excerpt from 'The White Road'
The White Road
Journey into an Obsession
By Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
All rights reserved.
PROLOGUE Jingdezhen – Venice – Dublin,
PART ONE Jingdezhen,
PART TWO Versailles – Dresden,
PART THREE Plymouth,
PART FOUR Ayoree Mountain – Etruria – Cornwall,
PART FIVE London – Jingdezhen – Dachau,
CODA London – New York – London,
List of illustrations,
A Note About the Author,
Also by Edmund de Waal,
It looks as if it has been busy for hours. It is six a.m. and stalls are up, watermelons arranged in pyramids, the bicycle-repair man sitting next to his kit. The roads are eddying with bicycles and knots of people. The carp seller with a polystyrene crate on the back of his scooter cuts in front of us, turns and swears extravagantly. We are going north out of the dusty city towards the hills, past alleyways squeezed between great high brick walls, factories with open windows, rubbish. The day is grey and promises deep, grey heat.
The car turns off the new highway on to the old road and off the old road on to the old track rising between two farmer's houses. Each is three storeys high, gabled. The one on the left has a portico held up by gilded Corinthian columns.
When did farmers get rich in China?
The rice is young in the paddy fields. We bump up and stop outside another farm, a modern house, half built, half stucco over thin Chinese brick, old barns, set amongst trees. A wrecked car sits on breeze blocks. We are a few hundred feet up in the lee of a hill, bamboo stretching up to a ridge, a mountain beyond that, fields half-heartedly cultivated below us. There is a small lake, a muddy declivity ringed with reeds.
A woman comes to the doorway and shouts at us and it is explained by my guide, through shouting, that I'm an archaeologist, a scholar, legitimate.
And under the tyres of our car amongst the weeds are broken saggars, brown and black, rough thrown clay vessels with high raised ridges, five, six inches across. And shards, pale crescents of porcelain in the red earth. I pick up the first and it is the base of a twelfth-century wine cup, a fine tapering stem holding a jagged bowl, a thumb's breadth across. It is impossibly thin. And not white at all, but a very light washed-out blue celadon, with a network of brown crackles across it where hundreds of years of this soil has stained it.
This is my grail moment and I'm holding it reverently and they are laughing at me with my ridiculous epiphany, for on and up is a hillside of shards, a tumbling landscape of brokenness, a lexicon of all the ways that pots can go wrong. It is not a spoil heap, careless but discrete, it is a whole landscape of porcelain.
I stoop and pick up a shard, and this one is too thin at the base and has sagged and twisted like an art-nouveau girl. And this beautiful straw-coloured shard is cracked through an air bubble that has blown in the firing. And this concatenation of clay is three saggars compressing three white bowls, a firing that has gone too high, too fast, too long, leaving this bit of fierce geology.
And God knows what happened here. There is a patch of broken bowls, the colour of green olives amongst high nettles, a sort of crime scene.
The summer rain has made the earth so friable that each step opens up a rim of a jar, a foot ring, the centre of a deep celadon bowl decorated by a running comb, a sketch of a peony, held in eddies of glaze.
I hold this shard, run my index finger over the pattern; to make this you need to feel when the clay is as soft as leather so that there is a bite between comb and bowl. Too soft and it snags and furs. Too hard and it skates. Or the bowl breaks. It is all this exactitude and all this excess in one place that collapses time for me. I know this bowl I think, it took a minute on the wheel, perhaps less, was dry for trimming within a few hours on a morning like this. It would be one of dozens on a board, passed on into the hands of the decorator and finished by noon.
We are swishing our way through the undergrowth with sticks because of snakes and I toss the shards back into the hillside in a moment of exultant connectedness and have to try and find my bit of twelfth-century wine cup ten minutes later to check on its weight. But this is beyond checking. The scale of this stretches me.
This place is one of hundreds in these hills, not a major kiln site, unimportant for art history, not documented, known to the farmers who would have to deal with the waste, the shards they have to shovel away to clear the field for beans, and known more latterly with the odd chancer braving the old woman in the farmhouse and digging and sifting for treasures to sell on in the Monday market in the city, twelve miles away.
Eight hundred years ago there would have been a couple of dozen potters here on this hillside, clagged with mud in winter, beset with horseflies on a midsummer morning like this, snakes in every season. The kilns are long gone, the bricks reused for a shed or pigsty, broken up for foundations or weathered back to the earth, but these slopes would have been useful to build into, and the bamboo and these long flat grasses would have been cut for packing finished pots to carry down to the river, to the boats to take them to the city.
