A decorated career

Updated: Nov 21, 2022 Print
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Liling city is famous for its underglaze five-colored porcelain, and one artist keeps the tradition alive, report Wang Ru and Feng Zhiwei in Changsha.

Huang Xiaoling recalls that after Deng Wenke, who taught her porcelain-making, had a stroke, he could not recognize many of his friends. However, when Huang put a porcelain piece in front of Deng, he could recognize it and even drew some patterns. That left a deep impression on her.

"Even when he was in bad health, he didn't drop painting. As long as life doesn't end, his pursuit of art doesn't cease," says Huang.

Dedicated to making porcelain ware for more than four decades, Huang, 54, has strived to promote the craft, especially the Liling underglaze five-colored ceramics.

Born in Liling, Hunan province, in 1968, Huang began her connection with porcelain as a teenager as her father worked in a local porcelain factory. At that time, she often stared at the craftsmen who painted patterns on porcelain, and hoped she could complete the work one day.

Liling is regarded as one of the "three capitals" of porcelain-making in China, along with Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, and Dehua county, Fujian province. People in Liling started to make porcelain wares nearly 2,000 years ago. They are especially good at producing underglaze five-colored ceramic pieces. This style of porcelain refers to painted ware in which each piece has a decorative pattern under a layer of transparent glaze, making it clear and lustrous. Liling porcelain won the golden prize at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

According to Huang, underglaze five-colored porcelain is made following 72 steps.

When she was younger, Huang often had to draw a leaf or a petal on unfired porcelain dozens of times before making her teacher, Deng, happy with the result. "When my teacher said what I painted was not good, I had to remove the pattern and draw again, and when he said I did well, I was as happy as winning a prize," Huang recalls.

A highlight of Huang's work is a porcelain piece she calls "dawn", created in 2011, on which sparrows and quails chirp in palm trees hidden in a veil of mist, giving the viewer the impression of a forest.

"Nature is a source of inspiration for artistic creation. For those who are eager for idyllic pastoral life but live in cities, it would be a pleasure to enjoy something about nature. I wanted to create the dreamlike pastoral life for them," says Huang.

In 2000, Huang established a company to study, design and sell Liling porcelain. She also started to recruit apprentices.

Zhong Weiling has learned the technique from Huang for nearly two decades. "Her attitude of always striving for better is impressive," says Zhong.

Huang highlights the combination of traditional craft with modern fashionable elements, to make tea sets, wine vessels, cups and saucers and even furniture that young people prefer.

"I believe mastering the craft means as long as one lives, one needs to make innovation on the basis of inherited traditions, and try one's best to explore possibilities," says Huang.

The porcelain industry in Liling has also developed in modern times. The three major types of ceramics, for daily, industrial and artistic use respectively, including more than 4,000 varieties, have been sold to more than 150 countries and regions.

Artistic ceramics, which Huang makes, are often handmade, and other types can be produced in factories. "With the construction and operation of 70 automatic production lines, Liling porcelain is upgrading in a smarter direction," she says.

Huang was selected to be a deputy of the 13th National People's Congress, and has brought her work to the two sessions in 2019, the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing.

A set of porcelain paintings she created with a floral theme, including peony, lotus, hydrangea and camellia, was collected and exhibited at the Great Hall of the People in 2019. She has also proposed many motions to promote the development of porcelain in Liling. For example, during a study she found that a former ceramic site in Liling, covering 12,900 hectares, included many sparsely distributed areas related to ancient kilns.

"The relics are of various types and have different requirements for protection, making it difficult for us to protect and use them," says Huang.

The core area of the site is in Weishan village, Liling, where there are 194 sites related to porcelain-making since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), seven ancient architectural complexes and 123 traditional buildings.

"The site is a living fossil of porcelain production from ancient China, and is significant for the study of the development of porcelain in the southern part of China," says Huang.

She says she hopes archaeological efforts at the site will lead to its better protection and future development, as well as to a national-level archaeological site park plan there, so as to develop tourism and promote local rural vitalization.

Zhu Youfang in Changsha contributed to the story.

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