Text and photographs by Guan Wei and Zhong Peiming
A re-launch ceremony for an ancient dragon kiln (a massive dragon-shaped pottery oven) was held on November 1, 2010, in Baoxi Township, Longquan County, in southeastern China’s Zhejiang Province. At 10 p.m., pottery master Ding Shaojie shouted, “Start the fire!” Then, kiln workers lit a “dragon head,” marking the rebirth of the ancient kiln after a dozen years of rest.
The county of Longquan is considered the birthplace of Chinese celadon porcelain. Burned with less flame, celadon porcelain features blue glaze from iron oxide pigment, and is particularly noted for refined texture in simple but elegant shapes and pure but diverse colors. Some praise it “as blue as jadeite, as smooth as a mirror, and able to ring like stone chimes when tapped.”
First built in the early 20th century, the kiln measures 30 meters in length and consists of 26 burning chambers. Before the ceremony, Baoxi Township and Xitou Village repaired the kiln’s interior stairs and walls and restored its original potting workshop. More than 10 metric tons of firewood were prepared for the re-launch. Along with Ding, six other ceramic masters joined the kilning team, who burned 458 pieces in the kiln with the help of 42 local potters.
According to Ding, making porcelain in a traditional dragon kiln involves three major steps: loading, burning, and unloading. Loading the kiln may seem simple, but it actually requires exquisite skills. This is because different zones inside the kiln vary in terms of temperature and airflow, and unburned ware must be placed appropriately to ensure the quality of finished products. So, more seasoned workers usually load the kiln.
On the re-opening night, dozens of kiln workers joined in a short but solemn ceremony to worship the kiln god and pray for good luck before sealing the kiln with bricks and lighting the fire.
“Burning includes five phases, and the fire gets more intense with every phase,” Ding explained. “The warm-up period lasts for 15-20 hours. When the temperature of the kiln reaches 1,300 degrees Celsius and the stoves spout glaringly white flame, it is time to begin burning clay items.” Ding has been working with local dragon kilns since he was 17 years old. He was confident about the successful re-launch of the dragon kiln because both the local government and potters invested painstaking efforts.