And the wares that went wrong would have been thrown over a shoulder from the kiln mouth at opening, collecting season by season amongst the stones and the shifting earth in the spring rains. So many thousands and thousands of pots that haven't worked, each saggar that cracks needing to be made again, each stack of tea bowls that warp another few hours of effort to bank, another part of a day lost. The potters here would have been paid by finished pots, piecework, not wages. 'Pots cover every inch of space before the door', writes a poet 1,000 years ago, 'But there's not a single tile on the roof / Whereas the mansions of those who wouldn't touch clay / Bear tiles overlapping tightly like the scales of a fish.'
This answers my question of how you make a living when things go so wrong, so often. You work even harder. You make more, and then some more.
If I look south from here across the valley floor I can just make out the river, several hundred feet wide as it passes through the city, flowing from the north towards the Yangtze. Tributaries join it, snaking their way down from the hills. Behind me, thirty miles away, are the hills that make up Kao-ling mountain and there are mountains ringing every direction. The forests are a dense black-green smudge. I can see the highway but the only sounds are of the breeze in the bamboos and the crickets in the tall grasses.
I've been looking at all the maps. There are Chinese ones from the seventeenth century, schematic ones that show the arrangement of houses and kilns and rivers. There are the Jesuits maps from a century later, the first dogged attempts to make the country explicable to the West, and then the strangely anaemic maps in the books of the archaeology of the region – variant names hopefully pinned to the hills and rivers.
A favourite is from 1937, when Mr A. D. Brankston, a young Englishman, climbed these hills and sketched a map with a scale of 'about three miles to an inch', small wobbly bowls for kiln sites. There are great gaps in his maps due to rumours of banditry. He makes this landscape look like Hampshire.
But nothing has prepared me for this. It is a beautiful puzzle of a landscape. Stretching before me is earth and forests and water and villages. And somehow people and happenstance, and trade and taste combined here to make this the centre of porcelain for the world.
I've got a plan. I want to get up to the mountain and follow the old route that the raw materials for porcelain took back to the city.CHAPTER 2
As a boy I dug red clay from the stream bank, took out the bits of root and twig, thumped the sticky earth into a rough ball, stuck my thumb into the centre and pinched out a crude red pot, staining my hands. I fired it in a bonfire, not a high enough temperature to make it of any use, but high enough to make a vessel of sorts. It broke in my hands. It was porous. With more skill and a basic kiln to fire it above 1,000 degrees Celsius I could have made this red clay into earthenware, the first kind of pottery. And with a glaze I could have made it hold liquids.
The second clay I used as a schoolboy was grey, and more fine-grained. I made stoneware, a kind of pottery that is fired to a higher temperature than the rough earthenware clays, around 1,200 degrees Celsius. This stoneware was a slate grey colour when it came out of the kiln, a calm, slightly dulled hue that worked with the mossy hues of the glazes I used. These mugs and bowls rang when you tapped them. They were not translucent. They were emphatic pots.
The third type of clay is porcelain. It is far smoother than the other two. And it needs to be fired to the ridiculous temperatures above 1,300 degrees Celsius to achieve the whiteness, the hardness and the translucency, the beautiful resonance when you gently tap the rim of a bowl, that constitute proper porcelain. And this is where it gets intriguing. You cannot put a spade into the ground and dig up white porcelain clay, soft and clean and ready, however wonderful this idea might be.
Porcelain is made of two kinds of mineral.
The first element is petunse or what is known as porcelain stone. In the vivid imagery used here in Jingdezhen it provides the flesh of the porcelain. It gives translucency and supplies the hardness of the body. The second element is kaolin or porcelain clay and it is the bones. It gives plasticity. Together petunse and kaolin fuse at great heat to create a form of glass that is vitrified: at a molecular level the spaces are filled up with glass, making the vessel non-porous.
'Everything that belongs to China-ware', writes Père d'Entrecolles with authority, 'is reduced to that which enters into the composition, and that which is preparatory thereto.' He goes on to tell an emblematic story:
It is from kaolin that porcelain draws its strength, just like tendons in the body. Thus it is that a soft earth gives strength to petunse which is the harder rock. A rich merchant told me that several years ago some Europeans purchased some petunse, which they took back to their own country in order to make some porcelain, but not having any kaolin, their efforts failed ... Upon which the Chinese merchant told me, laughing, 'They wanted to have a body in which the flesh would be supported without bones.'
This story is a terrific signpost for the journey. You have to understand the dual nature of this composition necessary to create a smooth, plastic clay body that can withstand the firing in the kiln. Both of these stones have to be purified and then mixed in the right proportions to get the plasticity that allows you to work, and the strength that allows you to fire. Increase one element and the clay becomes difficult to throw or mould, increase the other and your wares will deform at the high temperatures needed to fire porcelain. But change the quantities minutely and you can develop variant porcelain bodies to use in different parts of your kiln. For instance vessels made from a porcelain body that is half petunse and half kaolin can be placed in the very hottest parts of the kiln, lower-kaolin bodies in the cooler. These changes are not worked out by mineralogists or chemists but by potters adjusting one batch of clay to create a special run of objects, working out why these stem cups have warped, or responding to a hike in prices from the clay merchant.
