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The 1999 International Woodfiring Conference: The Death and Life of Woodfiring in Asia

As a craft historian, I view woodfiring as both an industry for making ceramics, based on the use of wood as fuel, and as a major artistic and aesthetic achievement encompassing many different manifestations of the effect of woodfiring on ceramic materials. In this year when everyone seems to be talking about the millennium, it does seem meaningful to speak about a millennium-long span, between roughly the years 1000 and 2000 of our era, when woodfiring as an industry for producing wonderful pots attained its greatest development. A common trait of almost all the woodfired ceramics made during the past thousand years in East and Southeast Asia, the parts of the world I work in, is their production by finely honed teams of skilled professionals, ranging from the people who build the kilns to the people who throw the pots, glaze them, stack the kiln, fire, or unload, even the people who carry away the rubbish. Yet, as I reflected on my own experience of the past thirty years, documenting present-day woodfiring in various parts of Asia, it was clear that in many places this particular definition of woodfiring- this industrial production of beautiful ceramic objects by teams of professionals- is in its decline.

This decline has been brought about chiefly by the multiplication of the number of people living in the world. The U.S. Census Bureau website showed me that in the year 1000-the point at which woodfiring really came into its own as a means of making beautiful objects- there were about 300 million people living in the world. In 1999 we crossed the mark of six billion people. That's about a twenty­fold increase over the millennium, but in fact the world's population has doubled in just the past few decades. Throughout Asia, that pressure of human population has had an enormous impact on the availability of wood for woodfiring, as well as for all sorts of other purposes- wood for building, wood for cooking. In many parts of Asia, anyone who want to fire a pot with wood competes with someone who wants to build a house or someone who just wants to cook rice for dinner. The price for wood has risen sharply, and in many cases the wood is just no longer available. In Northeast Thailand, for instance, people describe forests of twenty years ago covering areas that today are open plains. In few places where woodfiring sur­vives is there also an abundance of wood. North America is one such place. Another website told me that, whereas East Asia has lost something like eighty percent of the forests it once had, North America still has huge areas of what is called frontier forest- forest that's been largely untouched- across a wide band in Canada in particular. Many of you are able to fire your kilns with cast-off scraps of wood. Potters in many other parts of the world would be astounded to hear of wood that no one wants.

Here potters have the incredible luxury of continuing to use wood to make ceramics- beautiful ceramics, one hopes. I'm showing you a twelfth-century Chinese celadon-glazed vase, truly one of my favorite woodfired ceramics, to make my primary point: it's a great pity that, since North America is one of the few places in the world where woodfiring is going to continue as a human activity, the model that woodfiring potters follow at present is so narrow. Why is it that we think of woodfired pots as being just brown and gritty? That is one fine model, but it's certainly not the only one. By showing you a variety of other models, I would like to invite you to think about how the precious resources of wood, clay and energy- and a growing audience for woodfired work- might be put to use for expanding that model in many directions.

Southeastern China is the homeland of woodfired pot­tery, specifically of high-temperature, hard-glazed pottery. In this region, roughly three thousand five hundred years ago, Chinese potters began to fire their pots in kilns that became hot enough to melt the wood ash landing on the vessels and create an attractive gloss.1 Initial development of woodfired ash-glazed ceramics in China was very slow, however. After a good thousand years, the glaze that pot­ters working in the same region applied to their pots formed a thin, almost colorless skin over the surface of the ware. By the Han dynasty, several hundred years later, potters used a thicker, greener glaze and applied it with care only on the upper surfaces of the vessel, clearly reflecting their cautious dealing with glaze that tended to run.

Vase, named Ouchi Tsutsu. Chinese, Southern Song period (1127-1279) Zheijiang Province, Loquat kilns. Stoneware with celadon glaze. Photo courtesy of Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo.It was around the year 1000 that the woodfired celadon glaze truly came into its own, on ware from the Yue kilns in Zhejiang province. Glaze completely coated the Yue pots, which were fired on rings of small clay balls placed around the footrim. For the first time that we can document, woodfired glaze became the focus of aesthetic appraisal. The finest Yue ware, bearing a clear, green-gray glaze described in contemporary texts as "secret color," was considered on par with silver.

