A millennia-old traditional technique is gaining new development momentum
By Huang Shiyuan, Hu Jiachen
“What is this colorful pot used for?”
“It’s Abdul Pot, a form a clay pottery.”
“Did you make it?”
“No, it was made by hand by a clay pottery master. Not many young people know the technique any more.”
Such conversations are common on shopping streets in Kashgar, an ancient city in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The pottery with different designs and patterns seems to enable time travel. Ceramics and glass products are more popular for daily use while clay pottery products are more often used for decoration and collection.
Kashgar clay pottery, a handmade clay pottery technique of the Uygur ethnic group, was included on China’s first national intangible cultural heritage list.
Art on the Table
Kashgar has a long and narrow alley called “kozichu yar beshi,” meaning “clay pottery on the mesa,” located in a rammed-earth residential area at the center of the old city. It is a Uygur residential area where the traditional technique of clay pottery has been preserved and innovated.
Kashgar clay pottery first emerged in the Neolithic Age, and developed into colored pottery during the 3rd Century. The dark yellow rammed clay represented the color of Xinjiang’s soil and original temperament of Xinjiang’s oasis. Clay pottery craftsmen in Kashgar still use the most primitive skills. The ink used on the clay pottery is created from the colored stones collected from the surrounding Gobi desert or high mountains. They are ground and mixed with rust and vegetable oil before glazing into dazzling bright colors.
Kashgar clay pottery is divided into three types: plain pottery, glazed pottery, and painted glazed pottery. Plain pottery products are primarily flower pots and vases, and Uygurs love flowers. Glazed pottery products are mainly monochromatic grain jars and storage tanks. Painted glazed pottery products are mainly containers for daily use. They can hold food and drinks and serve as basins for other activities. Uygur clay pottery products include a plethora of pot-shaped containers decorated with amazing glazed colors.
In terms of shape, the Uygur clay pottery products are usually artistically exaggerated compared to similar objects from other parts of the country, especially the pots closer to distinct Arabic style. The most unique of the pots is the Abdul Pot, which Uygurs often use as a water container for hand washing. The pot, usually flat, comes in different sizes, heights and shapes. Its unique designs reflect the wisdom of the ethnic minority, making it a typical representative of Kashgar clay pottery.
Zunon Asimuyoung owns a shop on the lane. He is a 6th-generation inheritor of the family clay pottery business. In Xinjiang, many inheritors like Zunon inherited a traditional technique through a family business.
While working on pottery, Zunon said Uygur clay pottery techniques are similar to those in other parts of the country. The whole process consists of clay selection, clay mixing, clay fermenting, clay kneading, clay moulding, clay glazing, clay burning, and a few other steps. What makes Kashgar clay pottery special is the local soil. The soil on the mesa has exquisite texture and strong viscosity, ideal for crafting clay pottery. Legend holds that 800 years ago, a craftsman opened the first clay pottery workshop on the mesa after discovering that the soil was ideal for pottery. Generations of craftsmen have since inherited the techniques through the workshops established there.
Clay pottery culture has a long history. In primitive society, ingenious people gave clay life by making items for daily use. In the Neolithic Age, colored pottery was introduced from the Hexi Corridor to the Hami Basin before it spread throughout all of the Western Regions. Since then, various ethnic groups in Xinjiang have inherited and innovated the technique, and the craft has developed a distinctive style of its own.
In the past, clay pottery items were closely associated with the daily lives of the Uygur people, such as clay bowls for meals, clay pots for hand washing, water jars, water buckets, and, basins for washing clothes.
Zunon has preserved traditional process for pottery making from selection of clay to sifting, mixing, kneading, moulding, painting, carving, glazing, burning, and polishing. He adds water to the clay and kneads it like bread dough. When the clay is ready, he places it on a pottery wheel powered by a foot pedal and works it with his hands.
When a semi-finished product reaches the desired shape, Zunon places it on a wooden shelf to dry before applying colored glaze and firing it in a kiln. Uygur kilns for clay pottery are usually vertical kilns heated with firewood to temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees Celsius. Dinnerware sets and other pottery products for decoration purposes are usually more demanding in terms of appearance.
“Our glaze is based on a recipe from our ancestors,” said Zunon with a finished product in hand. “We collect colored stones from the Gobi desert and mountains and grind them into powder to decorate our pottery.”
The shape and decorative style of Kashgar clay pottery is a unique integration of cultural features of East and the West. Craftsmen do not have any blueprint or mould for production. They are entirely dependent on the skills and experience they acquire through long-term practice, which enables rich artistic imagination.
The number of clay pottery workshops on the mesa is now decreasing. Nobody knows how long they will continue to exist. The unique technique is not simply a means of survival for the craftsmen, but an indispensable and vivid symbol of their ethnic culture.
The Sense of Happiness
As clay was spinning on a pottery wheel in a creative clay art workshop, a wooden knife gently nicked its surface, leaving delicate patterns to decorate the semi-finished product. The knife was held by Zulipkal Ababalik, an 8th-generation inheritor of Kashgar clay pottery.
In modern times, clay pottery products made with traditional methods are seldom sold for daily use. However, Zulipkal remains passionate about the traditional technique and wants to pass it on. Ten years ago, Zulipkal happened to witness a pottery craftsman transform lumps of clay into delicate pottery and realized it was what he wanted to do. “I quit my stable job and found work in a pottery workshop,” he said. “I worked hard every day to learn skills from clay mixing to kneading, moulding, carving, burning, and more.”
Zulipkal never had any interest in making pottery with a mould. A friend introduced him to Turson Rostamood, a 7th-generation inheritor, who offered Zulipkal an apprenticeship. After learning from the master for a few years, he opened his own workshop.
“I’ve combined clay pottery with carving and produced new products, which has been popular with tourists,” said Zulipkal, pointing to a hollowed-out vase valued at 580-690 yuan (US$90-110) for retail. The price of clay pottery products used to be so low that inheritors could hardly eke out a living with their skills. In recent years, the local government has organized tours to the “porcelain capital” of Jingdezhen in central China and other destinations for craftsmen to learn new skills. It has also invited experts from other parts of the country to Xinjiang to provide training on carving, painting, and new designs. Fusing tradition with modernity has added value to the traditional technique of clay pottery.
Zulipkal only displays a few items in his workshop, and each exhibit features a unique design and rich glaze. He acquired mastery of the traditional technique by watching others and receiving verbal instruction. This method makes every finished product different from any other. It takes three to five days to complete a semi-finished product, around 200 of which can be fired together in the same kiln. All finished products are designated for delivery before they are ready. The increasing tourist flow to the ancient city in recent years has helped the business boom.
“Now my annual income is about 80,000 yuan (US$12,310),” said Zulipkal. “I’m planning to purchase more equipment so that tourists can personally experience clay pottery and more people can find out about the technique and pass it on to future generations.” That will be the good life, according to him.