Zibo is famous for glass. It’s where they make the glass vases with paintings on the inside, and the ones with the different coloured coating that’s carved into the outside. The glass flowers that form vast corporate installations, and the horrible little paperweights and dust-collectors beloved of many a mad old lady.
Li Daxi loves glass. He loves its malleability and the speed with which he can put together a vase or a figurine. This wiry, friendly man shoves a metal pole into a furnace at 1400 degrees, withdrawing it with a hot blob at the end, and he sits at a chair made of scaffolding where he can roll the blog and pat it with a trowel, where he can blow into it and tap it.
“Today,” he says, “we’re going to make a fish.” He taps and rolls the first blob, and as it cools to 800 degrees, the white hot gunge congeals to a bright red. Belatedly, I see the signs that hang on each of the furnaces – “Tea”, “Red”, “White Jade.” The true colours only manifest as it cools, but while the red blob is still too hot to touch, he dunks it into another molten bucket marked as Transparent.
I roll the hot blob for him on the scaffold chair while he sets about the clear outer layer with tongs and clippers, teasing it into fins, shaping a fish’s head and poking two little eyes into it. It’s done in less than five minutes, and yours for thirty pounds. He lets me have a go and my first fish looks more like a dinosaur. The second is more like a teapot. The third is a fish.
Li Daxi is a certified master of glass, and he leads me around the gallery in the factory, in the company of four eager students. They have been scooped up from the local polytechnic, and arrived unaware that they were going to be on television. It’s only as we stand there waiting for a lens change that I decloak as a Chinese speaker, and they suddenly burst into animated conversation about what this show is, and why we’re here. Belatedly, they realise that Li Daxi’s comments on their hand-drawn designs, and my tin-eared questions about them, are going to be broadcast in 30 countries. Everybody is very excited, and intrigued by the process of television, and boggled to discover that their taxes are being funnelled by their local government into putting a film crew in their factory to make a five-minute advert for it.
“Your job is so hard,” says Li, whose arm I have just watched tan in front of me as he holds his pole in the furnace for slightly too long. “So much standing up, and repeating yourself, and running backwards and forwards.”
But his job is hard, too, as he attests, revealing that the youngest student he has is in his thirties.
What about those nice young men this morning, I ask.
“Oh, they were all designers. They come with ideas for vases and jugs, but they still expect someone else to make them. They come to me and I tell them the handle won’t support the weight, or that the whole thing will have to be exterior-cut or interior-painted, but they won’t do any of that themselves. Nobody wants this job. The heat is incredible, every day. We wear asbestos gloves, we’re throwing around molten glass…”
The day started at 0530. By sunset, we are filming the pick-ups of me arriving at the factory and doing a rushed piece to camera in front of a sunset that we are hoping will pass for a sunrise. Then it’s back indoors after the light fails, to film me and Mr Li looking around the gallery and talking about his favourite pieces. We wrap at 1830, then there’s just time for a rushed dinner before the four-hour drive to Qufu, the home of Confucius.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events appeared in Shandong: The Land of Confucius (2018).