By Zheng Xiang Ru
Senior art and craft master Wu Quan Xiang has been mentored by Zisha gurus such as Lu Yao Chen and Gu Jing Zhou. His works are bold, balanced, perfectly poised and well-proportioned, exuding overall harmony.
After finishing his junior secondary education, Wu, then 18, became an apprentice at the Zisha Art Factory, His mentor was none other than the famous Lu Yaochcn. When asked about his first mentor, he recalls, "Lu's basic skills arc excellent; his foundation in modelling is sound and solid. I have benefited a lot from him, thanks to his myriads of ideas and quick responses,"
For more than three months of apprenticeship under Lu Yaochcn, Wu had got the hang of teapot-making. He was then assigned to the factory's research department, taking charge of the mixing of Zisha materials. Not long after, the geology team of Jiangsu Province came over to explore the Zisha ore. Among the team members were teapot guru Gu Jingzhou and Zisha expert Xu Hantang. Since excavated Zisha ore had to be sample-tested, and no one in the team was in charge of that, they enlisted the help of Wu, who was entrusted with the tasks of testing, coming up with the clay samples, and preparing samples for the kiln. This was the first time when Wu met with Master Gu.
Half a year passed; the test was about to be completed. Wu planned to return to his research work. However, the attentiveness and diligence Wu demonstrated during sample testing captured the attention of Gu Jingzhou and the factory manager. They decided to assign Wu to study teapot-making with Gu Jingzhou. A traditional ceremony was held to formally mark Wu's apprenticeship under the teapot master. Being an apprentice, Wu followed closely the steps of his teacher. Knowing that Gu liked to bring water from home for tea brewing in the factory, Wu dropped by Gu's house every morning to help carry Gu's hot water flask. Every day, they went to work and returned home from work together. As Wu had only graduated from junior secondary school, he sought to improve his literacy by reading next to Gu when the master was practising calligraphy in between work. He asked questions there and then; and in this way, he continued with his education. The mentor and apprentice had sustained this working relationship for more than then years, and managed to establish a very strong personal bond.
Wu says, "Master Gu has the demeanour of a Confucian. He is very knowledgeable. Teapot makers including myself respect Master Gu a lot. What I have learned from him is extensive. I have got to differentiate the clay materials, mix the clay materials and model different types of teapots. He taught me every detail, step by step." The most impactful lesson Master Gu has taught Wu along the process of teapot-making is that a teapot master must be very critical about his own works. Gu has always been strict with his students. His motto: to give their best in order to attain perfection, whatever they are working on. Aside from mastering the technique, it is also important to understand thoroughly the structure of teapots; copying the shapes alone is just not good enough. Wu says, "Back then, I was not good at modelling the body of teapots; therefore, I had to practise "beating" for more than one year. This was required by Master Gu - if I failed to master this part, he used to say, I could not proceed to learn the other techniques." The acquisition of basic skills is essential to achieve the intended effects and finish, so that the teapot is perfect for appreciation and practical use, which is the true enlightenment Wu learnt from his inspiring master.
Besides having studied the basic teapot-making technique from Master Gu, Wu also studied ceramic art sculptures and design at the Central Academy of Arts & Design in 1983 to enhance his knowledge in aesthetics. Over the years, Wu has built up a strong foundation in teapot-making and started exploring themes in his creative work. He reckoned that although he lacked proper education, hard work and perseverance would more than make up for his shortcomings. If three years was too short for any significant improvement, he would commit to practise harder for longer. He believed that one day, he would master the technique of teapot modelling. He has come to realize that, as there are various requirements in every shape, spout and handle, diversification is essential. Nevertheless, there must be a consistency in the variations, be it the entire shape or part of it, including the crafting of a knob and the transition of lines. Every detail must be looked into* from positioning of features to texture of the clay. Meanwhile, raw materials must also go well with each type of pots, for example Shui Ping Hu (水平壷 Leveled Pot) must be made from red Zhuni for the ultimate viewing pleasure; however, some teapots may look awkward if made with Zhuni. These are the finer points that may be missed by those lacking aesthetic training.