From that moment on, production of woodfired glazed ceramics suddenly proliferated, not just in the southeast but throughout China. In northern China, the Ru kilns made wares with a luscious bluish glaze exclusively for use of the imperial court of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126), while woodfiring also flourished at the Yaozhou, Dingzhou, and Cizhou kiln complexes, to name just the most famous and prolific. Woodfiring kilns in northern China, however, quickly ran out of wood:2 Trees grew slowly and sparsely in the north, and the region's important metal-working indus­try received preference for the limited supply of wood. After roughly the year 1100, most northern Chinese pottery complexes turned to coal-firing kilns out of necessity. The shift in fuel is visible in the change in glaze colors.

In the temperate and heavily-forested south, an abun­dance of wood enabled potters to continue to make signifi­cant developments in the repertory of glazes for woodfired kilns. The Longquan kilns in Zhejiang Province achieved a high level of refinement in both celadon glaze and vessel form. The Longquan region made woodfired ceramics for distribution not only all over China but also throughout Asia. It was one of the first great production centers of ceramics for export- to Korea, to Japan, to Southeast and Southwest Asia. These celadon ceramics that became known over much of the world were made in the middle of the mountains. The very act of making them assumed the availability of teams of people to carry them over the mountains to the seaports.

The potters making Guan ("official") ware at a workshop located within the Southern Song (1126-1279) imperial city of Hangzhou played with the differential rates of shrinkage of clay body and glaze to create intentional crackle patterns in a thick blue-green glaze. Guan ware was produced in limited quantities, directly under imperial patronage, for use in the court. Today one can visit the excavated Guan workshop and kiln site in Hangzhou. Traces of the hole that secured the shaft of a single potter's wheel suggests that just one person at a time made the wares, surrounded by other spe­cialists who processed the clay, mixed and applied the glaze, and stacked and fired the kiln. Southern China nurtured other traditions of woodfired pots in addition to celadon, such as the brown-and black-glazed wares of the Jian kilns in Fujian Province, the white-glazed wares of Guangdong Province, or the porcelain with a clear bluish glaze made at numerous kilns centering in Jiangxi Province. Eventually the town of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi became the standard­setter for woodfired porcelain. The imperial workshops located in Jingdezhen supplied porcelain to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) courts.

China's production of wood­fired glazed ceramics inspired production of similar wares throughout East and Southeast Asia, although local aesthetic systems quickly transformed the models. In some cases, notably that of Korea, Chinese potters emigrating from the Yue kiln region introduced their technology directly, providing the basis for the development of a distinctive tradition of celadon-glazed wares during the tenth through fourteenth centuries. In the fifteenth and six­teenth centuries, white slip beneath a faintly-greenish glaze became the distinguishing feature of a range of decorated wood-fired stoneware known as punch'ong. Elsewhere- in Japan, for instance- importation of Chinese woodfired ceramic wares inspired potters working with local technol­ogy to change their shapes and improve their glazes. The role of direct importation of Chinese technology is not yet clearly understood in the wood-fired glazed ceramic tradi­tions of mainland Southeast Asia-Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma- although the impact of Chinese models is clearly visible.

What is the state of woodfiring in Asia today? In Longquan many factories still make celadon-glazed ceram­ics, even if they take the form of fancy commercial wine bottles and similar goods. Slip-casting molds have replaced the most difficult hand processes, but the quality of the glaze is still very high. As of 1995, some factories still used woodfired climbing kilns, but the master of one such kiln told me that he looked forward to shifting to a gas-fired, level kiln, since the cost of firewood and the rate of breakage in the old kiln were unacceptable in the present eco­nomic situation.

In Jingdezhen, ceramics fac­tory chimneys still belch smoke, but most factories use fuel other than wood. Just one workshop, supported by the city largely for its tourist value, still fires with wood, preserving the workshop ambiance that prevailed until earlier in this century and taking pride in hand-throwing of porce­lain as the centerpiece of many hand processes. At this workshop, all the ware is fired in saggers, as was the case for all the high­quality woodfired glazed ceramic production in China. Woodfiring production went hand-in-hand with the use of saggers whenever the aesthetic goals were clear color and flawless surface.

