August 4, 2009

Yaoli potters ran out of clay

A visit to Yaoli

Yaoli (translated as Inside the Ceramic Kiln) is a small village approximately 60 km outside of Jingdezhen and a short distance away from Mt. Kaolin (GaolingShan), the source of petuntze, the white feldspar that makes porcelain what it is. It is a walk back in time to what it might have been like during Ming and Qing Dynasties in a porcelain production town in the Jiangxi countryside, but no one is working in clay there anymore. Apparently the local clay ran out long ago. The well-preserved ancient ancestral halls of the Cheng family showing feudal life, classical courtyard buildings, and intriguing winding alleys tell of a different time. The village of Yaoli is set in a beautiful landscape of old-growth forests, hills and the Yaohe river valley. It is also famous for its green tea.

Yaoli is also the historic meeting place for the mobilization of the resistance war against Japan and rear office of the New Fourth Army and former residence of General Chenyi. Signs of the building of a tourist attraction for ceramics and tea consist of a few hotels, even a resort and new construction. Unlike the rebuilt tourist site towns I visited with Richard in Yunnan--LiJiang and Dali- ancient walled cities that have been turned into bustling vacation destinations for mostly Chinese tourists, busy like a theme park, it is not yet heavily promoted as a destination. A bigger road is being built from Jingdezhen, a process we watched for an hour or so while our bus waited for the gravel to be laid out over a 20 meter stretch while we watched the building of a wall at the side of the road. This was frustrating to the others on the bus, but I love to watch work.

We arrived in Yaoli by lunchtime. The vegetable available at lunch and dinner in Yaoli includes the green stems of local ferns that we will find in the woods the next morning. They don't seem to use the fiddleheads we stalk wild here in spring. In the restaurant and the home in which we spent the night, pictures of Mao, still, dominate dining room walls. Another topic, another time.

The ceramic tile roof lines of old Yaoli town layer over brick houses, courtyard and alleys.A clean fast moving river runs through the town separates the ancient town from the newer area. Bridges connect at regular intervals. Small dams break the flow.

The villagers use the river in a controlled sequence for washing vegetables, washing clothes, and sewage so as not to affect those immediately downstream. What about furthur downstream and into the future, I wonder? After lunch and an exploratory walk around the town, we started up a dusty road toward the site of the ancient pottery, as yet unconvinced of the value of the tickets sold in town to visit the kiln and pottery sites, a feudal house, a museum and the hiking trails up through virgin pine to the spectacular Nanshan Waterfall and down through bamboo forests and tea plantations. We would find these tickets, while costly, well worth the price for our two days in Yaoli and environs.

On to the Excavation Site of the Ancient Kilns at Raozhou

There is evidence of porcelain production here from the Song (ca. 960) to the Ming Dynasty (ca 1600). I found on line a carved celadon vase from the Raozhou kilns. Shards at the site indicate that blue and white porcelains were produced here as well.The excavated foundation of these two long dragon kilns climb up a hill creating an internal draft.

The excavated remains of clay preparation pits in the ground around which the river bends are marked with explanatory signs in Chinese and English.

Reconstructions of the pottery plant here include a potter's wheel:

An example of how wood was stacked like a roof to keep the wood dry:

A water powered hammer mill and a horizontal wheel for grinding raw material:

We can only imagine what function this piece of equipment has...

Not everyone shares this potter's interest in kilns and clay. Dean Huang, Huang Jinlei 黄金雷, my travel buddy, is an English teacher at the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute. He, as a non ceramist, knows little about things clay, but is thankfully, one who has a wide-eyed interest in all things and a particular delight in refreshing mountain air hike, intrepid wanderings and cheap local travels.
Here is Dean enjoying the roar along the hike to the waterfall I will begin to write about tomorrow.

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