Uh oh. My newly met Korean seatmate wanted to talk geo-politics.
And I thought I was prepared for this trip to China.
What had I been thinking?
Research was certainly part of my preparation for this trip. But I guess I had glossed over the politics of the region, favoring the cultural aspects. This was a cultural exchange trip after all, wasn't it?
Suzanne Wolfe, ceramics professor at University of Hawaii, had sent out an invitation to join her students for a trip to work with the Master Teapot Makers in Yixing, Jiangsu Province, China.
Lots of details. Planning a trip to China is not simple, especially with a group. Visa forms are submitted with passport and visa fees. Travel insurance must be obtained and itineraries must be coordinated. Inoculations are scheduled and preventative medical kits assembled. Warnings to NEVER drink the tapwater or eat unpeeled fruit must be heeded. DEET, hand sanitizer, prescription antibiotic cream and anti-diahrreal remedies must be packed.
After the long flights through Seoul, arriving after dark in Shanghai, where some 16 million people live, was shocking, to say the least.
Brooding Art Nouveau office blocks on the Bund face off against the hi-tech LED and neon lightshow spires of Pudong across the river. The streets were jammed with people, strolling, partaking of corner food vendors' offerings.
Enduring the bumpy bus ride from the airport, we checked into the Nanking Hotel.
Hotel rooms in China are different. It was assumed that we knew that the key-card must be placed in a slot just inside the door to enable the power in the room. And that what appears to be an old-style radio console actually controls everything in the room.
Zigzag Shanghai taxi ride first thing in the morning. The wide thoroughfares are jammed with cars, bicycles, mopeds, buses and pedestrians. Intersections are perilous and passing is scarily freeform. The noise and crowding is nerve-wracking, especially to a jet-lagged traveler. Chinese drivers use their horns constantly to notify others of their directional intentions.
We explored the International Marketplace at the Yuan Gardens and had an elegant lunch at the famed "Very Distinguished Restaurant" seemingly floating in a huge koi and lilypad pond.
Red and gold decorated traditional architecture, upturned eaves festooned with strings of red garlic-clove shaped lanterns tilted overhead, obscuring the hazy Shanghai sky. On the narrow side streets rows of shops offered everything from cheap Chinese cigarettes to giant carved stone Buddhas.
We left Shanghai the next day, marveling at the huge apartment blocks draped with colorful laundry on every balcony and the mind-boggling skyscrapers under construction everywhere.
A six-lane freeway complete with Chinese-English signage led us to in-country Jiangsu Province. We stopped to tour the Old City of Suzhow. Hiring a bicycle rickshaw, we were peddled around the old narrow-laned village.
Smoking incense temples, round moon doorways, clay-tiled roofed shops and homes offered us a glimpse into ancient Chinese town living. We discovered that the postal system has been in operation for over 3000 years. Red ribbon draped lotus trees and bridged canals enchanted us despite the 100 degree heat. Re-boarding our bus, we continued on to our destination, Yixing.
Yixing is defined by the clay that is found there. Surrounded by farmer's fields, pottery factories are everywhere, yards stacked with pots of all sizes and colors.
Founded in1998, Gu Mei Qun and her family operate a large pottery factory with employee housing on site. Each worker has a specific task in the pottery production.
Carts loaded with production ware are wheeled from one work station to the next inside the factory. Jiggered, trimmed, bisque fired, slipped and finally glazed pieces are eventually loaded into the push kiln. Unfired pieces are stacked at the mouth of the kiln and are conveyed through the 60 foot long brick kiln to emerge 24 later at the exit portal.
Only perfect pieces are presented to customers in the showroom. Rejects are thrown onto the shard pile outside the back gate.
Mei Qun also has her private studio on site. This is where we would spend the next two weeks learning the traditional techniques required to shape our own Yixing teapots.
Here the traditional teapots are exclusively handbuilt as they have been for 1000 years. We learned how to use the locally made tools and the Zisha 'Purple Sand' clay mined in the area.
High-fired, the Yixing teapots are burnished as a final step. Some forms are smooth and tight, some incised, some round, some square, others appear to be a chunk of bamboo, a cabbage, a gourd. These teapots are highly sought after by collectors around the world.
Although all of us are experienced potters we found using unfamiliar tools and a new claybody to be quite a challenge. In spite of long days in the studio, we had a grand time!
In the afternoons we would continue to work with instruction on our projects or just hang out around the tea table, sipping in the showroom. After dinner, we would be driven back to our hotel, laughing and singing old songs. Mei Qun serenaded us with her version of a traditional Chinese lullaby. We were spoiled for sure.
Field trips into downtown Yixing City brought us to studios of other noted potters and sculptors, the Yixing Teapot Museum and the Dragon Kiln. There are yards stacked full with fired wares of all types along the way. Huge planters decorated with applied clay decoration, others glazed with a deep brown-black shiny glaze were stacked in the yards of the factories.
100,000 people in the Yixing area are involved with pottery production. Mei Qun is one of 60 potters recognized for their mastery of the traditional Yixing teapot, as well as the newer creative interpretations of the genre.
Our work was fired in a community kiln. The results were pleasingly diverse. Mei Qun's first cultural exchange was a huge success!
After two weeks working in Yixing, we packed our pieces and bags to depart for Nanjing.
The freeway was jammed with delivery trucks, sleeper buses, three-wheeled electric cars and American and European luxury vehicles.
In Nanjing we boarded an overnight train for Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi Province. The sleeper car was dormitory style, with open compartments each with six bunks, and not nearly enough baggage space.
The next morning we arrived in rainy Jingdezhen. This city has been the center of porcelain production in China for over 1000 years. Huge kilns are everywhere, the tall stacks spike up though the tangled tiled rooftops.
The story of fine Chinese porcelain exported throughout the world is an important chapter in the history of China and is the foundation of the worlds' ceramic history. It is in Jingdezhen that all Chinese Imperial porcelain was made during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
Hand-rolled tiles as big as tabletops, functional wares of every type, and huge vessels, some 12 feet tall, are produced here to be exported around the world.
Across the river, a short bumpy ride into the foothills above town took us to the San Bao Ceramic Institute. Owned and underwritten by the Korean government, San Bao is an idyllic pottery-making center where ceramicists from all over the globe come to work. We also visited the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen. I would love to go back there to work, too!
After three weeks in southern China, we prepared to return to Hawaii. Getting out of China proved to be more difficult than getting in! A cyclone flooded the airport runways and flights were delayed and cancelled.
Would I go back? Absolutely. The people are warm and welcoming. The Chinese are urgently seeking acceptance into the global community. In this "New" China, Mei Qun was allowed to host her first cultural exchange with Westerners. She is allowed to travel all over the world to teach and show her work.
What did I learn?
The Chinese have indeed invented everything in the world, including the warmest of hospitality.
I miss China already.