The Zisha market has improved in a big way after 1980. The Artist Training Center (藝徒培訓中心) founded by Gao Haigeng invited artists from the factory to join and train new workers. Wu became the supervisor handling administration processes. As such, Wu stopped making teapots ail together until he resigned in 1989. He felt like abandoning his own profession in teapot-making if he was to continue with the administration work. Moreover, many artists who had been trained for three years, and were capable of making teapots, left the factory to pursue their teapot-making career elsewhere; some outstanding young artists had wasted their talents by making imitation pieces out of acclaimed original works.
Back in the laboratory, Wu continued to explore the Zisha making techniques. He indicates chat he will not abandon tradition in his Zisha creations, which means that even if he has come up with a new shape or style, there must be the presence of traditional elements at first glance. Nowadays, modelling typically done by hand may be partly achieved by using a mould. According to Wu, be they hand crafted or moulded, teapots must exhibit the artist's skills and craftsmanship, in which the essence workers. Wu became the supervisor handling administration processes. As such, Wu stopped making teapots ail together until he resigned in 1989. He felt like abandoning his own profession in teapot-making if he was to continue with the administration work. Moreover, many artists who had been trained for three years, and were capable of making teapots, left the factory to pursue their teapot-making career elsewhere; some outstanding young artists had wasted their talents by making imitation pieces out of acclaimed original works.
Back in the laboratory, Wu continued to explore the Zisha making techniques. He indicates chat he will not abandon tradition in his Zisha creations, which means that even if he has come up with a new shape or style, there must be the presence of traditional elements at first glance. Nowadays, modelling typically done by hand may be partly achieved by using a mould. According to Wu, be they hand crafted or moulded, teapots must exhibit the artist's skills and craftsmanship, in which the essence of Zisha modelling must be fully unveiled. To this end, he keeps to two guiding principles — first, as far as functionality is concerned, ease of use and comfort is of utmost importance; second, as far as design is concerned, the choice of clay materials and techniques must be rational.
When Deng Yingchao, wife of Zhou Enlai visited Japan in 1978, Professor Zhang Shouzhi of the Central Academy of Arts & Design, Beijing proposed Zisha teapots for gifts. At that time, Zisha was already well received in Japan. A gift official was dispatched to the factory for custom-made teapots. One of the chosen pieces was the Shuanglong Tiliang Hu (Teapot with Overhead Handle and Tw〇-dragon motif) made by Wu, and designed by Wu's senior, Gao Haigeng. The artwork was highly regarded for the use of clay materials, design and compatibility. It was presented to Tanaka Kakuei, former Prime Minister of Japan. Wu's fame soared.
Qianxi Longfeng Tiliang (Millennium Dragon and Phoenix Teapot with Overhead Handle) is designed by Wu to reflect the features of Chinese culture. Dragon and Phoenix are traditional symbols in China. When conceiving the piece, he was inspired by the legend "The Nine Sons of The Dragon" (龍生九子) and selected "Pu Lao" (蒲牢), one of the sons of the Dragon as the theme. Since Pu Lao was responsible for ringing the bell in the temple, the pot features a double-dragon head handle above the body fashioned after a temple bell. The knob is shaped after a phoenix to echo the dragon heads on the handle. Wu has added three legs on the bottom of body due to the pot's hefty size and weight 一 a master stroke to create balance, harmony and visual interest. Connoisseurs are bowled over by his creation; the piece is now part of the collection in Zhongnanhai's Ziguang Ge (中南海紫光閣).
Wu brings up his work 'Shubian Pot' (書扁壺)." In the past, Shi Dabing has crafted one such pot. It has a unique design, featuring flat body, smaller lid and prominent lines on the lower body. The crafting of the pot requires a master with high level of skills. Otherwise, the finished product will look downright flat and listless. Shubian can best reflect teapot artist's basic skills in hand crafting," Wu first made the teapot in the 1980s. Now, when he looks at the pot again, he feels that the lid is not a perfect match to its body. This was something he couldn't see at that time; therefore, he decided to make it again. Another work of his, the Gongchun Liuban Pot (供春六瓣) which was exhibited in the 1980's, is now a collector's item. When he looks at the old photograph now, he sighs that the spirit of the teapot has not been fully unveiled. He believes he could come up with a better one if he has the chance to do it again.
