Achievement In Art: A Master Of Decorative Art In Zisha, Jiang Rong

Article: Huang Yijia Photos by: Tangren Gongyi

On the morning of February 19th, I received a call from Zisha Master He Daohong. With his strong Yixing accent, he informed me that Master Jiang Rong had passed away that morning. I was shocked and saddened by the news, regardless of the fact that I had known of Master Jiang Rong’s failing health for some time. I remained affected by the news for a long while. This year, I had dreamed of Master Jiang a few times since the Spring Festival. I was about to pay her a visit when the news came. Without delay, I got down to arranging for the trip – I knew I just had to pay her one last respect.

I first met Master Jiang 17 years ago; it was an early summer afternoon in May 1991. That being my first visit to the capital of pottery work, I fumbled about looking for Jiang’s workshop, which was on the second floor at the Zisha Arts Building. On my arrival, an endearing old lady came forth in staggering steps to greet me, all smiles on her face. She invited me in. At that point in time, it was hard to associate her with such exquisite Zisha art and teapots. We talked in a casual but friendly manner, while she began scraping and smoothing over a segment of a strange-looking stump. I took a closer look – the brown stamp had very rough bark with branches and twigs crisscrossing, while the growth rings and saw marks were visually clear. She then flipped the stump and showed me a toad squatting below, one leg stretched and the other clinging onto the branch. The two bulging, inquisitive eyes were focusing on the lone pomegranate above. Master Jiang noticed my intense interest in the piece. She lifted the pomegranate. Alas, it turned out to be the lid. How interesting! The visual drama kept unfolding – the unturned branch adorned by two lovely buds was the spout in disguise, and another twisted branch was the handle! With Master Jiang’s magic touch, the hideous toad became lively and lovely. There must be some truth in the saying “art makes life beautiful.”

In this first encounter, Master Jiang Rong’s passion and dedication inspired me. As an arts and craft graduate, and having wooked with a “teapot” magazine since my graduation, I was more resolved than ever to explore the broader contemporary world of Zisha.

Background and Learning Curve

Arcs and craft master Jiang Rong is an outstanding female artist and renowned contemporary pottery master. In the Yixing arts and crafts fraternity, her lifelike works have won her the highest prestige among veteran masters. What she has achieved in Zisha pot-making is comparable to Yang Fengnian of the Qing Dynasty. The use of colour, portrayal of objects and textural finish of her works has attained perfection. She was honoured as one of the “Seven Zisha Artists” by the Jiangsu Province in early 1956. In 1978, she was conferred the title of the Arts and Crafts Master, and subsequently the Senior Arts and Crafts Master honour by the nation in 1989 and the Grand Master of Chinese Arts and Crafts by the nation in 1995. Her works are renowned at home and abroad. It is my wish that through this article, readers will become more acquainted with, and hence have greater appreciation of Master Jiang Rong’s unique style.

Jiang Rong, alias Lin Feng, was born in Qianluo of ChuanBu, Yixing City, to a family of potters in 1919. She was born at a time when hibiscus was in full bloom; her parents named her “Rong” , the Chinese character for hibiscus. Her parents Jiang Hongquan and Zhou Xiubao were both potters; in fact, the family members were all involved in the making of Zisha pots. Supporting a family of nine children was surely difficult for Jiang Hongquan; Jiang Rong, being the eldest daughter of the family, stopped going to school when she was eleven years old and began to learn the craft from her father.

She followed her uncle Jiang Honggao (Yanting) to Shanghai and started her career by making replicas of works by past Zisha masters; and in this way, she managed to improve her technique tremendously. Jiang Rong recalled: “At that time, all Zhisa imitations by Uncle Jiang Yanting were inscribed or sealed with the names of great masters of a bygone era, mainly from the Wanli Reign of the Ming Dynasty, such as Shi Dabing, Chen Ziqi, Chen Mingyuan and HeCun. These pieces were sold as antique by his boss.” Her training in Shanghai ended with the Japanese Occupation, when she returned to Yixing where she continued with her Zisha career.

