Artist reconstructs ancient art of black-purple clay

An artist, through extensive research, was able to reconstruct the methodology to create black-purple clay art, an ancient practice lost for hundreds of years.
Artist reconstructs ancient art of black-purple clay
Ti Gong

Yuan Ye and his black-purple clay teapots

Among the 350,000 ancient ceramic pieces in Beijing's Palace Museum, there are just 400 Yixing purple clay pieces. Black-purple clay pieces were even rarer, as the methods detailing the heating, sculpting and producing processes of black-purple clay pieces were lost long ago during the late Qianlong (1736-1796) period.

However, after more than 10 years of back-breaking research, Minhang-based artist Yuan Ye successfully discovered the formula and heating process for black-purple clay. To commend his research and findings, the Palace Museum published a special book in 2019 showing 180 black-purple clay pieces crafted by Yuan.

Black-purple clay craftsmanship and the skills involved are now listed in the Minhang District Intangible Cultural Heritage List, with Yuan rightfully serving as its representative.

Born in Peixian County, Jiangsu Province, Yuan studied at the Yixing Institute of Light Industry and learned ceramic art for four years. Fond of painting from a young age, his hard work and passion for art gained him admission to the China Academy of Art. There, he pursued Chinese painting for his graduate studies.

The black-purple clay pieces are dark throughout, from front to back. "The surface is black, the inside is black, and the broken ballast is also black," comments Yuan.

In 2019, Yuan took his black-purple clay pieces into the Palace Museum, where the art form's first appearance was made there in 300 years. Experts comment that Yuan's black-purple clay heating technique is of great significance as it is a restoration of ancient Chinese high-temperature black clay pottery craftsmanship.

During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, black-purple clay pieces were exclusively used by the royal family, hence being incredibly expensive and rare.

"Because of the uncontrollable nature of the heating process, black-purple clay was extremely difficult to create, let alone produce in large amounts," said Wang Yamin, former Executive Vice President of the Palace Museum and President of the Palace Press.

In 2019, the Palace Press published a book to showcase Yuan's 180 modern black-purple clay pieces, revealing its restoration process. Pieces included in the book include teapots, flower ware, incense ware and other categories. The book also commends and shares Yuan's research and findings.

Even when reminiscing on his first encounter with black-purple clay from many years ago, Yuan still beams when discussing his first memory. Initially, he had an internship at Yixing Zisha Workshop and was then assigned to work in the Guangdong Provincial Museum. "The Guangdong Museum has a collection of purple clay, some of which caught my attention. Because I had an internship at Yixing, I was particularly interested in purple clay and continued to remain invested in the art."

After an in-depth understanding of the historical significance of black-purple clay, Yuan came up with the idea of heating the clay. "Black-purple clay is a kind of purple clay. The materials used to make black-purple clay are extremely sophisticated. It is necessary to use mud from Huanglong Mountain in Yixing, but freshly mined raw materials cannot be immediately used."

Yuan carefully studied the raw materials found in black-purple clay. Later, he discovered that the freshly extracted mud must first be dried in the open air, then weathered for about a year and then kneaded to become a powder before being mixed with water to form a clay. After the clay settles, it is filtered with gauze and other items.

"You need to go deep into the woods and dig dirt with your hands, often running the risk of being bitten by mosquitoes and snakes," he said. "It was fun for me, but many young people today want fast money and prestige jobs."

Today, Yuan's black-purple clay works have been collected by the National Museum of China, the Palace Museum and the China National Arts & Crafts Museum.

Yuan is preparing for the black-purple clay exhibition to be held at Zhejiang Longquan Museum for three months beginning January 20 next year.

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