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Chinese potter in race to save ancient craft

QIHE COUNTY, China (Reuters Life!) - Liu Hao helped revive the ancient craft of black pottery after China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

Now the 70-year-old faces an even tougher task: keeping his craft relevant in an age of cheap copies and heightened environmental awareness.

In a modest workshop in Qihe County, not far from the Yellow River in eastern Shandong province, Liu and his workers transform mud from the banks of China’s “Mother River” into brilliant, black vases with intricate etchings.

Here, in the shadow of factories and a busy railway line, time seems to stand still.

Working in much the same way as artisans dating back some 5,000 years, Liu and his colleagues take about a month per item to mould the clay, shape it, etch it -- and, finally, fire it to produce its trademark black, shiny finish.

The meticulous process makes for a relatively expensive final product: average pieces sell for about 1,000 yuan ($140), with some going for up to 50 times that much.

That translates into a thriving market for knock-offs, in a country where the average city dweller makes under $2,000 a year and where pirates produce counterfeits of everything from paintings to designer clothing.

Liu, who has devoted much of his life to the craft, is not about to lower quality of his products to compete. But he recognises that to pursue his passion for guarding this Chinese tradition, he will have to keep up with the times.

“Art needs to develop. Changing the old things is needed to maintain them,” he said.

BLACK POTS, GREEN CRITICS

For one, Liu has mechanised the least artistic part of the process, the kneading of the clay. He has introduced new designs, and is experimenting with adding active carbon to the clay so that the vases could act as air purifiers.

He has even set up a research centre to support such change.

Perhaps most importantly, Liu is looking to ensure that this ancient craft does not fall victim to the increasing environmental awareness in China, which has prompted the government to shut down polluting factories in other industries.

To achieve the trademark black effect, the jars and vases have to be fired for a full day with pallet-fulls of wood, coal and other fuels, prompting criticism in some circles.

“Our next step is to reduce the pollution. We will purify the smoke coming out of the kiln and experiment with using other fuels like gas or electricity,” Liu said. “We want our products to be ‘green’ too.”

In the process, Liu is passing on skills to a new generation of artisans and creating jobs for people from the surrounding villages.

Ma Shufen has been working in Li’s workshop for nearly 20 years. The 37-year-old’s salary is modest, but she says it beats farming, which would probably have been her fate otherwise.

Her job stands in sharp contrast to the assembly-line work performed by millions of other “farmers-turned-workers” in China, who churn out the inexpensive clothes, electronics and other products that Western consumers have become so dependent on.

Ma finds a measure of job stability in that.

“This has to be done by hand. Machines can never replace humans,” she said. “The patterns and designs need to be carved in a traditional way, but machines can’t do these irregular patterns.”

In looking to adapt Chinese traditions, Liu is not alone. A well-known chain of Peking Duck restaurants in Beijing recently abandoned wood grills for electric ones in response to environmental rules, sparking complaints from some traditionalists.

Liu defends his innovations against such criticism, saying that he is keeping the essence of the craft intact.

“We will protect this ancient art form, its skills and techniques, as we bring changes and innovation to it. That’s a line that I’ll never cross,” he said.

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