This summer I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime across China to learn about ceramics and life. My main purpose was to learn and absorb the rich Chinese ceramics tradition, particularly in the context of its porcelain factories in Jingdezhen, but I came back with so much more than that. I am getting my BFA in ceramics at OSU, and so most of this trip was spent doing a residency at Jingdezhen Ceramic Warehouse.
On this trip I spent a lot of time being stared at, yelled at, photographed, loved on, and in state of utter awe and bewilderment. I have traveled some, I went to France one time and then Canada, but I would not have called myself very cultured before taking this trip. Going to Europe and Canada is interesting, but besides the occasional language barrier and better chocolate, everything is relatively similar to home. China is not. I quickly learned that even though I was told that I was going to be surprised, I really had no idea what I didn’t know. Being a tall white female in a rural Chinese city is like being Jennifer Lawrence- no really, everyone thought I was Jennifer Lawrence. Everyone is so generous, but everyone also yells at you all the time. Then you realize they aren’t yelling at you they are just talking, but when you talk it you always yell. I learned that traffic lights are sometimes a suggestion, and Jingdezhen has the best fruit and people in the world.
This trip opened my eyes to what I means to free and to have access to information. It showed me the prevalence of poverty, and illuminated my own immense privilege as an American. I was vaguely aware that I might have those take-aways before I went, but there were other things that this trip showed me that I did not expect. I learned what it means to be part of a collective group and to care about more than yourself. I questioned why and how we assign value, the power of perspective, and the sensitivities of our western socialization.
As I said before, this was a creative endeavor, so the main part of this trip was to go to Jingdezhen, which is the porcelain capital of the world. An artist residency is when you go somewhere and have studio space and your job is just to make work there. We traveled for a few days when we arrived in the country and a week before we returned home, but the majority of our time was spent in Jingdezhen making work. I am a ceramics student as I said before, and I traveled with my professor and three other majors. The traveling at the beginning was mind blowing. We went through Shanghai, and Wuxi (famous for teapots) and Beijing and Xi’an the end. On the very first night we were there our friend, and program leader, Li Chao took us out to dinner to keep us awake. That was my first experience with Chinese food. I never ordered any food ever the whole time I was there. One person is delegated to pick the dishes, and it all comes out on the table and you add stuff to your own bowl. I was nervous about the food at first but then I realized I had to jump in. The food could be a whole other 10-page paper, so I will save that part for your imagination. We began talking about our phones and internet and eventually got to the topic of Google and government censorship of the internet. Here was where I first encounters what would be one of the biggest takeaways from the whole trip: censorship and conformity. We asked Li Chao if it bothered him to not be able to use google or knowing something was blocked. His response was that it was not a problem because the government had to do it to protect the population from the dangerous things on the internet like pornography. It’s important to know, Li Chao is not a government sponsored guide. He speaks perfect English and lived in West Virginia for 8 years in his twenties, so that is not just the party line. He really believes that. He understands that he can’t see everything on the internet or use facebook, but he genuinely believes it is for the greater good of the Chinese people. It’s like a speed limit, you don’t get to go as fast as you want, but there are less accidents. I know this is not a perfect analogy, but that is the general way many people thing about it, even though we know that isn’t really why the internet is censored.
I was so surprised that night, but as the trip continued I realized that that is the opinion of pretty much everyone. Even when we were at the studio with the local university students, they would say the same type of thing. Once I asked Jia Li if he wished he could look stuff up, and his response was “what would I look up?” I didn’t expect that question, and I didn’t really know how to answer it, and so I said, well anything you wanted to know. Then again he asked me, “but why would I want to look up something that I don’t know what it is?” After having so many conversations like this I started to understand. I saw my own western education and and socialization to question the world and think critically. I could see how that colored my entire understanding of my reality and access to knowledge. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to fact check everything around them, and they couldn’t fathom why I would waste my time doing that. It was an entirely different world view that I had not pervious known existed. At first I was sad for them, and then I realized again that this was my western mentality that made me feel sad for them. My perspective of values and my training to strive for the best, the most, and the strongest that made me feel that way. My understanding of “being fortunate” and “blessed” really changed while I was there. I thought more about what it means to be content and happy instead of correct and greedy. It helped me grow in my understanding of a collectivist vs individualist (that’s us) society and in how other people can be so profoundly different then you but so dear in your heart.
