New ideas infuse ancient art of glazing

After attending a training session in Shanghai, two colored glaze masters from Shandong Province shed light on the industry in which they have been involved for decades.
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Sun Yunyi is known for his “chicken-fat yellow” colored glaze works.

A small district to the west of Shandong Province’s capital Jinan has made a big name for itself over thousands of years for turning out iconic colored-glaze artworks in China.

Boshan’s distinction has won it a spot on the national list of intangible cultural heritage.

Sun Yunyi and Fang Hong are the two big contemporary names in the Boshan glaze industry, having worked in the medium for decades. They came to Shanghai to take a monthlong course at the city’s Institute of Visual Arts as part of their efforts to pioneer new ways to carry the art form forward.

Sun Yunyi is known for his “chicken-fat yellow” colored glaze works. The term refers to the color as well as the jade-like texture of the works.

“In ancient times, colored glaze ware was used to imitate jade ware,” says Sun. “And that’s why it needed to look and feel like jade.”

The name may sound a trifle inelegant, but chicken-fat yellow ware was once the exclusive purview of the imperial family. The method was first developed in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and reached its peak in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Sun traces his ancestry back to the latter.

During a long period of war and upheaval in China, the technique of making chicken-fat yellow ware was lost. However, in the 1980s, Sun’s father and uncle managed to restore the glaze formula and 20 years later passed the artistic baton to Sun.

“It is a family business, but it is also a national business,” says Sun. “Now I am trying to make the art form more accessible to the general public.”

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Chicken-fat yellow snuff bottles created by Sun Yunyi

In the course at the institute, Sun met ceramic engraving artists, who inspired him to incorporate some of their techniques into his glaze works.

“We usually use embossment for the surface of chicken-fat yellow ware, so this is the first time we tried engraving,” he says. “The result was very interesting and satisfactory.”

One of his “graduation projects” at the institute is a vase engraved with a portrait of the bodhisattva embodying the compassion of all Buddhas. The engraving creates a line-drawing painting on the vase, which blends harmoniously with the bright yellow color.

Meanwhile, Sun is also researching new formulas for making chicken-fat yellow because the traditional recipe requires too much toxic arsenic trioxide. The substitute formula he developed remains a secret.

Chicken-fat yellow ware is by no means easy to make. The technique for blending the color is complicated, and the temperature of the furnace needs strict controls. Even if everything is done perfectly, the work might still fail because of weather or the cooling time.

“We colored glaze craftsmen have a saying: ‘10 trials and nine failures’,” says Sun. “That means that only one of 10 pieces could achieve the perfect color of chicken-fat yellow. However, with new technologies, the success rate has actually risen to 40-50 percent. We are always striving for improvement.”

Compared with Sun, who has a long family history in colored glaze production, Fang built his reputation from scratch.

The art director of the Shandong Lingshang Colored Glaze Culture Co studied art at the Shandong Vocational College of Light Industry in the late 1980s. He is a master of not only colored glaze but also painting and sculpture porcelain.

“My interest in art sprouted at an early age,” Fang says. “When I was in elementary school, my elder brother was an art teacher, and I often tagged along to go with him to art exhibitions. I was fascinated by paintings, sculpture and other forms of art.”

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Fang Hong, art director of the Shandong Lingshang Colored Glaze Culture Co

He is especially adept at designing images in a way that gives plants and animals vivid realism. He has won numerous awards for his works, though he confessed that sometimes he feels too stuck in the traditional.

“Our company produces products for foreign buyers, and the designs they want are very different from ours in China,” says Fang. “I am seeking a breakthrough in my art.”

He says the course at the institute broadened his mind, filling him with new creative thoughts. His “graduation projects” are two abstract pieces.

The work entitled “Drink” depicts a group of birds drinking from river and their reflection in the water. It has no specific image of birds or water, but the idea is perfectly conveyed through streamlined shapes and colors.

Fang says the concept behind the work is water environmental protection because only clear water would attract birds to stay and drink.

“The old me would definitely have added eyes and claws to the birds and ripples to the water,” he says. “But after discussing the concept with class instructors, I realized that it’s better to drop the details and give viewers space to imagine and draw their own conclusions.”

The other work, entitled “Enlightenment,” depicts branches shooting out from the roots of a hewn tree, with a vague human form watching nearby.

According to Fang, the work conveys the idea of rebirth and mankind’s connection with nature.

“The skills and techniques I used to craft these works are very, very traditional,” Fang says. “They were there when I first studied colored-glazing, but the ideas are all new. I believe this is the future for arts heritage. We protect the old techniques but utilize them to express new ideas.”

Ti Gong

Fang Hong's "Enlightment" depicts branches shooting out from the roots of a hewn tree.

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“Drink” depicts a group of birds drinking from river and their reflection in the water.

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