In southwestern Korea, the brown-glazed utilitarian ware called onggi, used for the repertory of pickles, sauces, and spice pastes that every household used to produce, formerly was fired without saggers in long, tunnel-shaped kilns, using pine boughs and scrap wood. The kilns were built on slopes as close as possible to the riverbank or harbor, where boats waited to load the onggi for delivery to local markets. In the postwar decades onggi production suffered a rapid decline, and many surviving workshops shifted from wood to oil. The owner of one sales depot showed me how to distinguish the warm luster of wood-fired onggi glaze from the unpleasant shine of oil-fired ware. Recently, however, urban Koreans- including collectors, curators, and university-trained studio potters- have rediscovered the beauty of wood-fired onggi forms, and the ware's extinction may not be inevitable.

In southern Vietnam, where people living in the Mekong delta still use lots of large glazed jars to catch rainwater, production of such jars still continues. The kilns and tech­nologies making them were introduced by immigrant mer­chants from southern China beginning in the eighteenth century, and the kiln structures and glaze repertories (bright blues, greens, and ochre-yellows) reflect a Chinese aesthetic. Production now depends almost entirely on molds; the skill of making big jars by hand has disappeared. In 1998, the proprietors of one family-owned workshop informed me that the government was working hard to introduce gas in order to give greater security in the source of fuel. Wood­firing kilns currently burn the thinnings from nearby rubber­tree plantations, the only available wood source they can afford.

In northern Vietnam, in the centuries-old pottery-pro­ducing town of Bat Trang just outside Hanoi, a longstand­ing woodfiring tradition is now strictly a memory, evoked by the few skeletons of woodfired kilns that survive in back lots or by artifacts such as the distinctive wooden clogs that stokers wore to walk on top of the kiln in order to drop fuel into the upward-facing ports. Coal has replaced wood com­pletely. Kilns today are fired with fuel patties formed from a mixture of coal dust and clay. The kilns are constructed of brick in tall, narrow closet-like shapes; the coal-clay pat­ties fill the openings around stacks of saggers that contain the wares. Recently, however, Vietnamese engineers have announced development of a new gas-fired kiln for Bat Trang that promises a high success rate and low fuel cost, so the coal-fired kilns are on the way out.

Northeast Thailand is one of the last places in Southeast Asia where one can witness the continuation of a vibrant tradition of woodfiring unglazed stoneware, if on a much reduced scale. Formerly men in a network of farming vil­lages where pots were made for the local market would spend the five months of the dry season making unglazed jars and mortars and firing them in communal woodburn­ing kilns. Recently, shortage of wood for fuel, market competition from Chinese factory-produced ceramics, and the lure of better wages available from working for overseas construction companies have led many such communities to cease making stoneware. In the village of Phan Bok, near the Mekong River, one man has resisted these trends, adopting an entrepreneurial strategy to capture the remain­ing market by creating a factory. He supplies capital to bring in truckloads of clay and wood, hires skilled men to make the pots, and operates three different kilns to fire specific wares. For the moment this is a successful way to concentrate the production effort and market the pots. The skills for building large jars by hand are still alive. Wood for fuel is scavenged from dilapidated houses (abandoned by people who cannot afford to rebuild with wood but instead use cinder-blocks) or from dead trees in fields. Coming up with this wood is a constant struggle, but for the moment, especially with a reduced number of potters still competing for it, it's still available. In February 1999 I was encouraged to find the potters of this factory rebuild­ing their woodfired kiln used to fire large jars. Yet there are many indications of a formerly much larger woodfiring industry in Northwest Thailand that has simply disappeared, as people leave their kilns to sink back into the underbrush. The future of Phan Bok's factory production is difficult to predict.

