Wang Junzi, a porcelain producer from Qingliangsi village, Baofeng county in Pingdingshan city, Central China’s Henan province, has spent years perfecting the art of producing Ru porcelain. Ru porcelain is one of the top five porcelains in China and gets its name from the location in which it has been made: Ruzhou in Henan. It was first produced for the Song Dynasty imperial court for a brief period around 1100 and features a distinctive pale blue glaze. Today, fewer than 100 complete original pieces have been found intact.
In the 1950s, archaeologists discovered a kiln site in Qingliangsi, and shards resembling Ru ware were found there in 1977. In 1986, porcelain experts from the Shanghai Museum conducted two surveys on the site, collected more than 40 porcelain specimens and kiln items, and confirmed Qingliangsi as home to official Ru porcelain kilns. This led to extensive investigations at Qingliangsi between 1987 and 2002 by the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, revealing a complex of workshops that still contained the remnants of production.
Wang Junzi’s trade suffered during the pandemic, but he has seen a resurgence in demand as life has returned to normal after the pandemic policy was relaxed. He receives thousands of orders for Ru porcelain now and believes that sharing their culture with artists from abroad will help Ru porcelain thrive.
Wang, who is in his 60s, spends most of his time around the kiln and is teaching his disciples to grasp the finesse required to produce impeccable porcelain works so they can carry forward the Ru porcelain firing craft, which was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage by the State Council in 2011. This means that the Ru porcelain firing craft is not only important in terms of its cultural significance but is also significant in terms of preserving traditional crafts and skills.
Producing Ru porcelain is a complex and difficult process that requires finesse, skill, and experience. The process involves several stages, including preparing the clay, forming the object, bisque-firing, glazing, and final firing. The most critical stage is the glazing, which requires a specific type of glaze that is difficult to produce and requires extensive experience and skill.
Wang has spent years perfecting his technique and has learned a great deal from studying ancient Ru porcelain pieces. He is also constantly experimenting with new techniques and glazes to create unique and beautiful works of art.
Ru porcelain is highly valued by collectors and art enthusiasts alike, and original pieces are extremely rare and valuable. As a result, there is a high demand for quality reproductions, and Wang’s expertise and reputation have made him a sought-after producer.
Wang’s success is a testament to the importance of preserving traditional crafts and skills. It is through the dedication and determination of craftsmen like him that these ancient arts and traditions are kept alive and passed down to future generations.
The revival of Ru porcelain production is also a testament to the power of cultural exchange and the value of learning from other cultures. By sharing their culture with artists from abroad and learning from others, Ru porcelain producers like Wang can continue to evolve and improve their craft, ensuring that it remains relevant and appreciated for generations to come.
As the world becomes more globalized and interconnected, the importance of preserving traditional crafts and cultural heritage becomes even more critical. These arts and traditions are not only an essential part of our cultural heritage but are also a source of inspiration and beauty that enriches our lives and connects us to our past.
Wang Junzi’s success as a Ru porcelain producer is a testament to the importance of preserving traditional crafts and skills and the value of cultural exchange.
Wang, an expert porcelain-maker, was awestruck by the amount of azure-glazed porcelain shards he saw at the big ancient kiln site when he visited it with archaeologists. Driven by his love for porcelain, he volunteered to help them and became fascinated with the characteristics of the ancient artifacts. Even as a child, he had dug for porcelain shards for fun in his village.
After the archaeologists left, Wang stayed behind and started exploring the neighborhood, fueled by his curiosity toward the Ru porcelain wares of his own neighborhood. This led him to embark on an ambitious plan to create porcelain items that shone with the same stunning color as their ancient predecessors.
In 1987, Wang began learning the art of porcelain-making from experienced artisans at the county’s purple clay factory. He learned material selection, kneading, shaping, glazing, and firing skills, which laid a solid foundation for his craftsmanship before he started learning to make Ru porcelain.
