Under the dense canopy of trees half-way up a long, steep Peitou slope, the ground is covered with fallen leaves. The air, though still cool, has a hint of early spring warmth, and the leaves of the camphor trees are budding. Here is the inviting entrance to the Hsiao Fang Pottery: an automatic door painted with a blue-and-white pattern typical of Ming porcelain. Upon entering and following a small path across a bridge, you see colorfully glazed ceramics representative of the imperial kilns of various dynasties each way you turn. Examining these up close and even touching them, one gains a sense of the warmth and vitality of ceramics of different eras. Here is where ceramicist Tsai Hsiao-fang brings his artist's sensibility to bear on earth and fire to create ceramic masterpieces acclaimed by collectors from around the world.
Traditional blue-and-white Chinese porcelain is created by applying cobalt oxide pigment on bisque (pottery that has only been fired at low temperatures prior to glazing). By using different materials and firing conditions, one can create various different yellow glazes: There is sweet and tender jiaohuang yellow, the bright intensity of yellow fired at high temperatures, the elegant pastel of butter yellow. Then there are the various shades of celadon porcelain, including powder blue, pea green, and plum. These are created with glazes that contain small amounts of oxidized iron applied to bisque and fired at high temperatures.
Tsai Hsiao-fang has spent a lifetime researching glazes, and he spiritedly describes for his guests how some glazes reflect a penchant for brilliant and beautiful color, others indifference to worldly gain, and how still others could be used only on ceramics own by the emperor. These heartwarming colors-the product of tireless striving night after day, season after season-have been the subject of his experiments for three decades.
A winding road to ceramics
Over elegant Song teacups filled with tieguanyin oolong, the silver-haired Tsai recalls that his earliest memories are of the sounds of war. Born in Chingshui, Taichung County in 1938, he passed his early childhood during World War II. After the war, he entered elementary school, where his second-eldest brother, 12 years his senior, was his art teacher. His brother had studied under the famous painter Chen Ching-hui, whose works had won islandwide competitions. Despite a real talent for art, Tsai was more interested in music, and enjoyed reading biographies of political figures such as Washington and Lincoln.
During the era of martial law, devoting oneself to "art" meant spending a lifetime in poverty, and "politics" was a taboo subject. His family worried that he was setting off down a "road of no return" toward these two undesirable realms. They encouraged him to pursue a career in engineering instead, and so he entered the Department of Engineering at National Taipei Institute of Technology.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwan was gradually rebuilding from the fires of war and receiving development aid from the US. Evolving from an agricultural to an industrial society, research into electronic materials was needed for industrial development. In 1962 Everett F. Drumright, US ambassador to the ROC, suggested the US assist Taiwan in training R&D personnel. With US financial support, the China Productivity Center and China United Trading Corporation sponsored the first "Training Course for Ceramic Industry Workers." Tsai Hsiao-fang hadn't been at work for long when his boss encouraged him to research magnetic materials-or more specifically non-metallic magnets. He passed the test to enter the program and chose fire-resistant substances, such as cement, glass and ceramics, as his area of specialization
The faculty was very impressive, with instructors from Finland, the US, and Japan, as well as locals who had studied abroad. The ceramic materials instructor, who was Japanese, told Tsai: "There are a lot of foreigners researching fire-resistant materials. With the quality of ceramics in Taiwan lagging, it would be a good field for someone with true commitment to enter." He thus suggested that Tsai, who was earning high marks but had originally intended to study materials for electrical insulators, switch to researching ceramics. And so Tsai, who had studied engineering at his parents' suggestion despite his native artistic talent, returned to a career in art.
A focus on glazes
To research ceramics, you must understand glazing and firing processes. So that Tsai could gain practical knowledge while he was enrolled in the program, his Japanese instructor Ninoru Tanaka arranged a job for him as technical director at Peitou's Wangkuan Tile Factory. After completing the two-year ceramics course, Tsai Hsiao-fang tested into an overseas technicians' research program sponsored by the Association for Technic Exchanges between China and Japan, to study ceramics techniques in depth. Back then the program had only two slots for Taiwanese applicants, but Tsai was accepted, and on the enthusiastic recommendation of his Japanese teacher he went on to the National Industrial Research Institute of Nagoya, where he studied under such famous instructors as Etsuzo Kato and Shigeto Kaneoka.