Finally, in Japan, the town of Shigaraki has supported itself for nearly a millennium through production of wood­fired stoneware. Woodfiring climbing kilns once lined the western side of valley. At the peak of production in the mid-twentieth century, over one hundred climbing kilns were operating, and the mountain slopes enclosing the town were bald. Firewood was brought in from a distance. The very greenness of these slopes today is a measure of the disappearance of industrial woodfiring from Shigaraki. The climbing kilns, built to produce large glazed jars and hibachi, were so mammoth beneath their corrugated iron roofs that they seemed to absorb the sound and bustle of the constant activity that went on. Teams of highly special­ized people quietly moved through the processes of load­ing, firing, and unloading that everyone knew by heart. Now new pre-fabricated metal workshops located on the level ground below the slopes operate gas-fired car kilns, while the last remaining wood-fired climbing kilns crum­ble. It is sad to see this technology disappear completely from Shigaraki without, so far as I am aware, any effort to protect at least one of these structures; once they're gone it will be almost impossible to imagine how amazing they were in scale and in skill. The climbing kiln survives as a kind of visual metaphor in commercial displays of ceramics, and you can even have coffee in a coffee shop built to look like a woodfired climbing kiln. The use of wood as fuel in Shigaraki has shifted from teams of industrial producers to the individual artist-potters who fire smaller climbing kilns or single-chamber anagama and who pay lots for their imported wood.

The unglazed, woodfired jars made in Shigaraki in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries were one of the varieties of Japanese woodfired ware that, rediscovered in the twentieth century, became primary sources of inspi­ration for Japanese potters to recreate the technology of wood-fired kilns in order to produce similar results. Japan's enduring passion for unglazed stoneware is a very special and rather odd case in the history of woodfiring in Asia. By the end of the sixteenth century, its woodfired ceramic industry expanded from strictly utilitarian production to include unglazed luxury wares for the tea ceremony and for food service, while a new repertory of glazes also made its appearance. The enduring social and cultural importance of the tea ceremony, with its particular attitude toward ceramics, paved the way for the modern rediscovery of the uses of woodfiring by artist-potters. This rediscovery, which began only in the 1930s, was supported by a highly-devel­oped market in Japan for antique woodfired ceramics. Many potters turned away from the established use of coal and gas to go back to woodfiring as the source of a very special quality in glazed ceramics, including porcelain, as well as an unmistakably Japanese character in unglazed stoneware.

Having sketched something of the decline of industrial woodfiring, I would like to return to my point that wood­firing was so successful as a way of making incredibly beautiful glazed ceramics in part because it made use of highly specialized teams. The organization of the team of specialists varied depending on the place, the time, and the patronage or market, but in one form or another a team was essential to the success of this kind of firing. The granddaughter of the Kyoto potter Kawai Kanjiro, whose woodfiring kiln closed clown along with all the others with­in Kyoto proper when they were declared environmental hazards, related to me all the different types of specialists who came and went during the kiln firings she witnessed in her childhood. A team of four people came only when it was time to fire the kiln; another team of people brought the wood; and someone even came to sweep out the kiln and take away the sherds and debris.

It seems to me, thinking about woodfiring as it is taking place in the United States and elsewhere in the world, that there is reason to reconsider the benefits of this kind of teamwork. Various art forms in the twentieth century have seen a movement away from team production to single­handed production, wherein one person bears the burden of success or failure of the entire process. This has happened in woodfiring as a result of the peculiar image of the artist­potter. I wonder whether it is the most effective use of this precious resource of wood, and whether it really gives the best product. Might there be a more fruitful way of combining forces, bringing together those individuals who love to build kilns but don't necessarily have a grasp of aesthetics and those people who make wonderful pots but don't have the capacity to build and use a woodfired kiln? Might there be a way to join up the many different skills embodied in different people and use them in combination, rather than make the entire burden fall on one person's shoulders? Given wood's preciousness as a worldwide resource, those potters who continue woodfiring have a responsibility not to squander it in avoidable failure or in mediocre products.

I want to conclude by reiterating that, while there is indeed a compellingly attractive Japanese model for unglazed, ash-coated woodfired pots, there are also many other models that are readily available to us through museum collections and other resources. We can turn to those diverse and abundant models to ponder the particular qualities that all such wares share through having been fired with wood. There is a huge realm of possibilities available to those of you who have the luxury of continuing to fire with wood at a time when so many skilled potters in many different parts of the world have been obliged to switch fuels or cease working. I hope you will seize upon the luxury of wood's availability to experiment as widely and freely as you can.

1.     One such pot is in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
2.     These comments are based on research by ceramic archeologist Quin Dashu of Beijing University.