Mixed Media

Jingdezhen was, for many centuries, the world capital of porcelain. The local clay and glaze were what’s known as “cousin materials”, with an affinity that would fuse them at an atomic level. Jingdezhen porcelain didn’t just comprise baked clay with a shiny glaze. The two would vitrify under extreme heat, creating translucent, beautiful colours and clear, ringing tones. Europeans would spend decades trying to work out the secret of porcelain, unaware that at least part of the secret was Jingdezhen itself. It was the source of much of the imperial tableware for several dynasties.

Jingdezhen also suffered from immense fluctuations in fortune. The Mongol conquests gave it access to both Middle Eastern markets and Afghan cobalt, creating a new industry in blue and white tableware – the Chinese of the 14th century thought it was vulgar, but it found a ready export market. There were riots among the labourers in the early 1600s over poor conditions and pay. In 1675, a generation after the Manchu conquest, the town fell to Wu Sangui’s forces during the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. Jingdezhen was almost totally destroyed, and for many years afterwards, canny managers at the kilns fired pots and plates without a Manchu emperor’s reign date on them, in order to avoid any more iconoclasm in the event of another revolt. It suffered again with the influx of foreign competition, forced to modernise and downgrade its principles when facing an influx of imports from Industrial-Revolution Europe.

In 1911, the final entry in the porcelain ledger of the Forbidden City details a command by the Last Emperor to send a certain kind of tableware to Beijing. The potters’ reply is a blank refusal, confessing that they have forgotten the skills required. They could knock him up some plates with dragons on them, if he liked, but the glory days were gone.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, Jingdezhen’s fortunes revived after the Revolution. Somebody had to make tea sets for the Communist Party grandees, and Jingdezhen seemed like the perfect place for workers’ crockery and porcelain statues of Chairman Mao.

“They were lucky during the Cultural Revolution,” says Eric Kao, the American who has been the director here for six years. “Not because it didn’t do terrible damage to their livelihood, but because it only lasted ten years. When it was all over, some of the artisans were still alive. They could come back. They could teach a new generation.”

Eric surprises me by revealing the thing that almost killed Jingdezhen for good – capitalism.

“When Deng Xiaoping’s reforms came in in the late 1970s, there was a real boom. They weren’t making ceramics for the Emperors any more, or for the Party. They were making it for private clients, for commissions, for hotels and restaurants. There was a huge surge in interest and business, but then the potters started competing. I’ll charge a hundred, so you charge 90. So I charge 80, so you charge 70. By the time we’re down to 50, I can’t actually afford to live off the proceeds unless I downgrade the quality of my work. The output turned sloppy. It turned unreliable. The Chinese want a bargain, and if they get a bargain, they’ll put up with the fall in quality. By the 1990s, Jingdezhen was a wasteland. We couldn’t give the pots away. The rent here was minimal because nobody wanted to be here. That’s where The Workshop came in.”

Eric was hired because he had two degrees in ceramics, and spoke both Chinese and English. His work is on display in the showroom, but he’s really here about the message – and the message has been written by Caroline Cheng, another overseas Chinese who first started the cooperative in Shanghai in 1985. The Pottery Workshop has only been in Jingdezhen for the last ten years. The more Eric tells me, the crazier he sounds, but in a good way. We walk through a market of little stalls selling bespoke pottery products. There are sublime, teardrop-shaped tea-pots; little bowls decorated with cute animals; vases with real leaves under their glazing.

“We hold this market every Saturday, from nine till twelve. That’s it. We won’t run it for longer or for more often, because we want to maintain the quality of the goods on sale. This is a juried marketplace. There is a waiting line to get in to one of the 80 stalls, and Caroline checks their material every month. If they don’t meet the right standard, or the quality of innovation slips, they’re out.”

