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).

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