In 1955, she joined the Shushan Pottery Manufacturing Co-op (which became Yixing Zisha Factory later) and assumed the post of instructor for the Zisha Arts and Craft Classes. “Nine Fruits”, one of her masterpieces, was presented by then premier Zhou EnLai as an official gift during one of his overseas visits. In 1956, she was appointed as technical instructor by the People’s Government of Jiangsu Province. Since then, she had received various honours conferred by the Yixing Pottery Company of Jiangsu Province. In 1957, she began mentoring in the Zisha Factory; among her seven protégés were Wang Yanxian, Gao Lijun and Bao Yuetu. In 1958, she recruited 50 protégés, including Fan Yongliang, Pan Genxiang and Xu Menggen. In 1978 and 1983, she recruited Gao Jianfang and Xu Lanjun respectively.

During the Cultural Revolution, Zisha teapots were regarded as the products of “feudalism, capitalism and revisionism”. All operations in Yixing came to a halt, and Zisha craftsmen were forced out of work; Jiang Rong was no exception. Jiang said: “During that time, great ideas came to my mind, but I was literally hand-tied; the feeling of suppression was really painful.” During the latter stage of the Cultural Revolution, between 1970 and 1975, the tension somewhat eased and pottery was on the rise again. After the smashing of the “Gang of Four” in 1977, society gradually got back to normal. In September 1981, during the Sixth Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts, the Arts Centre at the Hong Kong City Hall organized the “Yixing Zisha Pottery Art Exhibition”. Along with it was a series of seminars, demonstration and workshops. The exhibition received tremendous response, creating much interest from all walks of life in Hong Kong and Taiwan towards Yixing Zisha teapots. Hereafter, exhibitions have been staged at home and abroad regularly. And Master Jiang Rong’s works are much appreciated by teapot connoisseurs all over the world.

On creativity, Master Jiang Rong said: “Functionality and beauty are my main concerns in every creation. Be it an object meant to be lifelike, or one evolved from a physical likeness of the world around us, I have always tried my best not to copy my predecessors, while not losing touch with the great tradition of Zisha art. My ambition is to produce works that observers fall for, and treasure. An overseas Chinese once told me, connoisseurs abroad looked upon my works as coveted antique items; they pay a substantial amount to include them in their collections. Indeed, the honour is not mine alone; it is recognition to the Zisha art of China. A Zisha artist should never be contented with his/her achievement. The world of Zisha is infinite; artists should continue to explore, and improve their skills. In Zisha making, the sky is the limit. I will work harder and strive for perfection, in order to nurture greater artists of the next generation, as a contribution to the traditional art of Zisha”.

With talent and creative concepts, Master Jiang grasped the essence of nature with ease. She presented a keen observation of animals, plants, flowers and scenery. Using Zisha clay of vibrant colours, she would knead and shape it with her nimble fingers, until a true-to-life object emerged. Colour and likeness aside, her works are infused with naive charm and rustic attraction. Nature and art is at one in her Zisha creations. Among her major works arc the Lotus Teapot, Peony Teapot, Baiguo Teapot, Lotus Leaf Teapot, Toad Lotus Teapot, Pumpkin Teapot, Watermelon Teapot, Golden Melon Teapot, Water chestnut Teapot, Mango Teapot, Longevity Teapot, Lotus Root Wine Set, Loquat Shape Brush Rack, Assorted Fruit Teapot and various stationery pieces.

Appreciation for Significant works

Scholar Yang Yongshan once said, “She is an artist gifted in expressing the beauty of Nature.” From 1955 onwards, she stopped making replicas of classic teapots and started to create and design her own.

The “Lotus Teapot”, one of her creative works completed during her spare time, has garnered wide acclaim. The success was an important turning point in her life. She then began developing her career in design, transforming her career from that of an ordinary Zisha craftsman, to that of a Zisha artist. With her tenacious effort and unceasing effort, she arrived at a zenith and became a Grand Master of Arts and Crafts in China. The “Lotus Teapot”, Jiang Rong’s very first work after the nation’s Liberation, was conferred or Special Zisha Award at the National Pottery Industry Association Convention in 1955.