The market shoppers are obvious potters from abroad – women in Doc Martens with flashes of garish hair; intense, smouldering boys with ponytails and smocks; wiry, white-haired old ladies in sensible sweaters. There are a bunch of loud students from West Virginia, and nervy-looking girls who seem to have have found a sensual fulfilment in kneading mud. Meanwhile, the Chinese are a breed apart – girls in trilbies and thigh-boots; boys in waistcoats, conspicuous yuppies and hipsters. They move among the Chinese-owned stalls that sell not only ceramics, but also handbags and bracelets, trays and purses, cutlery and coats.

“Oh, you mean the other media,” laughs Eric, using media in an entirely proper but rather unexpected way. “We introduced that strand last year. Ceramic is just a material. It’s just a way of making an object and fulfilling a purpose. But part of what we do here is exposing students to each other’s work, and the work of local craftsmen. Our Residency programme doesn’t just put foreigners here to use our facilities, it gives them an interpreter and lets them wander the city. We want everything to cross-pollinate. So we thought: let’s bring in the guys who sell copper spoons; let’s bring in the wood-carvers. Let’s see if they don’t spark some sort of new solution to a problem for the potters. Mixing the media.”

I ask the price of a bowl on one of the stands. The answer is so mind-blowingly low that there is the sound of a palpable scramble as the rest of the crew run to get their wallets. The students are practically giving these pieces away.

“We encourage them to get their work out there,” says Eric. “They spend the week making these items, and make a subsistence income, but those items are then spread as far as possible.”

I note that all the students have QR-codes on their stalls, allowing passing trade to instantly get their online contact details.

“We’re very big on social media, too,” says Eric. “We make them have properly up-to-date resumés, proper online contacts. These are apprentice pieces that get them recognised, and we make sure that they have portfolios to hand for commissions and repeat business.”

“We’re under pressure to expand, but we want to maintain the quality of the goods. There have been weeks where Caroline doesn’t let the market to happen at all if the students’ work isn’t up to scratch. But we’re asked if we can make it all-day Saturday, all weekend, all week. We won’t do it. The quality of the work won’t take the strain.”

I try to get as much of his business model on tape because it is so madly and beautifully counter-intuitive. It’s like he is actively trying to lose money, but also to create an entire generation of master potters.

Eric shows me the public kilns, communally-owned ovens where the locals have always been over to rent space for their own firing, even back in the imperial days.

“You don’t need your own kiln,” he explains. “You don’t need to wait until you have 200 bowls to fire. You can just buy a square foot on one of our firings, and we’ll cook them out every day.”

I touch the side of the kiln, which looks almost exactly like half a transport container with metal tubes leading into it. It is not hot at all, even though inside the temperature is 600C and climbing to the required 1300C.

“Oh, we’ve lined the inside with ceramic fibre,” Eric says. “It’s the same stuff they use on the space shuttle. We crash-cool this kiln: we fire it until it’s done, and then we just turn off the gas and open the doors. That would crack the glaze on a lot of ceramics, but not Jingdezhen. It’s different in the big industrial factories. There, they have tunnel kilns that are 70 metres long. The pots go through on a conveyor belt, and the centre is firing 24 hours a day. They heat up gradually, get to the hottest point, and then cool down by the time they get out the other end. That’s where they make all the Starbucks mugs.”

As we leave the compound, I see another kiln, made of simple brick, set on a patch of grass near the exit. I wonder if it’s some sort of traditional construction from previous dynasty.

“Oh no,” says Eric. “that’s for pizza.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E06 (2016).

Titan of Cinema

“…the lovingly curated exhibition wanders through all of Harryhausen’s works, from obscure Puppetoon stop-motion fairy tales, for which he made multiple heads with different expressions, through to his most famous feature work on the Sinbad movies, Jason and the Argonauts and his final film, Clash of the Titans.”

Over at All the Anime, I visit Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema, currently running at the Scottish National Museum of Modern Art, in Edinburgh.

For Whom the Belle Tolls

Gutted I can’t be at the UK premiere of Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle at the London Film Festival tomorrow, although I will be at its Edinburgh screening next week in both personal avatar form, interviewing the director via Zoom for the post-film Q&A. Topics include animating under covid conditions, the importance of Disney’s Beauty & the Beast in his own artistic inspirations, and what kind of crappy cartoons a world-class animator’s kids force him to watch at home.