If you alter the quality of the materials you are employing you can make everything from imperial wares to the teacup you might use at the stall by the side of the road.
And though it is possible to make porcelain out of petunse with small additions of other materials, the great tradition of translucent white wares comes out of this amalgamation, made here in Jingdezhen 1,000 years ago by potters working things out for themselves.
Petunse is not difficult to find around here and old mine workings from the Sung Dynasty have been excavated close to the city itself. No great expertise is needed to mine the stone. It is sometimes hard and sometimes the texture of stale bread and it comes in myriad grades of fineness, but the very, very best was 'white and sweated slightly and did not cause disappointment to those who made porcelain out of it'.
Everyone seems to agree that if you split the highest-quality petunse, it has black markings like lu-chiao tshai, the deerhorn plant that is growing under my feet here on the hillside. It has speckles of mica.
Kaolin is white, and it too is sprinkled with mica that glitters. It is harder to find. The very best was designated for imperial use and deemed 'official' with heavy punishments for offenders who tried to work with it. It has 'blue-black seams and spots like grains of sugar, as translucent as white jade and with gold spots like stars' writes an official in the Ming Dynasty of the faint traces of quartz and mica that would need to be washed out, high on its lyrical qualities.
After they were exhausted, these special mines were sealed to prevent any commoner misusing the scraps. Over time the mines gave out, or came too close to old ancestral burial grounds and had to cease production, and these places were then elegised as being particular, special, and lost.
Kaolin takes its name from the mountain I am trying to get to – Kao-ling, or High Ridge.
Speculation and gossip about this mountain turn up in an eighteenth- century compendium called the Tao Shu, full of history, jostling along with surmise and anecdote. It records the families that worked the mountain, the grading of clay according to its mine, and the dodgy renamings of their material that goes on around these workings. The impression is of endless feudings and complaints. 'We may be sure', says the chronicler, 'that they fake the four characters stamped on the kaolin bricks.'
Père d'Entrecolles adds, with some weariness, that there 'wouldn't be anything more to add about this work if the Chinese were not accustomed to adulterating their merchandise'.
But, from a people who roll little grains of paste in pepper powder to cover them, and sell them with real peppercorns, there is no protection from the sale of petunse without it being diluted with some waste material. That is why it is necessary to purify it again ... before putting it into porcelain.
I realise how amateur Western obsessions are in comparison with the energy of classification here on this mountain, in this city. There are hundreds of lists tabulating the quality of petunse and kaolin – official old, superior old, middling old, sweepings. There are the poetic names of particular seams or special mines. There are records going back through the centuries on how to find these materials, cleanse them, ship them, buy them and sell them. And then how to compound them to make porcelain itself.
But as I read the chronicles warning me of 'errors and confusions', I realise that all statements about porcelain are subject to dispute and toxic refutation. Scholars from the Sung Dynasty onwards argue on the identity, value and meaning of these wares, a 1,000-year literature of claim and counterclaim continued to the present day, swirling around the idea of purity.
We are finally on the road towards the mountain, climbing switchback up a narrow valley following a stream, when we stop the car. The sound is extraordinary, a rhythmical thumping, just off a regular beat, loud enough to hear from the village road.
I scramble down towards it. The sheds are low and open, the broken-backed roofs held on timber supports, forked trunks at perverse angles. I duck under the ragged straw thatch straight into a beam that gives me stars. I sit down heavily. There is no one here. There are red dragonflies that come in low over the water, tracing patterns through and out and gone.
The shed must be fifty feet long, two dozen wide, the floor compacted earth with the three holes where the hammers are piling down, thrown back into the air and then down again. It is mesmeric.
Water is diverted from the tumbling stream, rushes into a sluice and then on to a waterwheel that powers these trip hammers. It is technology that hasn't changed in hundreds of years, pragmatic and mendable. The Tao Lu tells me it is seasonal and that in spring with rushing water these kinds of sheds would have more hammers and that they would pound the petunse finer, that when there is less force in midsummer the stone is grainier. This makes today a slow time of year.
You have a heap of porcelain stone but you need fine, pure powder in a form that can be both easily weighed and transported. To prepare the petunse you need to break the rock that you have quarried into smaller pieces, until they are no bigger than a quail's egg. To my left is a mound of broken stone four feet high. These fragments can then be placed in a mortar – no more than a hole a couple of feet deep – into which pounds a hammer.
Excerpted from The White Road by Edmund de Waal. Copyright © 2015 Edmund de Waal. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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