Believing that the Ru porcelain kiln site must have nearby raw materials, Wang rode his motorcycle, packed with food, to search everywhere, traveling across mountains in a radius of about 200 kilometers, even injuring his waist and legs in the process. He collected raw materials for firing Ru porcelain, including gangue and glaze, from these trips.
Wang then carried the specimens to research facilities in Zhengzhou and Beijing for analysis. From the data, he started sorting out possible methods for creating the special glazed porcelain. After collecting enough information, Wang started trying to fire Ru porcelain in his homebuilt kiln in 1998.
He experimented with more than 400 types of raw materials, making a record of each of the thousands of firing sessions and setbacks. He eventually overcame various challenges, such as combining the sky blue glaze with the porcelain body in 2000.
Wang still remembers his excitement on seeing his first successful work, a meter-long, azure-glazed implement for rinsing brushes. He says it was like seeing his newborn son. Through his passion and hard work, Wang became an expert in Ru porcelain-making, keeping the ancient art alive.
Wang Junzi’s initial success in restoring Ru porcelain led him to refine his craft, resulting in works that were comparable to those of ancient craftsmen. With a desire to restore other glaze colors such as bluish white and pinkish blue, Wang continued to explore and experiment with different approaches. Over the years, he has created more than 50 classic forms of Ru porcelain, including string-patterned zun and narcissus-shaped pots, as well as over 70 novel wares in the shape of auspicious items and animals such as the dragon turtle. His works have been exhibited at various events, including the Chinese traditional craft invitational exhibition held by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Shanghai government in 2022.
Initially, Wang did not intend to make a business out of his interest in Ru porcelain. However, the positive feedback from the market and recognition from industry experts motivated him to continue. With increased demand, Wang was able to take on apprentices from 2002 onwards. In 2005, he established a Ru porcelain research institute and an industry association in his village to boost research and standardize the inheritance of the ancient craft. Under his influence, his three sons are also engaged in various porcelain businesses.
Wang’s eldest son, Wang Xiaolei, recalls his father’s obsession with Ru porcelain and the family’s involvement in his experiments. While it was initially annoying, they gradually began to appreciate the beauty of the craft as their father pushed them to immerse themselves in the field. Many of Wang’s apprentices have since established their own kilns and are now engaged in Ru porcelain production. For instance, Shang Liuqun, a villager from Qingliangsi, has become a Ru porcelain master and runs his own porcelain company under Wang Junzi’s guidance.
In recognition of his skill in firing Ru porcelain, Wang was named an inheritor of national intangible cultural heritage by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2018. This title has given him a strong sense of obligation to pass on his knowledge and craftsmanship to more people. To this end, Wang has shared his decades of trial-firing data from Ru kilns with various scientific research departments and has even written a book on them. He has also summarized a catchy rhyme that reflects the characteristics of Ru kilns in layman’s terms, enabling more people to appreciate the charm and culture behind this ancient porcelain.
Under Wang Junzi’s guidance, more than 100 households in the village have taken up porcelain-making, creating new job opportunities and boosting the local economy. Despite the increase in competition, Wang Junzi remains optimistic and believes that more people making porcelain will be good for the overall development of Ru porcelain.
In addition to promoting the growth of the porcelain industry, Wang Junzi has also called for legal and organized clay digging to preserve raw materials. By doing so, he hopes to protect the quality and authenticity of Ru porcelain and ensure its long-term sustainability.
Local authorities have also recognized the significance of Ru porcelain and have allocated funds to its development. Baofeng county has established a porcelain industry development fund of 10 million yuan ($1.44 million) annually and invested more than 1.5 million yuan in enhancing conditions at 40 porcelain inheritance sites. This support from the government, combined with the increasing public appreciation for the art, has created a favorable environment for the growth of Ru porcelain.
Wang Junzi’s dedication to preserving and promoting the art of Ru porcelain-making is inspiring. He pledges to continue his efforts to expand the porcelain industry in Baofeng and ensure that Ru porcelain remains an essential part of Chinese culture. With his leadership and the support of local authorities, the future of Ru porcelain looks bright.