In the meantime, you can read my article about the film here at the All the Anime website.

“Hosoda’s own mother died shortly before he completed Summer Wars, after a long illness that lasted for eight years. Her shadow loomed over his next film, Wolf Children, and indeed over Mirai, which examined the degree to which a child could relate to a dead grandparent. Belle, too, obsesses over a lost mother, but also over the opportunities of a digital age.”

Scotland Loves Anime 2021

This weekend I am mainly here, introducing a bunch of films, wrangling a jury, and shovelling my face with Sichuan food. Today alone it was four films with the jury, and introducing another four for the punters.

The Glasgow Film Theatre is playing host to another Scotland Loves Anime after a year’s imposed covid lockout. Tomorrow I have a podcast to record, three more films to introduce, and then a sleeper to the south to shoot a pilot. Apart from that, not too busy.

Takao Saito (1936-2021)

“Saito would ultimately produce manga versions of Live and Let Die, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Thunderball and The Man with the Golden Gun. His work on Bond would inform and inspire his most famous creation, a globe-trotting, ruthless assassin named in part for his high-school teacher: Duke Togo, codenamed Golgo 13.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up the life of Takao Saito.

Sheng Keyi

Death Fugue allegorizes the ongoing Memory Edit regarding events in Tiananmen Square as a literal stain at the heart of China, or rather, in her invented state of ‘Dayang’, where a soaring tower of excrement suddenly and inexplicably appears in the central square of the capital, ‘Beiping’.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up author Sheng Keyi.

Glorious Mud

Out to the countryside, amid the rice paddies in the foothills, to visit Master Jin, another potter, who apparently makes “big pots.” The implications of this aren’t immediately clear until we pull into his compound, and I see what first appears to be a roofed funicular railway running up the side of the hill. But it is not a funicular railway. It is a long shed, the length of a football field, which shields the kiln below from the elements. Big pots and other large objects need to be fired in a dragon kiln, which is a long tube, as large as a metro tunnel, running the length of the hillside, pocked at regular intervals by chutes in which to drop more fuel. It must take an incredible amount of wood (or coal), but it makes it possible to fire the kind of vases that you can hide inside.

“This dragon kiln is quite new,” says Master Jin, an affable, mumbly old man whose face seems permanently creased in a rictus of laughter. “We built it in the 1970s. There was a Qing-era one over there beforehand, but someone built a house on the site. The dragon kilns were built here because of the logistics. We can get the clay right out of the fields in front. There’s a road right past the house, and there’s a jetty into the river just over there. You can load the pots up here and get them all the way to Jingdezhen, and from there to the rest of China, and the world.”

Jiangxi people seem somewhat slow of speech. It takes a couple of takes before I realise that Master Jin specialises in Pinteresque silences between sentences, and that if I just wait, he will keep going.

“I mean, we used to. There used to be a bunch of dragon kilns here, but you can do it all industrially now. This one is more used for education than anything else, when the pottery students come up to see how things were done. People keep coming here and buying the land for building houses. I mean, this is good clay. But they are building houses on it.”

In the afternoon, Master Jin takes a wheelbarrow, hands me two shovels, and leads me out into the rice fields. We wind along a track that has been paved with broken slabs of pottery, until we come to the centre

“There’s the clay,” he says.

“But that’s just a field.”

“That’s where the clay is.”

“We just dig it up out of the field?”

“Yes.”

“Where you grew your lunch?”

“Yes,” he says, and he starts to dig. There is a thin surface layer of gravel and other detritus, but right below the surface is a beautiful, pliable, shiny layer of cool grey mud, which briefly holds its shape after I shovel it onto the pile, and then slowly, gracefully collapses. Even I can see that it is perfect for pottery. There are a few flecks of red in it, which Master Jin says is naturally-occurring iron.