When we weren’t talking about our different worlds or making work we were eating. Eating is an important community event in China, and it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I will be honest and say I don’t like Chinese food. I never ate it growing up, and I never liked it. Nevertheless, there I was in China for five weeks with nothing but Chinese food- even for breakfast. Even considering that, eating was one of my favorite parts of the day. Everyone talks and if you put food on a plate you get laughed at because the plate is just for bones. All the food goes in the bowl. I learned on my first day at the studio that you eat everything in your bowl. Not a single bit of food was wasted. There was not a trashcan in the kitchen because the concept that you would throw away food is not a thing. I realized that this is a reflection of the history of the people I was with. Many of the people alive in China today experienced the devastating famines and watched millions die. Because of that, you always eat as if you are starving. They eat every part of everything even the blood of the slaughtered animals gets jellied for dishes. This awareness of food availability struck me in a powerful way. Beijing and Shanghai are what we know about when we talk about China as westerners or in school. Those places are really not that different from any other western city expect the language and the food. As soon as we got to Jingdezhen, which is in a much more rural area it was like we stepped back into 1950 in a lot of ways. If there weren’t cars, you wouldn’t know. The poverty and quality of life was striking. Once again, the converse to that is what really transformed my thinking on this trip. I saw poverty and oppression and people who were lacking. No Chinese person around me saw that. I returned to the same conflict with my western world view. The people who are living in what I would consider poverty are overwhelmingly happy, and completely content to be where they are. “I have a good job, and a happy family and I am proud of my success,” is what those people who I considered impoverished would say. You can argue that this is because they don’t understand what they could have, but I don’t think that is true. They all watch Friends and American tv, they know what America is like. They don’t feel that need to be bigger and better than they are because they are content with what they need. That was such a powerful realization for me. The level of peace that people had with the world they lived in inspired me to think more about what I am doing and why. I realize that there are many people who this is not true for, because the government is oppressive and does hurt people. Poverty and lack of access to medical care is devastating in many ways, and I am not trying to brush that off or sugar coat it. I am only speaking to the different perspective I got from talking to people. I asked the students in the studio if they would ever like to live in the US, and they said they would love to visit but they would always want to live in China.
Much of what I have touched on so far has been of the cultural nature, and that is because that was the most impactful part of my trip. Nevertheless, I did go there to learn some real skills, so I want to touch on those briefly. The Chinese Ceramic tradition is unique and prolific. What the ancient Chinese people discovered in ceramics went on to influence much of what we do in the ceramic world today. Jingdezhen was the center of the first porcelain factories that produced the blue and white ceramics that became so popular in the west and that you might be familiar with. The success of the ceramic tradition is a result of production efficiency. Division of labor is the name of the game. You are not an artist who does the whole piece you might just do the outlines for the image and then the next person only does the filling of the image. If you throw, you throw and you never trim. You probably wouldn’t even know how. This is so different from how we do ceramics in the US and the rest of the world. When I make a vase for example, I do all the parts. In Jingdezhen, one vase might be touched by 70 different people starting from the mine all the way to the firing process. In this way the artisans who are making these works consider this their job, not necessarily their art. Some might consider themselves artist, but that title is still reserved mainly for sculpture. Functional ceramics is producing a product, and it is not about and individual people’s artistic interest necessarily. We did a lot of observation of throwers, trimmers, painters, and glazers. No one spoke English but luckily ceramics is something you can learn from watching.
When I tell people here about how the ceramics are made in Jingdezhen I get a similar reaction most of the time. People say, that is so sad that they are not part of the whole process and that they are only able to do one small part. I will not go into how that is a very western response because I think I touched a lot on that earlier. What that response does relate to is what I am going to do moving forward and how I will use what I learned from my STEP project.
The idea of value is something I thought a lot about while I was in China and once I came back. Is value given or earned? and how is value related to making process in the context of an artisan artifact? I have to do a senior thesis BFA show in the spring, and I am basing my show around these questions I got from my experience in Jingdezhen. Here is a quick version of my project proposal I developed as a direct result of this transformation of my thinking about ceramics. It is important first to know that I primarily make functional ceramics (that is pottery).
What has always interested me most about ceramics is the creation of objects. The end product of this craft/art is a thing, a being that exists in the world. It is tangible and tactile. Being able to turn something from mug to an object is magical in a way that other art is not. A derivative of my fascination with the object creation in ceramics was my interest in functional objects. What can be more down to earth object then functional pottery. When we have an object that we use with some regularity we develop a relationship. That relationship holds value. That value intrigues me. I want to know what allows for that relationship and even what invites that relationship. What type of value do we draw for that relationship? Considering all those questions brings me to questions about my own role as the maker. What is my value as a creator of this object? How can I understand how to manipulate my role in the end value and relationship and object from my hands will have?
I hope to investigate these questions by doing what I do best– making. I went to China this summer to see the ceramic community in Jingdezhen, China. In Jingdezhen the whole pottery industry is based on division of labor, and it has been that way for centuries. The throwers never trim and the painters never throw nor do they know how. I got a lot of stuff to roll around in my head after that about what the value of those objects are in the context of their many makers. Does the division of the process retract form is overall value as a ceramic object in the end- basically no, Chinese ceramics has been done this way for centuries and it has been highly sought after and replicated since then.
Since I cannot recreate the ceramic process from ground to store self in the Chinese method I am going to investigate inherent vs. given value in a different way. I will be creating a mass of objects, mugs in particular, to see what effect repetition of process and impact of a large group of the same objects has on those 2 concepts of value and relationship formed
I am excited to see where these new ways of thinking and understandings of the world will take my craft. I am so grateful for the opportunity provided by STEP to do this trip. It has enriched my life, and I am a better person for it.