The institute is Japan's best-known institution for ceramics research. "It mainly researches topics related to ceramics such as glazes, forming, and fine ceramics. The program was full of hardships. Grinding the ingredients of glazes for hours at a time, the students' arms would grow sore. When firing pieces in the kiln, they had to stand by night and day, carefully monitoring the temperature. Afterwards, they would record and discuss the resulting colorations and other results." Tsai often went to the library, where he gathered a wide range of information related to ceramics, which he would bring back to Taiwan.
Upon his return, Tsai went back to work at Wangkuan, where he used what he had studied in Japan both to advance his research into glazes and to help him as technical director of production, resolving problems in the production process from forming to glazing to firing. He also developed Taiwan's first flambe glazed tile.
Entranced by these hard-to-control color variations, Tsai continued experimenting at home. Often he used whatever was at hand: eggshells, sawdust, rice husks, oyster shells.... After his research into glaze production, he would then conduct experiments, firing them in different types of kiln (tunnel kilns, gas kilns, coal kilns, etc.), gaining practical understanding about their differences and unique qualities.
In 1974, he rented a house in Shihlin, where he used about 35 square feet of space on a stairwell landing to build his first kiln. It was there he created his first work on classical examples: a "ruby-red glazed cup." To test the market, he took the work to Taipei's "Antique Street" to have it appraised. It was well received, and soon there was growing demand for his work. His creative confidence swelled, and he threw himself even more vigorously into researching glazes.
"Once I had a kiln at home, I would write out the ingredients for a glaze and then give them to my wife before I went off to work. My wife, who was interested in ceramics too, would fire some test pieces based on the glaze formula I had given her. After I got off from work, I would look at the results and adjust the ingredients, and the following day my wife would test it out for me again." In this way husband and wife, by dint of constant experimentation, created some startlingly beautiful glazes.
Later, Tsai left the tile factory to work at a kiln at Yingko, Taoyuan County. Then, at a friend's invitation, he became a partner in a new ceramics factory. Finally, he decided to create independently. In 1974 he rented a workshop in Yingko of about 200 square feet with a potter's wheel and some second-hand glazing accessories. There, he went hard at work forming, using the glazes he had developed from many years of toil. Because he couldn't afford his own kiln, he rented one nearby. Not long afterwards, the word got out that his glazes were unlike anyone else's, so that many neighboring potters started coming to him to have test tiles glazed and fired. His reputation grew.
Focusing on creative work, the following year he opened a workshop in Peitou specializing in various kinds of small vessels, china and utensils. The workshop received much favorable attention, and antique dealers, both local and from Hong Kong, came calling. They commissioned him to make reproductions of "oil-spot" glaze, Jun ware, ceramics with copper red, underglazed blue-and-white ware, as well as Yue celadon and other glazes. Tsai also began to hire formers and other specialists, so that he could devote himself to researching glazes and bisque.
Old wares resurrected
Tsai, who had long held an interest in antiques, often went to the National Palace Museum (NPM) to study antique ceramics. There he also made detailed observations about how the methods of manufacture and glazes of imperial ceramics changed from era to era. Through the glass of the display cabinets, he observed and befriended the master craftsmen of earlier eras. His focus attracted the notice of Tung Yi-hua, who led the classical ceramics group at the museum. Tsai frankly explained his research interests and demonstrated his professional eye and understanding, and his sincere attitude. As a result, the museum removed the treasured "red-glazed Guanyin vase" from behind several layers of security for him to examine directly.
Viewing this unique treasure up close, Tsai was greatly moved. He resolved to bring these famous works of ceramics into the living present-recreating their lines, forms, glaze and painting, allowing these ancient works to be passed along to future generations.
