Part 2: A Tour of a Ruyao Studio

(Originally published August 18, 2016)

This is Part 2 of our interview with Mr. Lee Shanming and the tour of his Ruyao Ceramics Studio on Jingdezhen, China.

After finishing our interview, Mr. Lee offered to give me a tour of his studio, offering a glimpse into the production process. Here are some photos of his studio.

Electric Kiln used to fire Ruyao

Electric Kiln

To curb air pollution in Jingdezhen, a law was passed restricting the use of wood kilns. Most studios, including Shan Kiln, now use electric kilns. Aside from this change, much of the work in these small studios follows traditional processes.

Inside a kiln

Inside a kiln

The photo above shows the inside of a kiln in Lee's studio. As you can see, ceramic cups are on the top and sides of the shelves. These are called the “guards”. They are placed here to block the fire from coming into direct contact with ruyao pieces. This leaves only shelves 2 to 5 which can hold ruyao for firing.

The largest of Mr. Lee’s kilns can only hold 30 cups at most. Many other studios use larger kilns to increase productivity (not to mention the huge industrial kilns used in porcelain factories). Mr. Lee explained to me that because of the delicate nature of ruyao, the temperature must be strictly controlled; the larger the kiln, the less control there is over the temperature. Using a smaller kiln means a smaller batch per firing, but it also means a higher success rate.

To better control the conditions when firing red ruyao, Mr. Lee uses an even smaller kiln (2/3 the size of the one shown above). Despite the greater care taken in firing red ruyao, only around 25% of the pieces survive the kiln and are able to make it to the end of the process and onto a shelf. Ruyao has a high scrap rate in general for ceramics, and red ruyao has the highest scrap rate of any of the ruyao produced in the studio.

The reason for this is the added difficulty of working with the copper and iron oxides in the two ruyao glazes. The blue Ruyao using iron oxide already has very strict temperature requirements during firing; the copper oxide found on the red exterior glaze is another material that is extremely sensitive to temperature and firing conditions. Because of the extremely sensitive nature of the copper oxide, each batch of red ruyao that survives the kiln will vary in intensity and quality of color. Because of this, we personally inspect each piece of the surviving 25%, choosing the best of the batch for our stock.

Products are air drying after wheeling and before being polished and covered with the glaze for firing again. This photo gives an idea of the size of Mr. Lee’s Studio. Since all the products are handmade and are under strict quality control by Mr.Lee himself, the amount and production rate are limited.

Products are air drying after wheeling and before being polished and covered with the glaze for firing again. This photo gives an idea of the size of Mr. Lee’s Studio. Since all the products are handmade and are under strict quality control by Mr.Lee himself, the amount and production rate are limited.

After spraying on the glaze there may be some overspray outside of the desired area. Each pot must be inspected and cleaned carefully by hand.

After spraying on the glaze there may be some overspray outside of the desired area. Each pot must be inspected and cleaned carefully by hand.
Mr. Lee in the process of forming one of his pieces.

Mr. Lee in the process of forming one of his pieces.

Applying the glaze to each piece.

Applying the glaze to each piece.

Each piece has to be sanded after shaping.

Each piece has to be sanded after shaping.

Each piece is inspected and polished after firing.

Each piece is inspected and polished after firing.

I was lucky to be at the studio for the “birthday” of a new piece, a new model of ruyao teapot by Mr. Lee.

I was lucky to be at the studio for the “birthday” of a new piece, a new model of ruyao teapot by Mr. Lee.