“That’s not the good stuff, though,” he mumbles. “There. That’s the good stuff.” A few inches below the surface there are patches and seams of an altogether different mud, strikingly blue-green in colour, like jade. It only comprises maybe 5% of the spadefuls I bring up, but that’s still quite a surprising amount to find in someone’s back garden. No wonder they built the kilns here.

He takes me to a shed where he shows me a pot he is just finishing. The vessels he makes are too big to turn on a wheel. Instead, he turns around them himself, kneading in coil after coil of clay like a human 3D printer, carefully building it up one inch at a time. He shuffles around the lip of the ever-growing pot, pinching and kneading. I shuffle across from him, observing at all times. Alvin the cameraman is obliged to shuffle around between us, in a ludicrous circular waltz.

Master Jin finishes off the top with a wet cloth, once again in a comical, rotational shuffle. It is still glistening in the sunset as I turn to the camera and say: “It might not look like much: some guy in his garage, making a pot with some mud that he found in his backyard, but this item opens a whole new range of possibilities. This can carry other commodities, across China and out to the rest of the world. In some ways, this transformed lump of clay is the origin of the maritime trade routes.” I manage this despite the council of cockwhisks who have assembled in the doorway, determined to see what is going on, and to talk about what might be going on, and to giggle at the possibility that a foreigner who might conceiveably be able to use chopsticks is standing in front of a camera with lights in his face, trying not to say anything that is factually inaccurate or legally actionable.

We are a week away from finishing now, and no single episode is yet fully in the bank. There are pick-ups and location shoots we still need to do. Very soon, we should be able to start ticking off footage as having been completed for each of the six. Already, we are only one scene away from signing off on the Theatre episode, Rice, and Tea… quite possibly also from Ceramics. There’s still a fair way to go on Grains, though, and we’ve barely begun on Booze. I am not sure that putting all the Booze shooting into the last three days is going to work out for us, but it is sure to be a happy shoot.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events were featured in Route Awakening S02E06 (2016).

Hella W (2011)

In 1942, Soviet agent Kerttu Nuorteva (Maria Heiskanen) parachutes into Finland on a secret mission. Injured from a bad landing, she rings the doorbell of a mansion, and presents herself to the lady of the house looking for work as a maid. When they are alone, she reveals her true identity, and announces that she is looking for The Poet – the codename of a Soviet spy, the wealthy industrialist and author Hella Wuolijoki (Tina Weckström). Yes, says the lady of the house, that’s me.

Here, says the spy, I’ve brought you 100 grand spending money…

Wow, what a way to begin a film. Except that’s not how Hella W (2011) begins at all. It takes half a laborious hour to get to that scene, the real-life scandal that would ultimately land Hella Wuolijoki in prison, just missing the death sentence for treason by a single vote on a judicial appeal.

“What went wrong?” asked Tuomas Riskala in Iltalehti: “The editing is choppy and the narrative is disconcertingly fragmentary. Overdramatic music blows non-stop in the background. And why is a completely useless narrator’s voice glued on top? It is as if there is not enough trust placed in the story itself and its subject matter.”

Speaking as an author myself, particularly in the history field, even non-fiction works require a story – an elevator pitch, a grandstanding appeal to the cheap seats like the very best of book-jacket blurbs. I can spend years walking around a subject, examining it from different angles trying to work out where to start, where the story is. And so, I feel a certain degree of sympathy for veteran screenwriter Outi Nyytäjä, who not only seems to visibly struggle with finding a feature-length plot, but leaves all her abortive attempts to start on-screen until it feels like we are watching the first pages of a dozen discarded drafts.

In 1943, disgraced Finnish industrialist Hella Wuolijoki is sentenced to life in prison after a captured Soviet spy accuses her of two decades of subterfuge and espionage. She is stuck in a cramped cell with a chirpy, possibly-lesbian black-marketeer, and the two unlikely cellmates slowly become friends. Hella works on her appeal, and movingly pleads with a court martial that she only intrigued with the Russians to save Finland from a disastrous pact with Nazi Germany. When the Finns’ own government turns on the Nazis in 1944, Hella is suddenly released from prison.