The inspiration came one summer evening that year, when Jiang Rong was taking a stroll along a field of Shushan. She was attracted by a pond full of blooming lotuses, which she took as her creative theme. After giving it some thought, Master Jiang finalized the design: it was to be a body in the shape of the lotus flower, capped by the lotus seedpod which served as the lid. On the seedpod would be a frog, resting. For the sake of likeness, she picked some lotus flowers and seedpods and caught a little frog. The flowers and pods were arranged in a vase, while the frog was held captive in an overturned glass. Observing the colour and appearance of the lotus flowers and the frog daily, she mixed the five different colours of Zisha clay accordingly. Finally, she landed on the idea of using red water chestnut, white lotus root and water chestnut as the base of the teapot. From drafting, painting, design to crafting, till the completion of the first lotus teapot, she gave her full concentration; her mind was so focused for more than twenty days that she even thought of the teapot when she was having meals and sleeping.

The peony has long been cherished in Asia it is beautiful, blessed with a glamorous look and auspicious meaning; it is not surprising that peony is also known as the King of Flowers. In 1956, in order to fulfill her aspiration to use peony as the theme of a teapot, she took time to observe the growing process of peony flowers. To transform the idea into an object of beauty, she conceived of the body as violet peony petals and the yellow pistils radiated stylishly as the lid. A curled up green leaf becomes the spout; there are also green leaf motifs around die body. The lid is accented by the intricate embellishment of a colourful butterfly, which serves as the knob. The vivid presentation brings to life the impression of a blooming bud. The handle is unique, too – employing the motifs of old and new branches, the natural beauty of the peony is fully revealed.

In 1957, Master Jiang created the visually intriguing Toad Lotus Seedpod teapot. The body is shaped after a reclining seedpod, with a curled up leaf for the spout and a single stem with a bud as the handle. The three feet of the teapot are fashioned after two water chestnuts and a lotus root, providing balance to an asymmetrical composition and structure. Part of the seed pod is transformed into the lid. Perching on the lid is a frog with protruding eyes, as if it is about to hop onto some prey. On the other side of the seedpod are yellow locus seeds. Which can revolve on their own but cannot be taken out. The strong visual impact and the successful rendition of an idyllic scene turns the normally hideous toad into part of the picturesque beauty.

Lotuses emerge unstained from pond mud, making these a symbol of beauty, purity and perfection. The Lotus Root Wine Set created in 1965 demonstrates Master Jiang’s unusual perception and novelty in idea. This wine set accentuates the beauty of the white lotus root, with fine touches on the rendition of the skin around its joint; spots were disguised into decorative motif. White, smooth and plump, the lotus-root themed teapot in off-white colour is elegant with a refreshingly delightful impression that lasts. The spout is fashioned after a curled-up green lotus leaf accentuated by a slightly curved twig with a bud on its end. The handle is a lotus leaf stem with thorns and veins intricately crafted. There are ten charming stemmed wineglasses, each shaped after a lotus flower with two little floating lotus leaves. In 1981, The Lotus Root Wine Set was showcased at the Jiangsu Province Arts and Crafts Exhibition held at die Seibu Department Store in Tokyo, Japan; it was an immediate hit among high-ranking Japanese officials who scramble to acquire it for their private collections.

The Old Pumpkin Teapot was made in 1977. Old pumpkins are popular and a familiar sight in peasant families. The stout and globular body is made with partially red and deep yellow clay in order to bring out its firmness. The pumpkin leaves curl up to form the spout, the lid is shaped after the stub with tendrils and some leaves, while the handle looks like vines. Although the leaves are full of holes, the pumpkin is sturdy and full of life, reflecting the artist’s own determination to overcome hardships in life.

The Water Chestnut Teapot, made in 1981, has a large water chestnut as the body adorned with the arrowhead leaves, with the stem gracefully extending to become the spout and handle. The knob is shaped like the shoot of a water chestnut. The balanced overall design gives the pot an aesthetic touch besides being lifelike. The bright red body is a sharp contrast to the dark green spout. The arrangement of the shoot and stem brings out the idea of oneness, with carefully rendered lines and textures to add to the visual interest. The Water Chestnut Teapot received widespread attention when it was exhibited at home and abroad. Observers were overwhelmed by the demonstration of skills. It was later acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, England, as part of its collection.

Jiang Rong’s works are about Nature refined for a vivid and lasting impression. In her symbolic approach to the representation of Nature, Master Jiang often chose a globular body as the stage on which her artistic vision unfolds. The round body provides much room for showcasing techniques such as sculpturing, engraving and moulding; upon completion, Nature is exquisitely transformed as part of the teapot. “Watermelon Teapot”, created in 1981, is one such example.

