Part 1: An Interview with a Ruyao Master

(Originally published August 3, 2016)

Last April, while the people around us were busy with the spring tea harvest, we made a visit to Mr. Lee Shanming’s (李善明) studio, Shan Kiln 善窑, in Jingdezhen to see his new spring products, and to take some photos back with us for our blog. Lee Shanming is our featured Ruyao artist. All of the Ruyao Teaware in our shop is handcrafted in his studio in Jingdezhen.

Lee Shanming's Ruyao display room inside his studio in Jingdezhen. 

Ruyao teacups, faircups and other teaware 

Ruyao 汝窑 (also known as Ru Yao or Ru Kiln), as we mentioned in our previous post, is an art form with deep roots in China that was on the verge of being lost forever before being revived by a number of artists in Taiwan and Jingdezhen. Ruyao is the ultimate representation of the Song Dynasty's Aesthetic and Philosophy: Simple, reserved and pure.

After patiently studying historical artifacts, and with the help of modern technology to decipher the recipe used to create Song dynasty ruyao, these artists have been able to revive the art, patiently revising their ruyao recipes through trial and error to get the desired color, texture, thickness and inner depth. There are many modern imitations that try to mimic the appearance of true ruyao, but the delicate and difficult nature of devising the recipe and firing correctly has meant that the supply of high quality ruyao remains limited to only a few studios directed by Ruyao Masters such as Lee Shanming. High quality ruyao is often sold exclusively to Chinese collectors or at auction houses. Rather than go on, we thought we’d let the artist himself describe his work.

Mr. Lee Shanming of Shan Kiln Ruyao

Mr. Lee Shanming

Interview with Master Lee Shanming
When I stepped into Mr. Lee’s studio, the first thing I noticed was a calligraphy scroll with “Shan 善” on it. The character means “kindness” and is both the character for his name as well as the fundamental spirit of his philosophy. After visiting his showroom, but before touring his workshop, we sat in his tea room for a short interview.

Mud&Leaves: Hello Mr.Lee, While everyone loves patterns on white porcelain (Blue-and-White, colour glaze and painted white porcelain), what made you decide to work with Ruyao, one of the less well-known and most difficult schools of Chinese ceramics to study?

Mr. Lee: I was a sculptor who came from a poor village. Around 16 years ago, I opened a small OEM factory in Jingdezhen to make white porcelain for some other companies. Meanwhile, a friend of mine introduced Ruyao to me. I was fascinated by it. I decided to build an extra room next to my house for use as a workshop, and bought some simple equipment. That was over 10 years ago. It’s literally for personal interest, because everybody in the market was interested in blue and white porcelain. So, during the day, I ran the white porcelain factory; at night, I played around with the formula and techniques to try to fire my own Ruyao porcelain in my little workshop. That was my interest.
I am like most people who spend money on a passion. I learned the rough proportion of each of the elements of the glaze and body, then I started to experiment with it to get the right proportions. I tried so many kinds of elements from different origins to try to improve the result. Even now, the silicon dioxide I use in the glazes is imported from Australia, because it has shown to be the best silicon for my formula.

Mud&Leaves: Experiment? So you mixed different elements and fired it and compared each formula?

Mr. Lee: Yes, that’s basically it.

Mud&Leaves: So how many formulas have you tried?

Mr. Lee: (Smiles) Countless. Not only the formula, sometimes the weather, even the direction of the wind can lead to different results for the glazes. All of those elements must be taken into consideration. That was my biggest obsession. After a few years, I was able to work out a few very good recipes for the glazes and body; I started to sell them. It was like most of the small studios now, making only a few a month, selling it to whichever friends were interested. One day, with my mind set on running a studio, I realized, instead of running an art-less OEM factory, why not start my own brand? So I sold all my shares in the OEM porcelain factory to my brother; I knew the factory was profitable, so I didn’t need to worry about the life of my family. That factory is still running well now (Smiles). Yup, so I left everything behind, with the money I sold my share, I built a small studio right next to the little workshop I mentioned. Hired a few skilled workers in the porcelain-field, started to produce more products and set up my own brand.

Mud&Leaves: So aside from Ruyao, are there any other obsessions in porcelain making?

Mr. Lee: Red. Red glaze is the hardest to fire, I recently spent so much time firing the red, trying to stabilize the colour in each batch.

Mud&Leaves: My personal tea cup is a red Ruyao cup from you!

Character for "shan" 善

Character for "shan" 善

Lee Shanming's Red Ruyao Teacup

Lee Shanming's famous Red Ruyao.

 

Mud&Leaves: What is fanggu porcelain? In Jingdezhen, it’s very common to hear about fanggu porcelain. A lot of people confuse it with fake porcelain antiques, can you tell us something about fanggu porcelain? Why is it popular?

Mr. Lee: The story can be traced back to the 1950s. Premier Zhou Enlai announced the revival of ancient porcelain, by setting up a new government department to study each kind of porcelain, and to reproduce the formula and techniques to continue the production of ancient porcelain. Ruyao was one of the hardest ones to revive, because there are so few surviving examples left, and back then they added agate to the glaze. If we were still to add agate it would be tremendously expensive and not possible to produce in a large enough amount. So the artists needed to analyze the formula, to work out how to make the ruyao glaze without using agate. But for personal interest, I have made a few batches using agate as limited editions, I can show you in a bit. (Sorry guys, I forgot to take pictures...)

So, using the most traditional technique and traditional formula and using the traditional raw materials, following the traditional style to produce the products, that is what is meant by fanggu.

Mud&Leaves: Why set up a personal brand? We all know that it’s not easy to establish a brand. There are so many small studios in Jingdezhen, they produce small batches of products, and sell it without setting up a brand; they also craft good products. Why do you have to put so much effort on branding?

Mr. Lee: As you can see, not that many people have revived Ruyao successfully. I feel like I have the responsibility to enlarge the vitality of this craft. Ruyao is a kind of culture. Rather than selling products, I am also passing down a legacy from our ancestors. Building a brand is necessary; it will allow everybody who’s interested in Ruyao or who appreciates this culture to know more about it, to use it, to bond with it.

Mud&Leaves: Hmmm, you mentioned Legacy. Are you planning to teach your kids and let them carry on your legacy when they grow up?

Mr. Lee: I doubt if they know what their father is doing (smiles). Like most fathers, I just want them to be happy and do whatever they are interested in in their life. As long as there are more people who enjoy Ruyao and appreciate it, that’s enough for me.

Mud&Leaves: All your products are fully handmade. How are you able to make a large quantity of fully handmade products?

Mr. Lee: To be honest with you, that’s the problem I am facing right now. I want everybody to be able to afford my products, and meanwhile I am very persistent on keeping them all handmade and setting a very high standard on quality. The market is growing so fast, and I am facing the problem of raising the production rate.

Mud&Leaves: Do you have a solution?

Mr. Lee: Sometimes I need to take a step back. What’s the reason for making them? It is passing on part of our culture. This studio may not bring a huge fortune, but I am content in my life; my family is being well taken care of. If I cannot produce more, then I cannot. All I need to ensure, is that every product that leaves my studio, is not bringing shame to my studio, is made with heart, that’s enough.

So, are you interested in taking a look at my workshop?

Mud&Leaves: I would love to!