Sun, Oct 02, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Yingge Town Artisan: Ancient line and spinning wheel fading fast

Wu Cheng-hung, a 23rd generation potter with a line going back to the Song Dynasty, still sees the value in keeping obsolete methods alive

By Paul Cooper  /  Staff reporter

Composite photo of Yingge potter Wu Cheng-hung throwing on a traditional kick wheel at his studio in Yingge, New Taipei City.

Photo: Paul Cooper, Taipei Times

Wu Cheng-hung (吳正宏), 77, is the 23rd generation of a line of potters that started in Cizao Township (磁灶鎮) in 5th century China. His grandfather, Wu Ji (吳及, 1878 to 1949), left Cizao at the end of the Qing dynasty to make a living in Taiwan, bringing the coiling technique and kick wheel technology practiced in Cizao with him. When Wu visited his ancestral town in 1999, he discovered that the traditional pottery industry there had all but disappeared.

Wu’s daughter-in-law Lai Hsiu-tao (賴秀桃) — a potter in her own right — says that in the past, almost every household in Cizao was involved in producing pottery.

“When [Wu] returned, nobody was making pottery” Lai says. “Times change,” she adds.

Wu has lived in Yingge (鶯歌), a pottery producing area in New Taipei City, since he was three. He continues to use the Cizao practices. Even after the invention of the electric potter’s wheel made the kick wheel obsolete, Wu still finds value in passing on the method to future generations.

Lai says that Wu is unique in that he is skilled in both coiling and the kick wheel.

“Factories have simplified the process. He hasn’t, and that is very rare,” she says.

WHERE IT ALL STARTED

Wu’s ancestors started making pottery in the late Song Dynasty in Cizao, a town once full of small family-owned kilns making functional wares. It is located at what was once the southern end of the maritime silk road, and wares from there were exported via the port of nearby Quanzhou (泉州) to Japan, Korea, Penghu, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, India and Indonesia.

When Wu’s grandfather emigrated to Taiwan, he introduced the kick wheel to Shalu District (沙鹿) in Taichung County, and soon it was adopted throughout the nation. He was originally reluctant to teach the technique to his son, Wu Wen-sheng (吳文生), but he eventually conceded, and Wen-sheng later passed them on to Wu Cheng-hung who, in turn, has passed them on to his own son, Wu Ming-yi (吳明儀).

Before the invention of the electric potter’s wheel, potters employed other ways to keep the wheel spinning fast enough, consistently and for long enough, to throw pots. This was done either by “kicking” it or operating a lever.

In Korea, where they made large urns, they would dig a hole and set a wheel into the ground. The Japanese, who made small tea bowls, elevated the wheel to the height of the seated potter.

The kick-wheel method used in southern China employed a heavy wheel, roughly a meter in diameter, formed of fired clay held together with matted plant material and set on an axis on the floor.

Wu places the clay in the center of the wheel. Then, supported on one leg, he sets his free foot on the outer rim and starts to turn the wheel, building a momentum that is maintained by the wheel’s sheer weight. He then sits down and starts throwing the pot. When the momentum fades and the wheel slows down, he stands again and repeats the kicking process.

He completes a medium-sized pot in two minutes. He hasn’t broken a sweat.

That’s not to say the technique isn’t hard work.

“In the past, potters would be using the kick wheel like that, all day, every day. It was very laborious, exhausting work,” Lai says.

Technological advances drive progress. All innovations are eventually superseded. The energy-intensive nature of the work aside, there are many other reasons to doubt the need to pass on these old methods.

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