This draws Wu's displeasure over the present chaos. He expresses that some artists refuse to issue certificates of authenticity even though they know that the works were made by them in the early days. "Even Master Gu has early pieces; it does not mean that later works are definitely better. We have to learn step by step; nobody knows how to make a teapot from birth. They refuse to issue certificates to some of their early works, even though these are items being circulated in the market. This affects peopled confidence in the works' authenticity, presenting a blow to both the dealers and collectors. "
Some teapot artists, including master artists are focussing on product promotion and packaging* instead of concentrating on the exploration of ways to improve their Zisha creations. Commenting on this, Wu says, "Indeed, Zisha needs promotion and packaging; but overdoing it is regrettable. If an artist is busy with organizing exhibitions every day, how would he have time to make teapots? Instead of excessive concern about other things, it is more important for an artist to concentrate on Zisha teapots and design teapots in view of habits and customs in different places." In his opinion, apart from the masses' support, teapot artists and masters should also cherish teapot-making and respect the industry. Not only do designs, clay materials and workmanship warrant concern, Zisha has many reasons to be the great interests and passions for teapot lovers; they are irreplaceable by other ceramic wares. Therefore, he suggests that the artists should concentrate on making teapots and the distributors concentrate on marketing. This way, the tasks would be appropriately allocated and the charm and popularity of Zisha can be preserved for a long time to come.
A brief chronology of the teapot master, Wu Qunxiang
1954 Born at the Shushan South Street, Dingshu Town, Yixing, Jiangsu Province in July. 1968 Graduated from the Dongpo Shuyuan of Shushan.
1970 Graduated from the Dingshu High School.
1972 He worked in Zisha Industrial Art factory of Yixing, Jiangsu Province in January. That year, he studied Zisha modelling techniques at the workshop in Zisha factory under the guidance of teapot master Lu Yaochen, At the end of the year, he was assigned to the research department of 21isha Industrial Art factory where he was involved itt material sampling and testing.
1973 In May, Wu was accepted as the student of the respected teapot master, Gu Jingzhou. From master Gu, Wu learned the traditional Zisha modelling skills, history and knowledge about Zisha as well as the shaping of pottery and ceramic wares.
1978 Hs work Shuanglong Ti Liang Hu (雙龍提樑壺) became a national-level gift presented to Prime Minister of Japan, Tanaka Kakuei.
1980 His work Da Shubian teapot (大書扁壺）ajici Xiao Shubian te印ot (小書扁壺) became part of the collection of the Victoria Museum, UK and Zhongnanhai' s Ziguang Ge (中南海紫光閣) respee-tively.
1982 He was conferred the title of Arts and Craft Artist (technique) .
1983 Studied in the Central Academy of Arts & Design with major in ceramic sculpture and design. Appointed the instructor of Artist Training (藝徒培訓) of Zisha factory.
Attended the Yixing Ceramic and Zisiia Exhibition organized by the Yingtai Company (英泰公司) in Hong Kong.
1986 Appointed the instructor of Artist Training (藝徒培訓) of Zisha factory and honoured the assistant Arts and Craft Master title in the same year.
1987 In charge of the Artist Training Central (藝徒培訓中心) of Zisha factory.
1990 Engaged in the making of Zisha and ceramic arts and ceramic design in the research department of Yixing Zisha Arts Factory until today, Honoured the title of Arts and Craft Master (technique).
1995 Honoured the title of Senior Arts and Craft Master (technique).
1997 Attended China's Zisha and Ceramic Works Exhibition held in Malaysia.
1998 Attended the Yixing Zisha Teapot Exhibition held in Taiwan.
2000 Organised a solo exhibition in Hong Hong.
2006 One of his works, Qianxi Longfeng Tiliang (Millennium Dragon and Phoenix Teapot 千禧龍鳳提樑) became part lhe cdlection of Zhongnanhar's Ziguang Ge (中南海紫光閣).
2007 His work Tibi Pot (提璧壺) became part of the collection of the National Art Museum, China.