by Jeffrey Lehmann
The Romans knew them as the Seres, literally the people of silk, but today their name is synonymous with another of their great inventions: porcelain, more commonly referred to as “China.” Even globetrotters who can extol the beauty of Beijing’s Forbidden City, grow speechless describing Xian’s Terra Cotta Warriors, recommend a bar in Shanghai, introduce you to their tailor in Hong Kong, or share their favorite seafood restaurant in Macau, have probably not visited Chouzhou, the “Porcelain Capital of China.” Although far off the beaten path, it is well worth a visit.
Chouzhou (pronounced chow-Joe) is a little more than 200 miles from Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, in Southeast China. Chouzhou is a walled city making the bustling old city center look like a huge castle complex straight out of Medieval Europe. The top of the walls are wide enough to easily drive a car on, but they are interrupted periodically by impressive guard towers. It is popular during the day with joggers and at night with strolling lovers. A highlight is the over-800 year old Guangji Bridge. The bridge has a number of firsts in bridge technology, including being the world’s first bateau (or boat) bridge featuring a floating section in the middle that is moved to allow ships to pass. Think of it as the Asian version of London Bridge; it was a hot bed of commerce in its heyday. Today, it has a sampling of small curio shops, including a dried ginger store that offers samples spicy enough to make you cry, and another with an artist hard at work on a potter’s wheel. There is an old Chinese saying, “You cannot say you have visited Chouzhou, until you visit Guagji Bridge.” Yet, the bridge is not touristy by a long stretch.
Chouzhou came into its own during the Southern Song Dynasty, after the Song were chased south by northern nomads in 1127 from the birthplace of the Chinese civilization in the Yellow River Valley. Southern China was a relatively newly inhabited area for the Chinese. This displacement had a disorienting but ultimately liberating effect on the Chinese, who had previously been xenophobes and disdained trade and travel, since before Confucius codified these Chinese traits around 500 B.C.E.. The Southern Song re-wrote long-standing Chinese views to include some mercantilism and a more friendly attitude towards foreigners, in what today is called Neo-Confucianism. They embraced trade along the Maritime Silk Road, which was the primary conduit of goods from China to Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, and ultimately Europe.
Embracing maritime trade made the Southern Song Dynasty very rich. While Europe was suffering though the Middle Ages, even the poorest of the Southern Song’s citizens were making five times subsistence level, the equivalent of about $100,000 by today’s standards. Chouzhou’s porcelain, silk, jade carvings, and other goods made it a center of trade and artistry that continues to this day.
A good place to start a visit is at the Chouzhou Kiln Museum, where you can learn about China’s long pottery history. The museum has pieces dating back more than 3,300 years. You will likely meet curator BingYan Li who has a passion for pottery and is a wealth of knowledge. I was surprised to learn that it is now thought that porcelain was being traded with North America as much as 400 years ago!
The name “China” comes from the first Imperial Qin (pronounced Chin) dynasty. Although this dynasty reunified China after centuries of warfare and standardized money, written language, and even axle length of carts in the process, their brutal rule was overthrown after just 15 years. The nickname for China’s porcelain came a millennium and a half later, however, as this highly sought after sophisticated trade good started flowing into Europe and the Americas. Even George Washington owned a large collection of dinnerware. At the museum, I was most impressed by life-sized porcelains depicting a young prince and his court of princesses.
After the museum, we visited the Song Kiln of Bijia Mountain a few miles away. The interior of this massive kiln is about 10 feet/3 meters high, 20 feet/6.5 meters wide, and 440 feet/135 meters long, firing as many as 25,000 pieces of porcelain at once. It is the last remaining of hundreds of so-called “Dragon Kilns” that existed during the Song Dynasty.
It is easy to see how the kilns got their names. When lit, the roar of the fire and the bright orange glow stretching up the densely forested mountainside would surely have seemed like a giant fire-breathing dragon. I suggest requesting a tour from BingYan Li.
Chouzhou is an artists’ town and porcelain is just a part of it. Walking down these lightly traveled, mainly pedestrian walkways, you come across one fascinating experience after another.
As a lively Asian tune resonates down the street, I follow the music to find its source and come upon a group of musicians in their eighties. I respectfully stick my head in the room to watch.
They are welcoming, have no hat out for money, and are only playing for the joy of it. A couple of doors down, a handsome young wood carver is transforming a large tree trunk slowly into an intricate design of lobsters crawling on traps, with strands of seaweed fluidly winding their way between them. The piece will take years to complete. It was unnerving for me to think that just one bad mallet swing could ruin his work.
There seems to be no end to the artistry here. China is well-known for its silk, but equally impressive is their intricate needlework. At the Embroidery Clan, you can see the very pinnacle of this art. Owner Zhu “Sally” Shuqin is a soft-spoken powerhouse of a woman, who has become rich from the fine art produced through her business.
The showroom has a wide range of works, from whimsical gold fish to a stalwart Great Wall. One piece that looks like a light bedspread with a repeating pattern of flowers is protected under plexiglass and is not for sale. Sally loves this piece dearly, since she made it with her mother and some friends. I was astounded to learn that it took 20 years of work to finish!
There are a number of items featuring bold dragon designs. These were embroidered on yellow silk robes for emperors in ancient times and greatly coveted by potentates all along the Maritime Silk Road. My favorite is a shimmering gold and red fish with large scales that looks so real it seems it might just flick its tail and swim off if you get too close. It sits on a canvas of silk so sheer that you can see right through it.
While watching two girls work, Sally proudly points out one as her daughter. She is Sally’s only child and she has special needs. Sally adopted her from a poor farming family that could not take care of her. Sally had not planned to teach her daughter to embroider until her daughter begged Sally. She has blossomed under her care and has also become a world-class embroiderer, much to Sally’s great joy.
Sally and her daughter exemplify the heart and soul of Chouzhou, a bustling artist city with ancient roots that still retains its humanity. It is a hidden gem.
Emmy awarded host and Emmy awarded producer of the award-winning “Weekend Explorer” TV series that is provided free to PBS nationwide and airs in more than 20 countries.
His new series, “Maritime Silk Road - Birth of the Global Economy” filmed in more than a dozen countries is now being released to PBS stations.