It was first necessary to overcome problems in forming. From an outside perspective forming looks very easy, but it actually poses great difficulties. "For instance, each piece's proportions, angles, arcs, thickness, and even weight-all must be done to a high degree of accuracy," explains Tsai as he holds up a cup. And apart from basing works on those in the NPM (which made an exception for him to view works up close), he also studied and copied works held in private collections. He was bent on accurately capturing the feel of these ancient ceramics.
Recreating the hues of ancient glazes required both a solid grounding in chemistry and experience gained from countless experiments of trial and error. In this period Tsai threw himself into researching, comparing and contrasting ancient examples. "For ceramics using a similar glaze, different qualities of clay can affect the appearance. What's more, controlling kiln temperature and cooling speed, as well as the degree of oxidation within the kiln, are key factors. If any of these details is overlooked, the final result will be hard to control."
Classic in spirit and form
Tsai has a special love for Song-dynasty ceramics: "Song ceramics have a noble, graceful character that demonstrate the transcendent aura of ceramics without the slightest impurities. They convey the essence of Chinese culture."
Celadon ware is also known simply as Song ware. It is made by exposing glaze with small amounts of oxidized iron to a reducing flame at high temperatures. One achieves the different colors of powder blue, gray-green, fish-egg green, and blue and white by adjusting the materials and processes. Furthermore, the surfaces are always covered with crackle, "palm eyes" (small pits), or bubbles. Moreover, the thinning glaze is thin and pink. Or the rim may reveal a darker grayish purple tint, and the foot rim might even show the black bisque underneath the glaze-giving the ceramics their distinctive "purple mouth and black feet." This smoothly textured porcelain, possessing all the beauty of antique jade, abounds with the understated aesthetic sensibility of the Song dynasty.
Ceramicists in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty produced their underglazed red ceramics by applying copper to the bisque and a transparent glaze over it to maintain the original appearance and firing it in one go.
"Using red glaze poses major difficulties, because depending on various factors-such as the thickness of the glaze, the temperature at which it was glazed, and the atmosphere-it's easy to for the red not to come out, or for the surface to grow cloudy, or for the color to become darkened." But once fired, the bright color is a joy to the eye. Or it may turn out elegantly muted, like rosy clouds at sunset fading to the bisque, which is as white as snow. That interplay of red and white is a delight.
Red-glazed porcelain fired at high temperatures poses the highest level of difficulty. To produce these, iron oxide is fired in a "reducing atmosphere" (an atmosphere in which oxygen is extracted). Among these glazes are the reserved jihong "sacrifical red," the muted and elegant peachbloom, and the gloriously exuberant langyao red.
When Tsai created a work with a glaze that looked like an antique, beholders, apart from praising it, would always hope that he could recreate it a second or third time. Tsai remarks softly: "Ceramics are living things; they have life." As far as he is concerned, the formulas for glazes needn't be treated like "secret recipes" passed down to his children. Rather, they are reflections of a state of mind. For a long time now, his production of Song-style ceramics has been less about how much they perfectly reproduce Song originals than about understanding the rhythm and feel of Song glazes and going a step farther to open up new creative possibilities.
Spokesperson for the NPM
The high demands that Tsai places on himself are why the NPM commissioned him to do most of the reproductions in exhibitions the museum was sending overseas, where works from Tsai's Hsiao Fang Pottery sat next those produced by famous ancient ceramicists, each complementing the other's beauty. In Taiwan, Tsai also frequently accepts orders from major museums to create works for their collections. And former US president George Bush, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, as well as numerous political and business leaders in Taiwan, all have Tsai's works in their private collections. Through his work, he has also shared a bond of fate with the great contemporary master of classical Chinese painting Chang Ta-chien.
Tsai Hsiao-fang met Chang Ta-chien in 1978 and created a number of painting utensils for Chang to use in his studio. These were all monochromatic items glazed in hot pink, ruby red, pea green, shadow blue, and beige.
