The Tenmo team really did go to the thousand-year-old village where Tenmoku cups are made, to reveal the greatest secrets still closely guarded. Well, what an adventure of surprises and learning! We tell you all about it in this article, which could almost be called an adventure novel.
A total change of scenery
During the month of May 2023, when summer in China was still very harsh and severe, the Tenmo team travelled to Shuiji Village in the Fujian region to meet the artisans once again. The village of Shuiji is nestled between the green mountains of the region and lies beside a small river. There are, of course, no buses or trains to reach the village, so hiring a car seems an unavoidable option.
The unbearable summer heat has forced the craftsmen to stay at home during the day, and cup production doesn't begin until 6pm, against a backdrop of the sunset, which in turn hides behind the mountain. While we're waiting to meet them, we've decided to set off on a discovery of a thousand-year-old vestige of craftsmanship: the Shuiji dragon kiln.
For the record, the Shuiji Dragon Kiln has been classified as the oldest dragon kiln site in China, but it wasn't excavated until 1999. The direct consequences of this fact: before that date, villagers could freely come and pick up Tenmoku cup debris dating back to ... the 10th century! Some had fun using the debris to build their houses, others came to find containers to feed their animals... There are many creative uses for these historical objects.
The trials and tribulations begin
It's obvious that our adventure can't be so simple as to qualify as an adventure: the site is certainly known, but only by locals and certain scientists. There is no tourist activity, which made it difficult to locate. The GPS is naturally unreliable, pointing to the village entrance when we were expecting to see an impressive monument.
After a 30-minute drive, a 1-hour hike and two hills, we, or rather a local policeman, helped us find our relic! Before the joy could catch up with us and make our sweat worthwhile, we discovered that the gate is rigorously closed... No tourist activity, no entrance...
For our dear readers, we've taken the trouble to take a photo through the keyhole, but of course we'll explain the site in more detail, thanks to photos taken by a few privileged people.
What you can see here is what's left of the dragon oven. The low walls on the sides and the shelter were built later to preserve the site. The dragon oven owes its name to its particular layout, leaning against a mountain. This structure enables the temperature to be raised to 1,350 degrees without the need for modern machinery, which is truly a technological feat and the result of the wisdom of the time.
This reproduction of the dragon kiln clearly shows that access to the kiln chambers can be gained from both sides, with some ten chambers providing different effects on the ceramic pieces. The energy required for this exercise is impressive, which is why the kiln is dedicated primarily to the emperor's service. What's more, adding to the already high cost of charcoal, the rate of defective pieces is close to 90%. Believe us, if a fine Tenmoku mug was produced in those days, the price was even more attractive than one in today's museum.
In fact, the debris you see on the ground is the result of this high rate of loss. Over 500 years of operation have produced a veritable mountain of debris. You can also see an example of reproduction from just a few years ago.
A real folly
To conclude this article, we have selected an exceptional cup to illustrate our point. This Tenmoku cup is made by Master Chen Huizhong, who succeeded in finding a firing method after years of research, in order to obtain a brilliant blue without adding colorants or other industrial elements. To honor this blue, he named this collection "Esprit Bleu", which is itself a tribute to the magic of nature. Thanks to his creations in the "Esprit Bleu" and "Épanouissement" collections, Maître has won well-deserved recognition from the Fujian region.
If you'd like to find out more about the dragon oven, you might also like to read our article dedicated to the dragon oven.