Puff and sweat revive imperial glaze tradition

Published on 01/24 2019  Source: China Daily


Standing by a furnace burning at over 1,300 C, Sun Yunyi's face is beaded with sweat. While watching the colored glaze bulge on one end of a long, hollow iron pipe, he blows air through the other. 

Sun, 52, is a household name in the city of Zibo, in eastern China's Shandong province, due to his skill in producing Boshan "chicken-fat yellow" glaze, and his work was presented to guests from all over the world during the two-day Qingdao summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June. 

China's colored glaze has a global reputation, and Boshan is the place it originated during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Production of Boshan colored glaze started to boom in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and peaked during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). 

For its glamorous color and jade-like texture, the translucent chicken-fat yellow glaze was regarded as a substitute for real jade in ancient China. 

Sun's ancestors in Boshan started making colored glazed ware as royal tributes in the middle of the Qing Dynasty. At the age of 16, Sun learned Chinese painting from his uncle before getting a job at a local glaze factory. 

Chicken-fat yellow glazed ware, also known as imperial yellow glazed ware, was once for the exclusive use of imperial families, with private production strictly prohibited. 

However, the rare glazing technique was lost at the turn of the 20th century when the Qing regime plunged into chaos. 

In the 1990s, Sun's father and uncle set up a small workshop, and researched the making of chicken-fat yellow glaze, hoping to restore the lost art. 

Chicken-fat yellow glazed ware is never easy to make. Colored glaze in its liquid state cools and hardens quickly after being taken from the furnace, and glassblowing has to be carried out when the enamel is neither too hard nor too soft. 

Success lies in ensuring that every step is neat and clear, as there is only one chance to get it right. 

"Nine out of 10 attempts are usually failures," Sun said. 

The countless failed attempts imposed enormous costs. To improve the old technique, Sun traveled the world in search of the finest raw materials. 

"I've earned my kudos right through puffing," Sun said. After decades of practice, he finally brought the ancient craft back to life in 2007. 

He took over the workshop three years later, and established a colored glaze company soon afterward, seeking to inject modern design philosophy into the craft. "Top quality works should feel like jade, sound like ancient stone chimes, and look like halos," Sun said. "These are my criteria for excellence." 

The craft has earned a place on the list of provincial intangible cultural heritage. In 2013, Sun became a national patent holder of the production method. 

His artwork has been widely sought by both domestic collectors and ones in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, with sales growing by 50 percent a year. 

Sun's success drew the attention of the Palace Museum in Beijing, which signed a three-year contract with him to reproduce over 1,000 pieces from its collections. In 2015, Sun's works were exhibited in the Baoyun Building, also known as the Hall of Embodied Treasures, in the southwestern corner of the Palace Museum. 

Boshan district has developed colored glaze into a local pillar industry with over 5,000 practitioners, 30 master studios, and 13 manufacturers generating output valued at more than 48 million yuan ($7.1 million) a year. 

Sun feels no rush to pass the craft on to his son, who is applying to art colleges in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. "I won't push him too hard," he said. "Whether he takes it up as a lifetime career or not, it's his choice." (Source: China Daily)