China Daily (Hong Kong)
Purple clay teapot: Digital design adds contemporary touches to the ancient art
Today there are 30 master artisans in Yixing who have been granted the title of national master of purple clay art, and more than 100 craftspeople have been recognized as “masters of Jiangsu province”.
These craftspeople incarnate the artisanal skills of previous generations, applying contemporary touches to their wares with the help of technology such as digital design and 3D printing.
One of them is Fan Weiqun, 51, the fourth generation in a family of purple clay craftsmen, whose studio is in the same building as Dasheng Art Museum, where the achievements of his forebears are on display.
Dasheng was an artistic name of Fan Guangshan (1847-1902). When his fame rose as a purple clay teapot maker it was said that not even 1,000 taels of gold would be enough to secure a Dasheng teapot. His son Fan Qinren (1875-1941) inherited the name Dasheng and took the name to a higher level, his creations being displayed in exhibitions in the United States and Europe, and winning gold medals.
When Fan Weiqun was a child the handicraft of teapot making had more or less been forgotten in the family, he said. Only one pot had survived and “we saw it only during Lunar New Year, when my father would use it to make tea”, he says, sitting in his studio, pouring tea for visitors from a pot of his own making.
In 1984 Fan’s parents agreed to lend that heirloom teapot to the
Yixing purple clay factory, whose director paid back the favor by recruiting the young man to work as a young apprentice.
“It was the right time, the first few years of China’s reform and opening-up,” Fan says.
“Soon wealthy customers from Hong Kong and Taiwan were coming to the city and ordering purple clay teapots and paying as much as hundreds and even tens of thousands of yuan.”
Then came purple clay aficionados from other countries such as South Korea and Japan, who have the same cultural thirst for the tea drinking tradition.
This increasing new demand inspired Yixing to put an effort into developing its purple clay industry. Senior artisans and master artists were invited to train young workers such as Fan, and special workshops were set up to producing objects for export.
“My work was so good that my teapots were exempted from inspection, and that made me really proud. I was inspired by this sense of honor, and my skills rapidly improved.”
Fan and many artisans of his generation gradually won recognition, their works figuring in exhibitions at home and abroad, and many, including Fan Weiqun, set up their own studios. Since then he has devoted a lot of time to collecting all the Dasheng teapots, the creation of his ancestors.
In 2005 he founded Dasheng Art Museum, presenting these teapots, sculptures and objects that tell much about his family history, and the dedication of generation after generation to the purple clay.
“In my family each generation carries on with the work of the previous one and contributes something new.”
While teapot making is still purely handiwork, done with simple tools such as spatulas and needles of bamboo or steel, Fan and other artisans are ready to use the latest technology in their work.
“These can help you have a better perception of the dimensions and forms before they were made into clay,” he says. “The practice, heritage and skills are never lost.”
My work was so good that my teapots were exempted from inspection, and that made me really proud. I was inspired by this sense of honor, and my skills rapidly improved.”
Fan Weiqun, purple clay craftsman