The teapot features a round body, with dark green veins distributing gracefully throughout. The spout and handle are exquisitely carved into the shape of vine and stub. A dark green leaf, two tender yellow flowers and tendrils intertwine on the handle. In the process of making the watermelon teapot, Master Jiang visited a watermelon garden near the Zisha factory. At that time, she was already an artist over sixty.

The Moonlight, Frog and Lotus Teapot, is a 1990 creation. The body is a lotus flower supported by a stem, the spout is carved into the shape of a lotus root, and the leaves crisscross with the bud to form the handle. The lid, which looks like a seed pod, is in “static” movement – perched on the lid is a frog about to hop onto a moth and a mantis which is resting by its side. The teapot is made of Duan Ni, a kind exquisite Zisha clay. Its cream colour gives rise to the feeling of tranquillity befitting the theme of moonlight. The frog on the seed pod offers a potential drama to the otherwise peaceful mood. In May, 1991, the work was honoured in an exhibition held in Hong Kong.

Mr Ya Ming, principal of the Art Academy of Jiangsu, was all praises for Master Jiang s Mango Teapot in 1991. In many ways, the teapot is a breakthrough in traditional tea-making. The mango successfully achieves a lifelike appearance through the use of colour, producing a delightful visual effect. It demonstrates that equipped with talent, technique and creativity; Zisha artists can come up with works that arc full of natural charm and fun. The spout is positioned at one end of the fruit, while a branch is used arbitrarily as the handle. Decorative green leaves and branches sprawl on the body, while a small, emerald-green mango serves as the knob sitting atop the exquisitely crafted inset lid; this arrangement adds to the seamless look of a whole ‘mango’ . In the 1990’s, Jiang R〇ng made several trips to Hong Kong and Singapore for the Yixing Zisha Artworks Exhibition. Among others, the Mango Teapot received the honorary certificate by the Museum of Teaware, Hong Kong.

In China, peach are the symbol of longevity. In April, 1995, the aged Jiang Rong created the Longevity-Peach Teapot as a tribute to the 4th Yixing Ceramic Art Festival. The pot is shaped after a peach, with the handle mimicking curved stem with nodes. A forked branch extends from the bottom of the handle and is adorned with leaves and an adorable young peach. Another knotty branch is made into the spout. The spout and handle on each side of the teapot achieve symmetry and balance, contributing to the overall elegance and serenity. The teapot, in perfect harmony, realizes the simplistic beauty of Nature.

Scholar Zhang Daoyi commented on Jiang Rong’s works and style, saying: “I feel that veteran artist Jiang Rong has travelled a very different path – to begin with, there are only a handful of women artists in the Zisha fraternity, even rarer is someone as famous and well-respected as Jiang. She is especially gifted in the use of clay colours in perfecting the art of Zisha decoration. By choosing decorative Zisha art, she has imposed on herself two difficult tasks: First, coordination of clay colours has never been easy; second, mimicking Nature makes it even harder. I admire Jiang Rong’s courage and determination for choosing such a challenging path. For her dedication of more than half a century, I think she has pushed the decorative art of Zisha to its zenith.”

In short, Jiang Rong was equipped with the perception and agility of a woman, and her keen observation of the world around her. Through the use of clay colours, she created object after object of true beauty that reflected her passion for life. She survived tough going, demonstrating tremendous vitality and will power through her unique way of expression. Such is no mere feat, and won her the honour of becoming a master artist in Zisha decoration.

Parting Words

For more than twenty years, I have been working with Yixing Zisha teapots. This has given me the opportunity to interview many pottery artists, but I have to say that Master Jiang Rong was the one who influenced me the most. Looking back at the development of Yixing Zisha culture, I believe that the more than ten publications Tongren Gongyi has planned and published manage to fill the gaps in the Zisha history to the end of the twentieth century. In fact, if not for Master Jiang Rong’s hospitality during my first visit to Yixing, where she even hosted me at her daughter Yihua’s place for more than one month, I would not have been able to achieve what I did. The extended stay at Yixing gave me ample opportunities in interview artists there. Perhaps, if not for Master Jiang, the visit to Yixing would have been just a fleeting dream. This may have something to do with fete.

Farewell, Master Jiang Rong. Your kindness will always remain, as will your tremendous legacy of artwork.

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