang, a National Master of Chinese Crafts. The title of “National Master” can be achieved only by notable artists with decades of experience and recognition by the Chinese government. In China, National Masters are living representatives of cultural heritage. Meeting Mr. Xu in his own home was inspiring for HNC Certificate student,  Matt Christensen. He observed of Mr. Xu Xiaotang, “the way he dressed and carried himself is very relaxed.” 

“Obviously, spending his life honing his craft and innovating his art has led him to know himself as well as anybody can get to know themselves,” Matt added. 

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HNC students in front of the entrance to the dragon kiln with National Master Xu Xiaotang, center in grey shirt. 

Photo Credit: Yu Wenjie

Changle Taozhang is specially designed by Mr. Xu himself. It houses a museum, studio, exhibition room of purple clay works, a large courtyard with a pond, and  traditional dragon kilns. Dragon kilns are large long rooms where pottery of all sizes can be fired without using electricity. 

HNC students in front of priceless pottery from the Guomin (国民) Period (1912-1945), part of Mr. Xu Xiaotang’s collection.

Photo Credit: Matt Christensen

The next stop was the Yixing Juntao Research Institute (宜兴均陶研究所), founded by Fang Weiming, Master of Arts and Crafts. In the institute, students witnessed the process of making Juntao plates, where artists used their thumbs to press colored clay into beautiful images. Students also had the opportunity to crawl inside a well-preserved dragon kiln nearly 100 meters long. 

During the excursion, HNC students gained an appreciation for Chinese crafts. Phyllis Brown, a first-year HNC master’s student at the HNC, had prior exposure to Chinese crafts though it was limited to museums and palace artifacts. She admired the labor and skill that goes into a piece but had found that the pottery felt very stationary. After the trip, her appreciation of Chinese crafts went beyond details and skill to the movement and life that the Masters add to their art. 

An expert making Juntao craft. 

Photo Credit: Wang Ming

HNC students on top of the dragon kiln in the Yixing Juntao Research Institute. The name “dragon kiln” derives from the likeness of the kiln’s exterior to a dragon’s spine. 
Photo Credit: Ge Huiru

The final stop of the trip was one of many pottery workshops in the city. Students saw young potters carrying on the tradition of making Zisha pots and tea sets native to Yixing. 

Young potters at work.
 Photo Credit: Trixia Apiado

 First-year HNC master’s student Jose Gonzalez wishes that the greater SAIS community could learn about China and its ancient culture. “[The] Chinese dynastic period is a whole other world, and it is amazing to see how [modern China] exists in the same landscape.” 

This is the first time HNC has offered a Traditional Chinese Crafts course. Through the class, students learn the history and the influence of Chinese culture from a creative perspective. There is more to China than its status as a formidable political and economic world power. This trip to Yixing illustrates HNC’s positioning as a base to explore other parts of China. 

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