Tibetan craftsmen turn Yunnan village into pottery hub
Many travelers to Shangri-La, a county-level city in Southwest China’s Yunnan province, will likely pass Tangdui village in Nixi township without paying much attention to it.
After all, there’s so much to see — British author James Hilton’s fictional place of Shangri-La in his 1930s’ novel Lost Horizon, is said to have been inspired by the city.
Nevertheless, Tadrin Phuntsok, a 45-year-old resident of Tangdui who runs a roadside store that sells black pottery works such as pots, has reasons for optimism.
Nixi is known for its stewed chicken, often served in earthen pots. It is a hub of traditional Tibetan craftsmanship and it was listed as a nation-level intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
“It (Nixi pottery) wasunknownto the outside world for a long time,” says Tadrin Phuntsok, a seventhgeneration potter in his family. “They were mainly exchanged for crops rather than being sold before the 1990s, when some overseas travelers came and bought them.
“I even didn’t know how to charge,” he recalls. “I sold each piece for a few yuan, but they would want to payme much more than that.”
The pots are usually decorated with ancient Tibetan images such as deitiesandare completely handmade. Tadrin Phuntsok reveals the materials are produced locally.
“Each family has its own unique formula,” he says.
Among about 880 villagers in Tangdui, there are more than 100 pottery artisans, andTadrin Phuntsok is considered among the best.
Though in the 1980s, there were only a few families that had inherited the tradition, manymorewere encouraged to join after he began to sell his pots.
“I once sold the pots on the Bund. I expected to sell them for 250 yuan ($37) in total, but a foreigner came and bought all for 400 yuan,” he says of a 1997 sale in Shanghai where a Romanian diplomat bought the wares.
Earlier, such items were more popular with overseas buyers than domestic collectors, but in the past three years that’s changed. The Chinese have now taken the lead.
Value of pottery articles sold in Tangdui village in Nixi township, Yunnan province, in 2015.
Afine piece ofTadrin Phuntsok’s pottery can easily sell for 2,000 yuan today and he is able to earn more than 80,000 yuan a year.
The man who spent most of his life in the mountainous area also shows an uncommon understanding ofhowskills are improved. After traveling aroundChina, he went to the United States and exchanged experiences with some veteran Native American artisans.
“Of course, they wouldn’t reveal their formula,” Tadrin Phuntsok says, laughing. “But I could guess after observing the topography and vegetation of an area.”
He says he was enlightened by the fact that Native Americans often use different materials to make different parts of one article.
In2015, Tangdui village sold pottery articles worth some 4 million yuan.
Tadrin Phuntsok’s 24-year-old son, Losang Champa, is continuing with the tradition.
“I once considered being a potter as really low-class work,” says the son, who has a Tibetan literature major from college. “But when I was away from home and missed pottery, I realized that it is the foundation of our culture.”
Losang Champa spent all his spare time in collegeonpotteryand abandoned a chance to become a civil servant after graduation.
He also considers it crucial to mix modern design with old craftsmanship.
“The only problem here is the poor internet connection. Otherwise, I could open an online store.”
Ancient images on the pots.