Chen Cheng-ching’s (陳澄清) boss asked him whether he could imitate the decorative motif painted on the National Palace Museum’s Ming 100 Deer Vase (百鹿尊). The Chinese like that one, he said. It symbolizes great wealth. Chen worked on the composition, and his co-workers copied it.
That was back when Chen worked for China Art (市拿陶藝), the first factory established in New Taipei City’s Yingge (鶯歌) to produce imitation ancient Chinese imperial ware ceramics.
“The company was paying me NT$3,000 a month. They sold the vases for NT$50,000 each. They never told me,” Chen tells the Taipei Times, without a hint of anger.
Photo: Paul Cooper, Taipei Times
“The museum’s vase doesn’t actually have 100 deer on it, but mine does. Even so, the museum’s is the better vase,” Chen says.
Chen, 92, sits surrounded by his work: paintings, plates and vases, including one of his 100 deer vases. There are hundreds of painted but unglazed and unfired plates and plaques stored around his apartment in New Taipei City. He has his own electric kiln on the balcony. Amassed notes, together with copies of his self-published book about his life and work, lie scattered on the table.
From 1972 to 1985, Chen was part of an assembly line in the factory, painting decorative motifs for imitation wares. Many of these imitations were sold to Hong Kong dealers for tens of thousands of New Taiwan dollars. These dealers would then sell them to unwitting collectors in the West and Japan as authentic Ming and Qing antiques for 10 times that amount.
Photo courtesy of Chen Cheng-ching
“The Chinese-style vases Western and Japanese buyers were buying during the 1970s and 1980s were all exported from Taiwan,” says Cheng Wen-hung (程文宏), head of the Educational Promotion Department of the New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum.
“It was big money for Yingge. At the time, China Art was making the best work,” Cheng says. “It was the first factory in Taiwan imitating ancient Chinese ceramics.”
The workers, however, were paid low wages.
The market moved on in 1990, when China liberalized its market. People started buying vases from Jingdezhen in China, where official imperial wares for the Chinese court had been produced since the Ming. Imitation wares from there were not only cheaper, they were considered to be more authentic.
Individually, the imitation wares have an authenticity and intrinsic value of their own. Indeed, the production of imitations of fine pieces from previous dynasties, to replicate antiques favored by the emperors, was common practice in the Qing.
The question of authenticity only arises when the pieces are purported to be, and sold as, something other than they are: genuine ancient Chinese imperial wares, rather than high quality, authentically-produced imitation wares.
China Art would sometimes even sell pieces painted with the reign marks that were historically added to imperial wares made exclusively for the emperors, such as “Made in the Chenghua Reign of the Great Ming Dynasty” (大明成化年製) or “Made in the Qianlong Reign of the Great Qing Dynasty” (大清乾隆年製).
“Vases don’t age,” Cheng says. “If you use the same clay, the same pigments, the same painting techniques, glazes, firing techniques, the question of authenticity often just comes down to guess work.”
Even experts find it difficult to differentiate authentic from fake. “How would you do that?” Cheng asks rhetorically. “From the decor? The decor is really easy to imitate, you just paint it the same way.”
Cheng spoke of one collector who suspected 99 percent of his collection was fake. Even museum curators have to resort to researching the backgrounds of donated Chinese ceramics, he says.
“A vase would be donated by a wealthy family, from their grandfather, who was working in the military during the Qing dynasty, or as an ambassador in China, so they would have to trace the record of the donations,” Cheng says.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Chen was there right from the beginning, when the factory opened in 1972.
Born in Shaanxi Province, China, in 1924, Chen came to Taiwan with the Republic of China air force, retiring at the age of 46 in 1969. He was familiar with watercolor painting, but had no background in the techniques of painting ceramics. He was introduced to China Art’s founder, Hsu Tse-jan (許自然), by Ho Wei-hsiao (何維孝), an elementary school classmate following a chance encounter in Taipei in 1969.
At China Art, he was trained in the painting techniques used in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties by ceramics painting expert Zheng Ceru (鄭策如), whom Hsu had recruited from Hong Kong in 1969.
During Chen’s stint, he became proficient in the painting techniques. In 1985, he retired, although continued to produce work on commission from former China Art customers. He stopped painting vases in 1988, when he realized that spending all his time creating work for others was little different from what he had left behind at the factory.
Chen then devoted his time to producing a book with examples of his own work, detailing techniques and the correct materials to use. It was published in 2007.
“If I hadn’t written that book ... [h]ow would I pass this valuable information on to later generations?” Chen says.
His painting days are now behind him. His hands shake as he signs copies of his book. The electric kiln on the balcony sits idle. He no longer recalls how to use it.
Yingge Town Artisan is a monthly photographic and historical exploration of the artists and potters linked to New Taipei City’s Yingge Town.
Scott Saulters wasn’t sure if his film had just taken one of the two top prizes at a recent film competition. Although Saulters has been in Taiwan for 15 years and is proficient in Mandarin, the award ceremony for the inaugural “Bi Tian Iann” (眯電影) short film contest was conducted entirely in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), a language he can’t speak. “I thought I heard it, but I didn’t want to look too excited,” he says. Despite his limited command of the tongue, Saulter’s entry, Wu Yu Tzu (烏魚子, mullet roe), took first place in the amateur category of the
Since its launch in 2014, the Taiwan Season has increasingly become a “must-see” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. So, when this year’s three-week Fringe became an early casualty of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Chen Pin-chuan (陳斌全) was determined that the Taiwan Season must continue in some form. Chen, director of the Cultural Division of the Taipei Representative Office in the UK, says that he and Taiwan Season curator and producer Yeh Jih-wen (葉紀紋) had been thinking of ways of growing and adding value to the season anyway. The crisis and the cancellation of the live performances brought those ideas forward as
In the regular drumbeat of arrests of alleged Chinese spies, one case last month stood out. It did not involve the US or another rival of China, but Russia, whose security services accused a prominent arctic scientist of selling classified data on technologies for detecting submarines. Meanwhile a court in Kazakhstan in October convicted the Central Asia nation’s preeminent China specialist of espionage, a move widely interpreted at the time as a warning against increased meddling by the superpower next door. Both men maintain their innocence and if China is spying on Russia, Moscow is surely doing the same. Even so, the fact
A walk down Orchard Road shows just how badly the coronavirus pandemic has hit Singapore’s famed shopping strip. Gone are popular restaurants like Modesto’s, which shut last month after 23 years. Also missing are the queues of Chinese tourists outside Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Malls along the 2.4km stretch, once one of Asia’s top shopping meccas, are dotted with empty stores. On a recent midweek afternoon, the number of shop staff idly dusting shelves or playing with their mobile phones rather than greeting customers is notable. “It’s the worst crisis for Singapore and Orchard Road,” said Kiran Assodani, who has run her