No? Okay, how about…

In 1929, the onset of a global recession financially cripples the Finnish industrialist Hella Wuolijoki. Out of desperation, she turns to authorship, cranking out novels and plays under a variety of pseudonyms – she is unable to publish under her real name, because she is a known socialist in a country still smarting from its civil war. The Women of Niskavuori is performed in a left-wing theatre so impoverished that Hella has to lend the production her own furniture to use onstage. But the play is a rip-roaring success, and soon it, along with her later Juurakon Hulda, Forward to Life, and Green Gold are being adapted for the Finnish cinema…

No? Okay, how about…

1904. Estonian student Ella Murrik comes to Helsinki with little more than a suitcase, where she witnesses the upheavals of Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan, and marries a Mr Wuolijoki, a close friend of Lenin. Despite being a committed Marxist, she never joins the Communist party, being advised that she is of better use to the Bolsheviks as a wealthy aristocrat. Her house becomes a salon for left-wing thinkers, and an underground escape route for revolutionaries and spies…

Are you not entertained? All righty, then…

1944. Embittered landholder Vappu Tuomioja (Matleena Kuusniemi) struggles to keep the family estate functioning while all the men are off at war. She confronts her mother, Hella, who is in prison convicted of treason, over a life spent supposedly committed to socialism, whereas all Vappu can see is a soulless woman repeatedly, and vainly, trying to buy love with hard cash.

1945. Okay, in a tense Cold-War Helsinki, pardoned spy Hella Wuolijoki turns out to be the ideal choice to run Finland’s national broadcaster. Hijinks ensue as she tries to heal the wounds of the war and keep her former Soviet allies from invading again…

1943. An unnamed Finnish intelligence officer (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), has 24 hours to get a confession out of Hella Wuolijoki, a famous author whom he believes to be a Soviet spy. Unfortunately, he has yet to apprehend her contact, Kerttu Nuorteva, and must bluff his way through their interviews…

Amazingly, I could go on, and on, but that’s the problem with Hella W, a film directed by Juha Wuolijoki, a relative of its subject, and possibly too invested in telling everything. Nor was he the first to grapple with her amazing life; her grandson Erkki Tuomioja, wrote a joint biography of both Hella and her equally story-packed sister, under the title A Delicate Shade of Pink: The Lives of Hella Wuolijoki and Salme Dutt in the Service of Revolution, not long before he became Finland’s Foreign Minister. No, you really couldn’t make this up.

Hella Wuolijoki’s name has shown up several times in this blog of Finnish film history, and will show up several times again, since her Women of Niskavuori (performed in England as Women of Property – HG Wells went to the opening night, you know) would spawn several sequels, the most recent of which was a TV series in 1987. But sadly this bio-pic does not truly engage enough with any of the dozen possible angles that might have made it compelling. I was fascinated, for example, at the idea of a woman turning to writing to escape poverty, and the possibility that her theatrical success was buoyed up by aristocratic or revolutionary connections. And I was drawn to notes of ambiguity already present in the film, to the question of how Marxist Hella was when she was a sawmill magnate defaulting on her invoices, and how Marxist she was when a spy rang her doorbell and she essentially threw her out. And I was equally intrigued by the kind of shenanigans that must have gone on when she was appointed, presumably, as a Stalin-approved stooge to run Finnish media, so soon after being sprung from jail.

Instead, Juha Wuolijoki’s film admirably stretches its €1.7 million to the limit with lavish manor settings and country piles like some Finnish Downton Abbey, smoke-filled rooms and coldly-lit prisons, making the very best of the “found” architecture that still endures in modern-day Helsinki. One lovely scene, as Wuolijoki is arrested with a manuscript of one her plays, covered in invisible ink, is shot in Helsinki’s train station, right in front of where the Burger King is now. But it ends up feeling like a bunch of scenes from a dozen different films, leaving little space for any single one of them to shine.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland