THE ART OF MENDING
The ancient repair technique of looks to be making a comeback in China as more and more people learn how to appreciate imperfection classes.
Gu now runs a pottery repair studio with two apprentices at Hongqiao Antique Mall and though she has only been in the profession for two years, her workmanship has already earned praise and recognition from her clients. Business has been so brisk that customers often have to wait for months before they can retrieve their repaired ceramic ware.
One of Gu’s largest assignments was having to repair more than 100 “jian zhan” teacups from the Shanghai Jian Zhan Collectors Club. Made in Jianyang, Fujian province, about 1,000 years ago, these funnel-shaped cups are highly sought after in the antique market and often command huge prices at auctions.
Liao Chengyi, head of the club in Shanghai, revealed that collectors used to send their damaged cups to local restoration workshops in Fujian, only to discover that the workmanship was far from satisfactory. Also, because the workers had used glue as a sealant to speed up the repair process, it was no longer safe to drink from the cup.
This was when collectors started turning to Gu, who uses traditional techniques and materials such as lacquer and pure gold. After mending the cups, Gu would place them in a humidifier for several weeks to let them dry. This also ensures that the cups are safe for everyday use.
“A teacup is not just an object of everyday use. People can become attached to it after using it for years because it embodies their memories. It is like a piece of themselves,” said Gu.
There are only a few studios in Shanghai that offer Ju Ci services. Gu said that she only knows of about 10 other craftsmen in the city who are trained in Ju Ci.
Antique dealers in the mall often engage her to restore their vintage pottery as well. The prices of antique pieces in perfect condition are often too prohibitive. However, an antique that has been repaired is much friendlier on the wallet.
Besides pottery and ceramics, Gu has also handled other items such as jade
bracelets and even a vintage bamboo flute a client had bought from Japan. She said that working with bamboo is especially tricky, because drilling into it at the wrong angle will instantly cause cracks to appear.
Gu also occasionally conducts Ju Ci workshops for members of the public to learn more about its history and techniques. Among these workshop participants are dentists, surgeons, art museum directors and university professors.
The technique of Ju Ci is more than 1,000 years old in China. Illustrations of craftsmen mending pots can be found in Chinese paintings dating back to as early as the 13th century. Gu estimates that there are only about 1,000 craftsmen in China who are skilled in Ju Ci. In some regions of China, the craft has been recognized as an intangible cultural heritage.
Expert craftsmen in the past who were dealing with porcelain wares would drill through the glazed surface using handoperated drilling wheels equipped with a diamond tip. The process requires great precision and control given the fragility of the porcelain.
In this modern era, Gu uses a fine machinery drill that revolves up to 50,000 times every minute to accurately create fine holes at the required angles.
“Dentists use the same machine to work on people’s teeth. You need to operate the drill in such a way that it pierces the porcelain or pottery surface without penetrating it,” explained Gu.
Apart from using staples made from iron or gold, Ju Ci craftsmen also use metal to seal the cracks or patch chipped areas. Craftsmen may at times also carve patterns on the metal to make the patchwork more aesthetic.
The Japanese method of kintsugi is sometimes also used to seal cracks. This technique involves filling the gap with lacquer and finishing off with a lining of fine gold.
The technique of Ju Ci differs from typical repair methods in that it is not aimed at restoring the perfect look, and this is where its beauty lies, said Gu.
“Repair marks are an indication of the item’s history,” she said.
“People don’t regard them as imperfections — they see them as meaningful statements.”
Gu Yu is among one of the few JuCi experts in Shanghai. She currently operates a pottery repair studio at Hongqiao Antique Mall.