Porcelain restoration expert Jiang Daoyin paints a vase from the Yuan Dynasty. Photos: Courtesy of Jiang Daoyin
Source: Global Times, March 2, 2011
By Du Qiongfang
Whenever news emerges that a historic relic has been found and a group of broken porcelain pieces reappears, but no qualified expert is available to restore them, Jiang Daoyin feels that it is a shame. The 65-year-old ceramic restoration expert in Shanghai has been practicing porcelain restoration for 37 years and has restored more than 500 pieces. However, he worries that there will be no one qualified to succeed him. "To restore ceramics well, you have to be patient and endure loneliness," Jiang said.
Jiang graduated from drama school in Shanghai after majoring in set design. He spent six years as a set designer for a Peking Opera troupe before going to work for the Shanghai Museum, where he began learning ceramic restoration with about five other apprentices in 1973. However as time went on, most of his peers gave up their apprenticeship and moved on to other careers. "Many of my fellow workers changed their minds and pursued their dreams in other fields. However, I think porcelain restoration offers a combination of art and technique. As long as I persist in this career, I can achieve something," he said.
China is famous for the porcelain it produces. In the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) when porcelain production was at its peak, porcelain objects were often given as diplomatic gifts to foreign counties. By the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), however, officials wanted to eliminate all traces of the former regime, so they destroyed much of the porcelain made in the preceding dynasty.
At present, most of China's porcelain can be found in museums overseas. "The cobalt ink used in making blue and white porcelain from the Yuan Dynasty was imported from foreign countries. The kind of cobalt ore used to produce this kind of blue pigment is now nearly exhausted. It has become extremely difficult to produce porcelain with the color exactly the same as what was produced during the Yuan Dynasty. So porcelain from that time is now precious," Jiang said.
Little of the Yuan Dynasty porcelain remains to this day, primarily because of the fragility of the material. For the past 30 years, Jiang has successfully restored more than 500 porcelain antiques, many of which were nearly impossible to repair at first.
The Capital Museum in Beijing has a flask shaped liked a phoenix head that was broken into 48 pieces when it was found. When the pieces arrived at Jiang's workshop, he found that someone had tried to reassemble them with cheap glue that barely held the pieces together. But Jiang's biggest problem was that one-third of the flask was missing. Nonetheless, he managed to reassemble the item in about a month. It is now a standout piece in the museum's collection. "Ceramic restoration is creative work that requires the basic skills of painting and Chinese calligraphy. As a former set designer, the painting isn't a problem for me. The more difficult part is the inscription. Without at least 10 years of practice, it is very hard to write characters well because of the uncontrollable nature of the cobalt ink and glaze. If you cannot follow the original design and keep to it as much as possible, you are actually destroying an antique," Jiang said.
China's renowned blue and white porcelain dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907). So closely is this porcelain related to the country that it is colloquially referred to as "china." Unlike other kinds of porcelain, the Chinese-made material was baked at incredibly high temperatures for the time – up to 1,300 C – in ovens fueled by firewood. Besides, unlike other kinds of porcelain, Chinese porcelain was made from 20 percent kaolin, rather than entirely from clay. Using two materials made it harder to produce. Blue and white porcelain was valued as much as gold at that time.
According to Cheng Yong, an ancient porcelain researcher in Shanghai, Chinese porcelain has affected the development of world culture for 1,000 years. "Before the porcelain was invented, people made bowls from wood and iron. The invention of porcelain made a great change in the development of civilization," he said. "However nowadays, many people who study porcelain …don't understand its historical importance. Without this perspective, they lack motivation for their work. Most of them just learn it to make money or out of interest. That's a huge problem."
When Jiang just started working for the Shanghai Museum 37 years ago, he was not trained properly by his teachers. In ancient times, restoration craftsmanship only passed the skill onto their sons. According to tradition, a craftsmen couldn't even pass the skill on to his son-in-law. With this mind-set, many of the museums senior restoration craftsman were secretive about their techniques and were unwilling to teach Jiang. He had to figure out which materials did what through trial and error. In the 1980s and 1990s, many of his colleagues either retired or moved on. The techniques of porcelain restoration almost died out. At the moment, there are fewer than 10 qualified porcelain restorers in China. Besides restoring ceramics, Jiang now teaches his skills to a group of apprentices and hopes that universities can train more people about porcelain restoration techniques. "More porcelain antiques are being found and more professionals are needed to bring them, these damaged treasures, back to life," Jiang said.