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Master Li's great wall of china

A "clink, clink, clink" sound echoes in the studio of Li Ziyuan as he uses a small hammer and drill to carve lines on a ceramic plate. Gradually, an image of a bird appears on the white plate. The image is colorless but the detail of the feathers is exquisite.

"We use professional tools to carve on the porcelain as people embroider on cloth," says Li, one of China's masters of porcelain carving.

At his art center in Zibo city, Shandong province, he displays hundreds of pieces crafted over the past four decades. There are flowers, birds, different types of animals, and even ancient and modern celebrities. It is truly another great wall of china.

The master adds different colors to most of his works, which appear like traditional Chinese paintings.

"Li's work is sophisticated. His ceramics are beautiful and of high quality. There are lots of meanings within the designs," says Lee Middleman, a ceramic artist from the United States.

Middleman met Li while attending the Zibo International Ceramics Conference last month. "From his work I can see why he is acclaimed as a national master in the ceramics field," he says.

Chinese ceramic carving emerged in the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1368-1644), during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795).

Although a relatively young art in China's long history, ceramic art has been greatly influenced by ancient Chinese arts, such as bronze casting and woodcarving in the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (960-1127) dynasties.

Li says he was infatuated with ceramic arts in the 1960s and after graduating from the arts department of Shandong Zibo Ceramics Industry School in 1962, worked at Zibo Ceramics Factory, studying under famous painter Li Zuoquan.

The 64-year-old combines drawing, calligraphy and seal carving into ceramic carving, creating a simple and elegant style.

"Zibo, known as one of the ceramic capitals in China, boasts a thriving ceramic business," Li says.

"At present there are more than 3,000 people engaged in ceramic carving."

Li has won a number of awards both at home and abroad. In 1982, he won his first prize - the gold medal and the title of best achievement at the 34th International Handicraft Fair in Munich, which was also the first one for China at the international ceramic craftwork field.

To better develop ceramic techniques, Li founded Zibo Crafts and Arts Research Institute in 1985, and in the 1990s opened an art center and art school both under his own name.

In 2003, Li was awarded the title of Master of Crafts and Arts of Chinese Ceramics and his ceramic pieces have been exhibited in more than 10 countries, including the US, Japan, Mexico and Argentina. About 100 of his works have been presented as gifts for foreign leaders including Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew.

His art center, which houses an exhibition hall, kiln and studio, has developed into a popular meeting place for world-famous ceramic artists.

Students from China Arts and Crafts Academy and Shandong University of Arts come to the center to study and practice every year and several of Li's students have become famous ceramic artists.

As Li shares stories about his life, the master puts the final touches on an image of the late Chairman Mao Zedong on a plate. He's been working on this piece for 10 days.

"I am now trying to carve on large-scale porcelain plates," Li says.