"Ta-chien and I would discuss the appearance of each item. He would provide the color, and I would then design a glaze formula to match. His style tends toward the simple and elegant, and his favorite color was hot pink."
In their relationship, which lasted only a few short years, the great master's air with which Chang carried himself is what left the biggest impression on Tsai: "Ta-chien was in his eighties, but he was always so sincere and modest when explaining his paintings to me." When Chang was 84 he made a painting of plum blossoms and got Tsai to transfer the image onto vases, which he presented as a gift to good friends. This was the only work Chang ever put on ceramics.
From a photograph
Tsai's experiments in recreating difficult glazes honed his determination, and also caused him to boldly accept challenges that others said were impossible. In 1983, Tsai accepted a commission from the Dutch royal family to research and reproduce some antique royal delft ware. Without information about the production process or examples in hand, he successfully reproduced works so well that the Queen was delighted and surprised. The following year the NPM asked him to reproduce most of the ceramics in the Emperor Qianlong's Sanxitang study. Tsai was able to reproduce even such extremely difficult pieces as a finely decorated gourd-shaped vase and a porcelain ruyi scepter.
In 1994 Tsai accepted a commission from a gallery to reproduce some Turkish ceramics in the collection of the Topkapi Palace Museum, which holds work from the Turkish Empire, dating from the 15th to 19th centuries. Among its collections are numerous ceramic works of unusual appearance. Entirely relying on images from books, Tsai recreated numerous exquisite works for its collection, which were later exhibited in Nagoya.
"In making reproductions, you've got to be true to the original: the shape, glaze and even the weight. When people hold them, they've got to have a sense that they might be holding the original." This is Tsai's guiding principle for making reproductions.
Nature into glaze
Determined to bring exquisite ceramics into people's lives, Tsai often regrets the rough and uninspired quality of Taiwan's teasets in an era when the drinking of high-quality tea is more and more common. Hence, based on his many years of research into Song-dynasty ceramics, he has created a series of Ru ware teasets that abound with cultural and aesthetic meaning.
"A smooth monochromatic teacup in an elegant style not only can add joy to tasting fine tea, it also can silently help to cultivate one's aesthetic appreciation and taste." When Tsai was studying in Japan, he discovered that the Japanese used exquisite ceramics in their everyday lives, and he wanted to devote a little energy to producing some beautiful china for Taiwan. Consequently, Hsiao Fang Pottery worked with potter Liao Su-hui to design some dinnerware in "matte-finish" and "iron-spot" celadons, which in back-to-back years won top prize in a competition for Taiwanese handicrafts.
Having thrown his all into this field for so long, Tsai has also paid a big price. In the past he would often stay up all night tending his kiln. It upset his sleep rhythms, so that even today he frequently wakes in the middle of the night and has to pass long stretches by listening to music or reading before he can fall back to sleep. In his younger days, he spent a lot of energy weighing and grinding as he developed glazes, so that his arms were often sore. And today the soreness comes on like clockwork whenever the weather changes.
Despite all the hard work behind his artistic success, Tsai still holds his deepest affection for his work researching and developing glazes. He emphasizes that his research in the field has been entirely governed by one word: perseverance. Possessing the prerequisites of focus, fearlessness in the face of hardship and frustrations, and a good sense of color, he naturally feels that his greatest glazes are yet to come. When asked what glaze would satisfy him, Tsai looks out a window at a leaf that has been washed by spring rains, its color gradually changing in brightness with the movements brought on by the wind, and he looks at the sunlight shining through the diagonally falling rain to become a rainbow. Opening the window he says, "Nature is my favorite glaze!"
A clump of clay pulled from the earth is molded, glazed and fired to become a cup that you hold in your hand and tilt toward your mouth to drink from. The rim of the cup is as smooth as skin. At this moment, this clump of earth has been transformed and given a vital energy; it has quietly taken a position within our lives, so that we people, who have cleared a place in our hearts for this thing of beauty, feel fulfilled.